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When Executives Diss Manufacturing

Sometimes manufacturing people read something from supposedly very smart and experienced people, and it just makes you wonder how companies ever survived at all. You may have heard of Bob Lutz. He is a famous "car guy."
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Product development, and especially big, gas-guzzling cars, embody his
legacy. I remember vividly his whining about a year ago when the market
and regulators were promoting fuel efficiency. He still wanted to build
large cars with big engines.

He has written a book, and The Wall Street Journal offered him a forum
to promote it. I saw it online here. There are powerful insights, such
as when he reveals management weaknesses at GM. Then there are stories
that make manufacturing people cringe.

There is a type of manager who focuses on the minutiae and lets "the
vision thing" slip. I've seen this phenomenon in many guises. I served
two terms on a school board. For four years we had a group that focused
on the big picture--hiring the right people and focusing on the
direction we wanted to go and letting the managers do their thing. Then
three new members were elected. They focused on such important details
as where floor polish was purchased and who the junior class advisor
would be. Needless to say, overall direction of the school district
floundered.

Scott Adams captured the supreme caricature of the "micro manager" in
his "pointy-haired boss." Lutz captures it in unfortunate reality. "One
of my favorite anecdotes about the long postwar decline of General
Motors came from a senior executive in the advertising agency that
served Cadillac back in the 1950s and '60s. At the time, Jim Roche was
head of the division. It was time to design the annual Cadillac
Christmas card, and Mr. Roche instructed the agency to find something
'heartland'—down-home American, an original work from a good artist. One
painting found Mr. Roche's favor: a snowy scene with a small boy
pulling a sled upon which was tied a Christmas tree. The lad's
destination was a modest cabin on a hill, with a winding road leading up
to it." Lutz continues his story with the tremendous amount of wasted
executive time as Roche proceeded to design the card one piece at a
time. No wonder GM floundered.

Manufacturing Unimportant

Lutz really hit a raw nerve with me with this paragraph, "A car company,
on the other hand, is one enormous, hugely complicated organism that
has many moving parts, all closely interrelated and interdependent. Many
of the company's activities are day-to-day: running the plants to
produce components and assemble cars, procuring supplier parts, moving
the finished vehicles to the dealers, billing same and booking the
revenue. The operations portion of the automobile business has been
thoroughly optimized over many decades, doesn't vary much from one
automobile company to another, and can be managed with a focus on
repetitive process. It is the "hard" part of the car business and
requires little in the way of creativity, vision or imagination. Almost
all car companies do this very well, and there is little or no
competitive advantage to be gained by 'trying even harder' in
procurement, manufacturing or wholesale."

> For more FEED FORWARD blog content, click here.

Try telling Toyota or Johnson & Johnson that manufacturing doesn't
matter. When manufacturing slips up, it can cost the company
tremendously in lost profit and brand image. On the other hand,
companies such as the former Toyota or Subaru or many others who operate
in a lean manner focusing on continuous improvement prove just how
valuable manufacturing can be as a contributor to enterprise profits. I
just toured an Audi plant and a Festo plant—each exemplifying a Lean
culture and showing how manufacturing contributes to the enterprise. In
this issue, I interviewed manufacturing executives from Phoenix Contact,
Webasto and Beam Global Wine & Spirits who discussed how
manufacturing is a contributor.

Gary Mintchell has either worked in or covered manufacturing for his 30+ year career that included stints in product development, manufacturing engineering and IT-related projects. Having helped found Automation World in 2003, Gary retired from his day-to-day editor-in-chief duties in 2013. He continues to cover automation technology developments and related industry trends for Automation World. Contact Gary at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @garymintchell.
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