Sunday, October 02, 2005

My wonderful neighbors
at Harley-Davidson

I love great trade magazines. Gear Technology magazine qualifies. It's as global as it gets. Big league world class manufacturing issues reported in detail monthly.

My day job often involves gear manufacturing. Back in the last century, Gear Technology published an article I wrote that really went against industry assumptions at the time. Pretty cool of them.

The Publisher's Page column of Gear Technology is written by Michael Goldstein who is also their Editor-in-Chief. The September/October 2005 contribution from Mr. Goldstein again goes against prevailing assumptions. Mr. Goldstein’s piece is titled: Making It in America. U.S. Manufacturing is Alive, Well and Prospering

Citing the NY Times source article, we're reminded that, contrary to what's easy to believe, the truth is sometimes less obvious. Despite all the headlines and hand wringing, the United States still accounts for about a quarter of the world’s value added manufacturing output. This is virtually the same as it was in 1982.

Who do they look to as a representative alpha dog for our tenacious grip on doing things right? My friends and neighbors at Harley-Davidson. The domestic content of their motorcycles is higher today than it was 15 years ago. They’re setting up to export to China.

The reasons include creative, cooperative labor agreements, but also in large part to increased productivity through better technology.

That may sound optimistically warm and fuzzy to you, but it's not. I get to report to you directly from the front lines of uniquely tough manufacturing battles Harley-Davidson has fought and won. More importantly, battles they continue to win. Sure better technology can mean high science stuff, but it can also mean common sense and individuals taking ownership. Sustainable work.

Harley-Davidson was the first major corporation to take a chance on our work. They had identified the nasty back room stuff we work on as an opportunity to fix problems plant-wide.

They didn't have to fix it. Everybody else was living with the problems. Why couldn't they? Harley-Davidson decided they couldn't live with it precisely because they weren't everybody else. They wanted to get ahead and stay ahead. They still do.

They didn't want to see thick smoke from their heat treat furnaces spilling into the plant and out their smokestacks. They didn't want to see powertrain components leaving the furnaces contaminated, but "good enough".

Harley-Davidson took a risk on us when few other companies would do so.

How’d we all do? Every heat treated component of Harley-Davidson motorcycles built in the last 8 years has gone through systems supported by our equipment. Without a single service call.

When I was working a trade show in Pittsburgh a couple weeks back, I had what seemed to be half of Harley-Davidson in my booth calling out to passersby to come in and buy our stuff. Amazing.

Sure, the biz stuff is great, but the productivity contributions we were able to deliver to our friends at Harley-Davidson make it sustainable. Fixing problems.

You can see the results every time you drive past their motorcycle plants in Milwaukee. Where there used to be thick smoke coming out the smokestacks, there are now clouds, birds, and not a trace of hydrocarbon. I'm so proud of that image I use it on my credentials page elsewhere on this site to help indicate who I think I am.

Taking those contaminants out of the mix at Harley-Davidson not only helped their air quality, but it also removed the contaminants clinging to their gears and powertrain components leaving the furnaces. Defects were cut. Scrap was cut. Remanufacturing was cut. Fluid waste streams were cut. Chemical costs were cut. Transportation costs were cut.

All this happened at that time when most everyone else in heavy industry accepted lower productivity and lower quality generated by these problems. These issues were typically just swept out the smokestacks and ignored.

Just as death can come from a thousand small cuts, success can come from a thousand small contributions. Increasing productivity from one messy back room problem gave Harley-Davidson a leg up that continues to strengthen their enterprise almost a decade later.

Of course, 8 years ago, they didn’t have to fix this problem. They wanted to. Please, let that guide you.

Smart enterprises don't run from problems. They attack them. Harley-Davidson is not afraid of China. In fact, they are going after Chinese markets with products made in the neighborhood. Good on you, friends.

Why is that possible? Because as, Mr. Goldstein points out in his Gear Technology piece, "The key to being successful at manufacturing in America is increasing your productivity."

Yes, direct employment jobs in manufacturing and many others industries are being eliminated as productivity increases. If this comes as a surprise to you, I can’t help, except to suggest you get productive at something pretty damn fast.

However, many of the “lost” jobs are reappearing, redeployed as independent, stand alone enterprises, popping up and making contributions all around you. Like my day job, for instance.

Productivity contributions are pouring into the world economy in ways never possible under the old corporate models. Emerging models (yours better be included!), passionately search for productivity contributions every day.

You are only going to help by fixing problems. You're not going to help by selling people stuff they don't need. The world doesn't work like that any more, at least in the biz-to-biz markets. Fix problems, contribute to productivity. Then do it better. Every day. Every year.

You don't need high science. You do need common sense. You do need long term, sustainable relationships with your enterprise partners.

The next time you walk through a trade show and see a crowd of Harley-Davidson folks inside a booth, pulling people in like industrial carnival barkers, come on over. I'll be the guy at the back of the booth peddling as fast as I can.

Thanks, Mr. Goldstein and Gear Technology Magazine for going against the grain again.

And thank you Harley-Davidson. It's great to have such wonderful neighbors.

Gear Technology Magazine
Current Harley-Davidson smokestacks image
New York Times source article. If You Can Make It Here by Louis Uchitelle, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005. Free from your Library or $3.95 from NYT.

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