‘Are we there yet?’ isn’t the question to get you there

The jobs picture and the housing market are brightening, which both bode well for the manufacturing sector in particular and the economy as a whole.

02/22/2013


They are the four most annoying words in all of parentdom: “Are we there yet?” It doesn’t matter if you’ve been on the road for five hours or five minutes; all the voices in the back seat want to know is, when we are going to arrive at our destination?

The question is not just irritating, but it presupposes the folks in the back seat already have the answer to the more important question: “Where are we going?”

I’m mindful of this question at the cusp of another year. The resident in the White House has been established for another four years. The stock market was, at this writing, zooming past 14,000. The jobs picture and the housing market are brightening, which both bode well for the manufacturing sector in particular and the economy as a whole.

But how we feel on any given day may depend on which number we see first. It could be the one on the scale, or the thermometer in our backyard, or our stock ticker. We have so many numbers, so much data, that we easily get distracted by the next number we see. We accept it as an absolute truth, rather than just a point in time. (In my case, this especially is true on my bathroom scale.)

So this month, Plant Engineering is proud to give you … MORE numbers. Our annual Salary Survey always has been a useful tool to show how our collective compensation has changed in the previous 12 months. In 2012, in the context of our journey through manufacturing, it is useful as a GPS device in that it tells us exactly where we are.

After four years of recession and recovery, though, just knowing where we are isn’t enough. We are growing somewhat impatient with this long trek. “Are we there yet?” is not an inappropriate question for us to want to ask. The better question is still, “Where are you going?”

The numbers deliver us a clue:

  • We are recommitted to running safer, more efficient and better maintained plants—and we feel we can do more. For the first time this year, safety is considered the area of our operations that should get more attention from all stakeholders.

  • We are challenged by our internal issues far more than by those outside of our organization. We need more skilled workers, and that is a bigger issue than government interference. We’re more concerned about our internal management than taxes.

  • We still like our job. Two-thirds of us consider manufacturing a secure career. Our feeling of accomplishment and the technical challenge of our work are far ahead of compensation on the list of what makes us happy.

So that’s where we are, and the numbers show our preference of where we want to go. Which leads to the final, and easily the most crucial, question of any journey: “How do we get there?”

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but unless you’re running the 100-meter dash, there are no straight lines in life, or in manufacturing. Getting to your destination is going to require not just a map, but some actual navigation.

So beyond the numbers, we’ve brought together some of the best and brightest minds in manufacturing at all levels—the plant floor, the associations, and the researchers. They have a few thoughts on navigating the route to manufacturing excellence. In 2012, Plant Engineering told a lot of stories of how to achieve manufacturing excellence—in print, online, and in person. That’s also on the agenda for 2013.

But after you gather all this information, analyze all the data, and have a clear understanding of where you want to go, there’s still the issue of actually driving. There’s one aspect to all of this that won’t really be measured by numerical data. It’s called leadership.

“Sports Night” was one of my favorite TV shows ever, a show-within-a-show about a cable TV sports program. In its final episode, the mysterious stranger who injected himself into the program’s operation said, “I’m what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man, and I’ve failed much more than I’ve succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together and I say, ‘Where are we going?’ And it starts to get better.”

The episode’s title was “Quo Vadimus”—Latin for “Where are we going?” Unless you and your people get together to answer that question, you may be stuck with voices in the background of your plant operation wondering, “Are we there yet?”



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