America still can compete in the world market

It requires senior management to take the lead in reversing the trends

By R. Keith Mobley

American industry has lost its competitive edge. We are no longer the principal source of high-quality, low-cost products that were in such great demand in the 20th century. In the international market of the late 1990s and early 21st century, offshore competitors have usurped our role as the leader in manufacturing technology as well as production capacity. We’ve lost the majority share of the international market and offshore competitors now claim a substantial percentage of our domestic market. Non-American companies control what were traditionally American industries -- steel, automotive, electronics and textiles. The result of this marked increase in offshore competition is a serious reduction in the demand for U.S.-manufactured goods. This reversal in our domestic market has already reached a point where it’s impossible to purchase any consumer goods that are totally American-made.

America seems to have lost sight of the factors that made us the world’s principal manufacturing country. The drift has been almost imperceptible, but it’s nonetheless true. We have consistently lowered our standards in every facet of life and business to a point that our entire culture has lost sight of the values we once cherished.

It’s not too late to reverse the downward spiral. If our government and senior corporate leaders would recognize and acknowledge that we are our own worst enemies, we could reclaim our leadership role.

Our government must eliminate the tax benefits that encourage corporations to move manufacturing facilities offshore. We must demand a level playing field for imports. Unlike most of the other manufacturing countries, our government doesn’t seem to understand that it needs an effective long-term strategy to ensure our survivability as a manufacturing power.

Corporate management must reestablish a work environment that encourages and sustains optimum performance levels from the entire workforce. In short, a complete culture change can reestablish the values that once made American industry the world leader in manufacturing technology and capability. This change must start with senior corporate management and be an intrinsic element at each successive lower tier of workers. Without a positive work environment that encourages total employee involvement and continuous improvement, there’s little chance of success.

Good management decisions lead to using corporate resources effectively. Therefore, viable knowledge management is critical to good performance. A viable information management system is an essential part of any plant improvement program. One of the generic limitations of domestic plants is the lack of timely, useful management information. Few plants have the means to gather, compile, interpret and effectively use a minimum critical amount of management information. Too many of them generate a mountain of information that is totally useless as a management tool. As a result, bad long-term decisions are a constant reality.

A fundamental requirement of this change is the total involvement of every employee. Take care to ensure that everyone, from the president to the floor sweeper, understand what role they play in the struggle to reclaim our manufacturing base and the survival of the country. Without the absolute involvement and total commitment of each and every player, we can’t be successful.

America stands at an important crossroads and the decisions our manufacturers make will, to a large extent, determine what the future holds for our society. If we continue straight ahead with current methods of plant management, America will continue to lose ground to the more progressive offshore countries. As our manufacturing base continues to decline, so will our standard of living and our entire way of life.

If American industry, with support from the federal government, turns toward total protectionism, we could protect our economic base by preventing the import of offshore products. This direction would cause immediate repercussions throughout our economy. Our manufacturing base has already declined to a point that loss of offshore products would cripple us. Every one of our industries, including defense and military services, would be unable to obtain the spare parts and replacement equipment needed to continue operation. Closer to home, we would no longer be able to purchase most of the consumer products, such as microwaves and stereos, that have become an integral part of our daily life. Given time, American companies could fill the void and provide comparable products, but this approach will severely limit our future.

The only other option available to our industrial base is to become more competitive with our offshore competitors. While the gap that separates us from our competition is great, it can be overcome.

Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley, CMRP, is principal consultant at Life Cycle Engineering in Charleston, S.C. E-mail him at kmobley@LCE.com.

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