Competing in a world market? Don't forget your people

April 13, 2006
On any given consulting engagement, we typically hear management lamenting its inability to hire and keep good people.

Michael Paris
Paris Consultants
Himsdale, Ill.

Nearly every key manager points out that today's workers are not like yesterday's and then usually goes on to disparage the quality of his or her workforce. Sadly, these managers are ignoring the best competitive weapon U.S. firms have — the very employees they are complaining about. And for a manufacturing company, its engineers and designers are some of the most potent weapons.

The fact is, today's engineers and designers are much better educated than any similar group in the past. Too often we ask that they become cogs in a large, corporate machine. When they think there is a problem with this, it sounds like complaining. It often is. They believe there is a better way. But management usually does not like "squeaky wheels." "Just do the job as I have asked you," is a common rejoinder. Management doesn't welcome thinking for yourself in many cases. This approach may have worked 50 years ago when the U.S. was the unchallenged manufacturing giant in the world.

Today, however, there is fierce competition from all over the globe. If a U.S. firm wants to be competitive, it had better use all the brainpower it has available. Engineers and designers can be major competitive assets if they are both involved and committed. But they will only be assets if management shares key information with them, seeks their assistance, and acts on their recommendations. This sort of collaboration cannot be lip service once a quarter. To obtain the trust of your workforce and build commitment takes time, usually measured in years, not days or weeks. Recognize that this is a slow process. But make a plan and start now. Don't wait.

Interestingly, I have yet to meet a top manager who at some point did not say, "Our people are our most important asset." Then, at the first opportunity, this same manager talks about outsourcing and reengineering (often a code word for layoffs).

Today, outsourcing is a favorite tool among managers and consultants for everything from manufacturing, to human resources, to IT. Should we consider outsourcing as an answer to the "lack of good people" dilemma? There is no single answer for every firm.

Of course, some mundane tasks can be outsourced. But functions including real design, real application engineering, and speedy engineering changes — particularly those that need testing and customer approval before production begins — should be as close to the customer as possible.

Firms that take a short-term view and outsource design engineering to developing countries will find themselves with neither the products (they will be copied), the intelligence to stay ahead of competition, or the ability to respond quickly to marketplace demands. On the other hand, firms that take full advantage of the brainpower available to them inhouse will thrive and remain competitive into the future.

Paris Consultants provides management consulting to manufacturing companies.

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