Editor's Page -- Continental Crusaders

Sept. 13, 2005
Here's proof that you can succeed at manufacturing in North America -- and we'll even tell you how.

If you're looking for evidence that North American production facilities can compete with low-cost imports (read: China), or if you're trying to figure out how some factories have managed to avoid being shipped overseas, you've come to the right place. With our annual tribute to the IW Best Plants award winners, we offer answers both to the skeptics and naysayers, as well as to the understandably discouraged.

By telling the winners' stories, we don't pretend to give a specific recipe for success -- I'm sorry to say, there isn't one. Still we'd be remiss if we didn't highlight a few ingredients that consistently figure in the winning formulas of the continent's most productive factories, including the following:

  • Executive Leadership: More than a catch-phrase at the winning plants, executive leadership takes the form of a clear vision and a set of goals that are consistently and continually communicated throughout the plant. These executives make sure employees know how individual efforts will help or hinder the corporation's progress. They relentlessly repeat the message and track individual progress through a defined process, sometimes on a daily basis.
  • Employee Empowerment: Perhaps the most secret of all ingredients, and the most elusive, is that the winners have strategies that transform production employees from hourly clockpunchers into process owners. This astonishing metamorphosis occurs when employees are listened to and made part of the continuous improvement process, rather than simply told what to do. Company leaders institute programs to encourage employee suggestions and, more importantly, act on them. I sum it up this way: Employee participation leads to employee involvement, which leads to employee ownership.
  • Supplier Synergy: The days of the beat-up-the-supplier-to-get-a-lower-price strategy are over. Winning plants get the right suppliers on the team and work closely with them to meet the needs and capture the business of the end customer. At Best Plants, supplier representatives reside at the plant, where they work side by side with plant employees to reduce inventory, improve quality and speed delivery.
  • Customer Collaboration: Best plants become their customers' supplier of choice by understanding their customers' needs -- and their customers' customers' needs -- as well as their customer does. Many offer not only just-in-time delivery (which Best Plants winners pioneered in the U.S.), but offer in-sequence delivery, building and delivering the needed part in the same order as the customer needs it. Many winners even have production employees interact with the customer, so they can see firsthand how their actions on the line affect customer satisfaction.
  • Manufacturing Operations Matter: Above all, Best Plants winners know that plant floor production processes are a source of competitive advantage for their corporations. To win in a world of intense low-cost competition, the IW Best Plants have turned conventional thinking on its head. What many manufacturing executives consider to be liabilities -- those high-cost employees, pricey suppliers, picky customers, and that tremendously expensive plant -- Best Plants winners turn into assets.

The plethora of winning strategies cannot be contained in a single column -- or even a single magazine issue. That's why we also deliver the Best Practices from IW's Best Plants supplement in our Inside Track e-newsletter each month and hold the IW/AME Best Plants conference each year. But you get the idea: North American manufacturers are successfully competing against low-cost competition, and your plant could be one of the winners. You have the tools and strategies at your disposal. You just have to implement them.

Patricia Panchak is IW's editor-in-chief. She is based in Cleveland.

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