The Manufacturer's Agenda: Debating the Merits of a National Manufacturing Strategy

Oct. 17, 2012
  Why it's nearly impossible to create National Manufacturing Strategy and what we must do to ensure U.S. manufacturing success.

As a follow-up to my last column on strategic planning and execution (oversimplifying strategy to the point that planning and execution is shortchanged), I'm going to tread, gingerly, into a discussion about the merits of implementing a national manufacturing strategy. In doing so, I'll highlight another area where manufacturers' strategic initiatives can go awry.

See Also: Lean Manufacturing Leadership Best Practices

This time I focus on the planning. What can be done when there's no agreement on what the strategy should be? On the specific details of what should be done? When a plethora of plans turns into a cacophony of confusion?

As you read in Stephen Gold's July column, "Manufacturing Needs a Strategy -- But Which One?," U.S. manufacturers face just such a dilemma. He recounts the numerous agendas and initiatives that have been presented to strengthen (or save) U.S. manufacturing. Gold notes, "... considering the diversity of the strategists, there is refreshingly little disagreement on the necessity of a coordinated public-private sector effort."

So what's the problem?

First, the people and organizations that have written these plans are those who believe a strategy is needed. Many others vociferously disagree. Still others advocate stronger medicine—an industrial policy to match those of other competitor nations.

Second, digging into the details of the plans reveals strong opinions about the steps to be taken. Should government fund basic science or engineering? Should it favor certain industries? How much should be spent to solve immediate problems versus laying the groundwork for a vibrant future?

Most business leaders face similar decisions as they chart the course for their company. Though the CEO, unlike a politician, can fire those who fail to follow, the smart ones know that making that call often involves truly considering alternate views within the leadership team.

I don't think that's happening in our public policy debate, and too often it doesn't happen in business. The result is a series of flavor-of-the-month tactical moves packaged as strategy.

I don't know if it's possible for our nation to come to an agreement on the need for a manufacturing policy. Though we've made progress, still too many remain unconvinced of manufacturing's importance to our nation's economy.

I do know, however, that it's possible for manufacturers to succeed in the U.S.

IndustryWeek searches for and shares the stories and strategies of U.S.-based manufacturing businesses that win, in good times and bad -- and often in spite of a long list of obstacles that could be alleviated through policy. We'll continue to advocate for more favorable public policy, but until we can get it, we'll do what we can to help U.S. manufacturers find a way to succeed. We hope you'll join us.

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