Just In Time -- A Manufacturer for All Seasons

Nov. 7, 2008
What are the characteristics of a true manufacturing leader?

After the longest U.S. presidential campaign ever, which if it had been set to music could have been called, "Promises We Don't Intend to Keep," we've finally gotten the chance to catch our collective breaths from the "silly season" of wall-to-wall politicking. We're starting to get used to seeing some new names and faces dominate the national news, and if we learned nothing else during the campaign, we are now quite confident that our nation's politicians have absolutely no idea what to do to improve the lot of U.S. manufacturers in the coming months and years. How this cluelessness will affect the incoming crew's ability to govern over an industry that makes up 10% of the U.S. GDP remains to be seen.

Thanks largely to the financial crisis, October 2008 saw economic activity in the manufacturing sector drop to 38.8% -- the lowest level since 1982, according to the ISM Index -- which some say points unmistakably to a recession. I don't think anybody tracks it, but I'm pretty sure October 2008 also saw the lowest level of pontificating about the manufacturing sector by political office-seekers in a long, long time. Everybody has a plan to get criminals off our streets and to fix global warming and to resolve the conflicts in the Middle East, but when it comes to addressing the needs of the manufacturing industry, politicians of all stripes are uncharacteristically silent. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

No matter what politicians may say (or not say) about manufacturing, the fact remains that in a democracy like the United States, the government does not run the factories or set the production schedules or hire the employees or plan the new product launches or make any of the other day-to-day decisions that keep a company operating. Those decisions are left to the companies' management, and for better or worse, it's management's job to keep the ship afloat, not government's.

So I submit that as we ring down the curtain on another year and get ready to close the chapter on the GWB years, that we begin the new year by focusing not on what government can do for manufacturing, but what manufacturing can do for itself. Now that the speech-makers are done making speeches (for a little while, anyway), it's time to shift our attention to the people who have the most to say about the future of U.S. manufacturing -- the manufacturers themselves. Here, then, are some of the qualities that characterize a true manufacturing leader and distinguish them from the rest of the pack. He or she is:

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See Chain Reactions: David Blanchard's blog about supply chain management.
Ethical: That means somebody who will insist on and will fight for doing the right thing, every time, no matter what. Period.

Innovative: Technology moves too fast for anybody to keep pace with it any more. New standards and methodologies and systems are constantly being introduced. The best leaders recognize the difference between the flavor of the month and the significantly novel ideas.

Dedicated: There are going to be a lot of days when being a manufacturer seems like a lost cause, what with countless regulations, relentless (and sometimes ruthless) competitors, supply chain glitches, market fluctuations and other all-too-frequent annoyances that would drive a lesser person to chuck it all and pursue a less stressful occupation, like tracking down Bin Laden. Manufacturing companies need leaders who aren't going to wear down, or give up, because they believe what they're doing is important.

Inspirational: Young people are shying away from manufacturing jobs in droves, leaving an ever-widening skills gap that some suggest is already impeding our ability to compete globally. The industry needs charismatic leaders who will draw talent back into manufacturing while offering opportunities that will keep the best and brightest energized and engaged.

Knowledgeable: People respect managers who have not only paid their dues, but in fact are so capable in their profession that they lead by example. They've been there, they've done that, they know the company inside and out. And they're willing to pass along that knowledge base to the next generation.

Industrious: Not only are these leaders hard working, but they positively live and breathe manufacturing. These are the managers who put the "industry" into industriousness. They're the flag-bearers who proudly say, "I'm a manufacturer." These are the people who will never stop fighting the good fight on behalf of all U.S. manufacturers because it's a cause they believe in.

David Blanchard is IW's editor-in-chief. He is based in Cleveland. Also see Chain Reactions: David Blanchard's blog about supply chain management.

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