U.S. manufacturing companies have responded to their loss of global market share by everything from doing nothing to launching wholesale knee-jerk reorganization. Few, if any, have addressed the underlying reasons for their fall from grace. Typically, affected companies either try to adopt Japanese management programs, such as Total Productive Maintenance and Just-In-Time Manufacturing, or enter into joint ventures with offshore competitors. Neither of these approaches has yet proven to be completely successful.
The near panic caused by American industry's loss of its leadership role has produced a booming market for quick-fix programs that purport to resolve the problem of shrinking profits and the chronic quality, manufacturing and profitability problems. The programs share common traits: All are advertised as being able to resolve, immediately, all problems without incurring cost or effort.
In addition, they assume that a single generic program can resolve the unique problems at any plant. Each program typically focuses on a perceived specific problem area, such as low quality or high maintenance costs, but ignores the other factors that also affect plant performance directly. In fact, many of these concepts and methods may be detrimental to total plant performance. For example, the intense focus on product quality improvement espoused by some of these programs would force a reduction in production capacity or increase maintenance costs, side effects with serious, negative impact on the bottom line.
None of these programs address the needs of the total plant, so corporate betterment requires multiple programs to resolve existing plant problems. This results in two difficulties.
First, the labor and time required to manage multiple programs properly bogs down the plant improvement effort severely. In many cases, more time is spent managing the program than actually improving performance. The second is loss of focus. It's difficult, if not impossible, to coordinate and maintain continuity when multiple programs compete for resources and attention. The confusion that often results from conflicts or contradictions between the programs detracts from their combined objectives.
Unlike Japan's relatively new, well-designed plants, most American plants are old, poorly designed and haven't been operated or maintained properly. In many ways, our management methods and business philosophies are also outdated, our work ethic has degraded and we've lost touch with the values that once made America the world's manufacturing leader.
The problems that face American manufacturing can't be resolved with simplistic corrective actions. Also, reorganization or adopting a quick-fix management program simply won't compensate for the multitude of problems that exist. To regain our competitive position in the world market, American industry must recognize the extent of its problems. We'll need to admit that our own failings as citizens, businessmen and government officials are the root cause of the problems. We'll need to roll up our sleeves and correct these limitations. The tasks won't be easy, nor can they be completed overnight. It has taken years of complacency to produce the problems, and it will take years of hard work and the combined efforts of the entire work force to resolve them.
No silver bullet
Americans are a unique breed of born optimists who always look for an easy way to solve a problem. For some reason, we have an aversion to getting dirty expending the effort required to achieve a goal. Instead, we procrastinate until something that seems easy and painless miraculously appears. We never have time to do something right the first time, but always find time to do it over again. We put off difficult or unpleasant problems or tasks, hoping they'll solve themselves or simply go away. There are no silver bullets or simple solutions to the problems we face.
In addition, we have an excuse that justifies our inability to accomplish any goal or performance level. In business, we blame unfair offshore competition, government restrictions, labor agreements and a myriad of other reasons that inhibit our ability to compete in the world market.
Our workforce simply won't accept the restrictions and working environment so readily accepted by the work force in Japan. From birth, Americans are taught to be individuals and think for themselves. In contrast, the Japanese worker is taught to be a member of a team and to put the best interest of the team ahead of self-interest. This is just one of many radical differences that limit the effectiveness of Japanese management styles in U.S. plants.
In addition, the problems that limit our performance are more severe and radically different than those in Japan. For example, our business focus is strictly short-term. Every action within the plant is driven by immediate return on investment and quarterly profit margins. Japan and other progressive countries take a longer view, and readily sacrifice short-term profits for the greater, long-term return.
Many other reasons explain why offshore management practices have limited success in the U.S. Simply stated, they are not viable solutions to our problems. These limitations expand to include the cookbook approach used for continuous improvement programs.
When American companies try to implement packaged programs, such as reliability-centered maintenance or computers in manufacturing, they fail to consider unique plant problems, the dominant reason the programs fail. In my thirty years of solving plant performance problems, I've never found two plants or corporations with exactly the same problems. As a result, the cookbook approach can't solve them. Continuous improvement must be directed at the specific limiting factors of a specific plant or specific process on the plant floor. While it's possible to use some pages out of the cookbooks, carte blanche implementation makes for a tasteless stew.
Back to basics
There are no short cuts to effective maintenance. Instead, we must roll up our sleeves and find the commitment and discipline to eliminate inefficiencies and weaknesses methodically. Effective maintenance really isn't that hard, but it needs a focus on fundamentals, which include:
Effective planning and schedulingOn average, a maintenance technician spends only 24 percent of the shift doing beneficial work. The balance is wasted on gathering parts, information and tools and doing other non-productive activities. Effective planning and scheduling can eliminate most, if not all, of this waste.
Regular and consistent preventive maintenanceOne-third of the preventive maintenance tasks being performed at most U.S. plants today have no value. Effective preventive maintenance must be performed correctly, and planning and training are essential.
Effective supervisionWith so many other duties, most first-line supervisors spend the majority of the shift in an office pushing paper. Effective maintenance requires direct, on-the-floor supervision. Direct oversight alone will ensure that tasks are performed completely following best practices, that direct technical support is available for the crafts when needed, and that skills training is being reinforced.
If you can implement and sustain these three basic practices, performance and effectiveness will improve. It will require commitment and discipline, but you will ultimately achieve world-class performance.
Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley can be reached at email@example.com