John S. McClenahen retired from IndustryWeek in 2006 and remains an interested observer of global manufacturing.

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.

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