Slowly but surely a clearer picture of U.S. manufacturing's future is coming into focus, though significant parts of the image still are developing in ways we can't predict. Amid the relentless drumbeat of economic statistics reports and analyses, the continuous thrust and parry of political spin, and the competing stories of companies' successes and failures, it's useful to step back and review some undeniable truths -- truths that will help you put the challenges you face into perspective and that will help you devise a way to succeed in spite of those challenges.
It's not just about us, that is, U.S. manufacturers. The upheaval we've experienced these past four years hasn't been a U.S.-only phenomenon, but one that has swept the globe and roiled every country that has a manufacturing sector. As our IW 1000 report demonstrates, while developing countries made inroads to the top 1000 since our first list in 1996 -- this year alone South Korea added 18 companies, and seven countries debuted -- the top-five countries with the most companies on the list each saw companies drop from the list.
The government is not going to solve our problems. Oh, sure, policy decisions might make running a manufacturing business a bit easier or harder, but they aren't going to make or break a business. Many U.S. manufacturers have proven that a manufacturing company could steam right through the recent tumultuous times to profitable growth. They have overcome with the right strategies the high cost of doing business in the U.S., the currency imbalances and other myriad obstacles that many declared must be fixed by our public policy leaders for U.S. manufacturers to survive.
Darwin rules. Increasingly, as I troll for the best-practice ideas and strategies of successful companies, the oft-cited quote from Charles Darwin comes to mind: "It's not the strongest who survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change." It's a quote worth remembering if you plan to win in the complex, dynamic, hypercompetitive, manufacturing marketplace of the future.
No "one-size-fits-all" strategy, but some key components. If we've learned anything from the companies that have grown boldly and profitably through the first half of the decade, we should have learned that successful companies of the future will deploy a bewildering array of new innovative business models, each built upon a foundation of a few fundamental best practices. For example: Lean management is not an option. Lean not only will help companies survive the immediate threat of brutal price competition, in its most advanced implementation, lean also will push companies to focus relentlessly on the key to their success: their customers. While a few holdouts rightfully claim that lean processes alone won't ensure success, they should remember the corollary that is just as true: You're unlikely to succeed in the U.S. without lean processes.
Other critical strategies, too numerous to detail here, that will prove vital for future success include collaboration, management of a global supply chain, innovation, and the delivery of services along with your product.
What remains to be seen is, among other things, whether the U.S. economy will continue to grow or fall back into recession, whether the expansion of free trade throughout the world will stall with the U.S.' Central American Free Trade Agreement or the World Trade Organization's Doha Round, whether China and other Asian nations will allow their currencies to appreciate against the U.S. dollar, or whether our public policy leaders will change laws and regulations to ease the way for U.S. manufacturing companies. Still, without those answers, U.S. manufacturing executives can ensure their success by concentrating their efforts on the strategies and best practices that will make all these unknowns irrelevant. Let's focus on business.
Patricia Panchak is IW's editor-in-chief. She is based in Cleveland.