John S McClenahen retired from IndustryWeek in 2006

Don't Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

April 22, 2014
Congratulations on your achievement. But don’t focus on it. You need to be looking forward, contends former IW senior editor John McClenahen.

Earlier this month, Columbia University announced the 2014 recipients of the Pulitzer Prize, a long-time, prestigious and highly-coveted award for distinguished journalism and writing. The Guardian, in the U.K., and The Washington Post, in the U.S., were among the newspapers cited. Pulitzer Prizes also were awarded for fiction, non-fiction, drama, music, and poetry.

To the winners go congratulations and a reason for celebration.

The reality, however, is the efforts and resources that went into the prize-winning works are past tense. They are months away from the present. And to keep your eyes on them is to look backward, not forward, to focus on what once was, rather than on what is and what may yet be.

Indeed, focusing on the past, in writing or photography or in manufacturing, it seems to me, is not the way to achieve—or to sustain—the excellence that prizes such as the Pulitzer purport to recognize.

By now it should no secret that North America’s best manufacturing facilities—the production plants that year-in and year-out garner awards for excellence—focus on their presents and futures.

In the jargon of business today, they are committed to continuous improvement. In practice, continuous improvement involves small changes as well as large, invention as well as adaptation, human resources as well as technology, and understanding as well as vision.

Writing and photographing are creative processes, with their particular shares of inspiration, perspiration, new tools and personal involvement, and successful writers and photographers are constantly learning from the practice of their crafts, complex as that may be.

Much the same is true in manufacturing, where continuous improvement is just what the phrase says: a continuing process, not a one-time effort. And it is certainly not as simple as a senior company executive or an ambitious plant manager pledging to win a prize for manufacturing excellence.

Continuous improvement in manufacturing is a creative process of measuring, analyzing, and justifying. Continuous improvement in manufacturing is a creative process of paying attention to context and its myriad pressures. Continuous improvement in manufacturing is a creative process of trying and succeeding and, sometimes, of failing.

In ancient Greece, a wreath of laurel was a symbol of achievement, of status and of success. It remains so today. The term “Nobel laureate” refers to a winner of a Nobel Prize, for example. There is, however, much merit in the admonition of indeterminate origin about not resting on one’s laurels. A bunch of dead, ill-fitting leaves and twigs is not much of a prize on which to focus one’s eyes.

This is another of a series of occasional essays by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer and photographer who retired from IndustryWeek as a senior editor in 2006.

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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