Despite hot issues, plant managers keep their cool

Companies all over the world are thriving and growing amidst the challenging economy, but certainty about the future remains murky


It’s hot again this summer. We’re not going to get into the scientific, political, and sociological reasons as to why it’s hot, because it’s hot every summer. That’s why they call it summer.

But in the midst of July’s heat wave, when it was 90 degrees every day and the humidity was high, people were walking around astonished that it was 90 degrees in the summer. And they’d complain about it. As a Chicago boy all my life, I know what the opposite of 90 degrees looks like and feels like. You end up to your knees in snow, wrapped up in a parka and fighting a bitter wind.

So when people were starting to complain about the heat, I’d remind them, “You don’t have to shovel sunshine.”

I thought about this as I was reviewing a lot of the data we have this month in Plant Engineering, and the larger data we have online at from our friends at McGladrey. Their annual Manufacturing & Distribution Monitor study takes a look at the pulse of manufacturing and how manufacturing’s leaders view the state of our business.

By far the most fascinating piece of data was this: When asked for their level of business optimism, here were the responses:

  • My company: 85%
  • My industry: 73%
  • The U.S. economy: 49%
  • The world economy: 33%

This massive gap between personal and national optimism didn’t surprise Karen Kurek, McGladrey’s lead analyst for manufacturing. “Over the years, we have found that executives are usually optimistic regarding factors under their control, such as their own companies and even extending to their perspectives of their industries, as compared to those things outside of their influence, such as the domestic and global economies,” she told Plant Engineering this month.

And that makes perfect sense. You can complain about the economy or the weather, because you can’t really control either one. You can, however, do everything in your power to manage your own reaction to that weather. The successful manufacturers, like the people who enjoy the sunshine, are the ones who know how to keep their cool.

There’s a lot of this going around. I’ve spent four months on plant tours, visiting large facilities and small. We’ve profiled some of these plants this month, and in talking to the plant managers at these facilities, you find exceptional skill and organization to meet the tasks at hand, a willingness to grow their business, and an absolute commitment to their employees. There’s no common denominator for the plants I’ve toured this quarter, except for this: They are managing to grow despite the challenges in front of them, and they seem to thrive under the challenge.

The optimism is borne of hard work and innovative approaches to meet the specific challenges of the U.S. economy. Tax laws and regulatory policies still are a mess, we still don’t have enough skilled workers, and Washington cannot get out of its own way to accomplish even the most simple of tasks.

This might lead one to wonder just how the American manufacturing economy is the pride of America and the envy of the world. The answer is right out there on those plant floors, and I suspect it’s out on your floor as well.

We complain about the dearth of help we get from our government, and the McGladrey study clearly shows we are worried about it. Yet that worry doesn’t extend to those things we can and do control every day. We can support our employees with safer workplaces and collaborative policies. We can reduce our energy spend by being smarter about how we consume it. We can improve our productivity in amazing ways by listening and looking and studying. We can take all the data we’ve captured from all of these innovative systems we’ve put in place and affect real change in our plant operations.

And it’s that attitude—not the negatives about the environment we work in, but the achievements we’ve made with what we have to work with—that permeated every plant tour I’ve been on this year. There are remarkable things happening in manufacturing today, and they are happening because we’re focused on facing the issues head on rather than just complaining about the problems.

They say it doesn’t do any good to complain about the weather, and I think that’s true. That doesn’t mean you just stand outside and sweat. The smart ones know how to keep their cool.

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Annual Salary Survey

After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.

The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.

Read more: 2014 Salary Survey: Confidence rises amid the challenges

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