America is the most productive

Aug. 3, 2004
It just takes us longer to get things done

Several months ago, the evening news reported on America's standing in the world productivity battle. The banner headline was, "America is still the most productive workforce in the world." The newscaster, taking great care to explain the statistics, repeatedly stated that the report clearly defined our role as the world leader. Perhaps many of the viewing audience missed the key component of the report. The American workforce is the most productive -- it just takes us longer to get things done. The quoted statistics indicated that our workforce could produce more products that its counterparts in Germany, the Pacific Rim and the growing number of other manufacturing countries, but achieving these production levels required more than 48 hours, while our competitors produced the same level in substantially less time. Maybe it's just me, but I thought productivity referred to the ability to produce more units of work on a "per hour" basis; not simply skew the numbers to get a desired result.

This newscast highlighted a prime example of what's wrong with our plants and corporations. We bend the data to achieve numbers that make us better than we really are. During past year, we've heard numerous examples of the games that corporations play with the numbers to skew real performance. A few get caught. The rest continue to play the numbers game.

It would appear that American industry has become lazy and fixated on quick, simple fixes to the pressures the increasing numbers of manufacturing countries who are competing for market share are causing. Rather than compete, we elect to delude ourselves into thinking the problems will go away.

If you accept the premise outlined in the newscast, stop for a minute and think about why it takes us longer. Many blame the declining work ethic and skills of the America worker. It appears to be true that with each generation following World War II, our collective work ethic and basic skills have declined, but this isn't universally true and the majority of our workforce remains the most committed and innovative in the world. Even though our society and educational system hasn't kept pace with growing competitiveness in the world market, our workers are not the reason for our loss of status as the world's premier manufacturing nation.

If one rules out the workforce as the reason for our problems, what else remains? Could it be the way we run our businesses? Like most of you, I follow the economic events and see that the almost constant trend in American business today is to ship our manufacturing and production offshore. Corporate management seems to believe that restrictions, such as high labor rates, environmental regulations and myriad other factors inhibit our ability to compete as equals in the world market. There may be some truth in these arguments. They are the price we pay for our lifestyle but aren't the reasons for our failure. Other countries, such as Germany, have similar constraints but have found effective ways to overcome them and remain highly competitive.

Even top government officials tout outsourcing as the wave of the future and carefully explain the perceived benefits of closing domestic plants. Let's be honest, the only advantage to moving a manufacturing plant offshore is short-term profit and this quarter's stockholders' dividend. The long-term effect is guaranteed loss of our position -- any position as a credible manufacturing entity in the world market.

Corporate management should come down from its ivory tower and take a good look around the plant floor. If they do, they'll find a workforce that, given a fighting chance, would far out-produce any competitor in the world. Even with the degradation of our educational system and decreased work ethic, the workforce , yes, the operators and maintenance technicians who keep our plants running , knows what needs to be done to achieve and sustain world-class performance. Listen to them, act on their advice and help America reclaim its place in the world market.

Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley is principal consultant at Life Cycle Engineering in Charleston, S.C. He can be reached at [email protected].

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