Benchmarking to establish manufacturing process technique is viewed as a good concept, but by definition, in a competitive environment such as the automobile industry, it is already too late. Someone else is already doing it. By the time emulation could occur, the aggressive competitor may have implemented the next generation. The objective must be to implement processes that are generations ahead of the benchmark.

In a similar situation, American auto companies with numerous engine plants in the U.S. and in other countries are adopting a philosophy to standardize on “world class” process and hardware for all who produce the same part families. On the surface, this sounds like the right thing to do. It is not, for several important reasons:

  • The lowest common denominator to achieve consensus on the approach to be selected is likely to prevail; probably a safe, conservative approach.

  • Local manufacturing cultures and related pride are typically grounded in some logical local factors. Arbitrary change can create resentment, no matter which country or location is being asked to change their ways. An example of this kind of cultural paradigm is the preference for rear-wheel drive cars in Europe versus front wheel drive in the U.S. Is either wrong? Local organizations must feel part of the process and be able to succeed or fail. The method of dictating based on a non-local concept removes local ownership and does not show appreciation or reward. Spirit and passion will be negatively affected.

  • The dictatorial, centralized approach trains to not innovate locally and discourages local original thought and ownership.

  • The standardapproach freezes in time the entire corporate process, whether extremely effective or a failure, or anywhere in between. Any change, even fine-tuning, is a massive undertaking and will be discouraged.

  • Different local processes encourage innovation with many points of entry for new ideas - friendly competition. Failure or less performance than expected is localized. A culture of Yankee ingenuity!

  • It’s possible to move to newly developed methods quickly in a limited way, one location at a time, each better than the last. Exposure to risk is limited, while staying ahead of fast on their feet competition who will be pushing the productivity boundaries. Solid communications between locations will leverage the different experiences.

  • Each new local retooling will be the next generation rather than the entire battleship. In the standardizedprocess, competitors can be several generations ahead before enough momentum can be built to scrap the old and build a new battleship.

  • Worst, the world wide imaginative and creative resources of the special machine tool industry will be used infrequently and ineffectively. Remember also the effect of the single huge population on progress discussed in Chapter one.

Standardization and innovation clash. They are mutually exclusive by definition, and must be intelligently balanced and managed.


There is an area in both the automobile industry and in the special machine tool industry that is troubling. In the latter, during the 1970s and 1980s, while the industry was consolidating (like others), the entry of fresh young technicians and engineers slowed to near nothing. In more recent times, the need for those people grew, as many experienced people had retired and the use of advanced technology intensified.

It is now difficult to attract the right kind of candidates for the openings and a significant experience/knowledge gap exists in many organizations. In effect, the staff formula mix has been seriously diluted.

As an example, to become a reasonable special machine tool designer will typically take six or eight years or more. A new employee can now become proficient with computer aided design (CAD) tools within a few weeks. To some, the distinction is not clear. The computer is a tool and has little to do with the designer’s skill and talent. The earlier mechanical draftsman became proficient with a straight edge, triangles, and the compass within a few weeks. They are both only tools to be used. Either way, the number of years changes very little, even with the better tools. The exchange of the elder experienced designers for proficient CAD operators has confused some and created some difficulty. In addition, the retained older designers did not gravitate to CAD as readily as the younger ones. (Computer aided design tools, used expertly, are an invaluable resource and this discussion is not intended to minimize that in any way.)

When numerous companies and even entire industries, such as the auto industry, have decided to cut cost and “downsize,” one of their first actions is to offer buyouts to senior employees. This creates a similar problem. The staff formula mix is seriously diluted, since those with the most experience go first. Their value to the company, in terms of performance, has not necessarily been a factor in the decision.

Health and longevity expectations have changed significantly in recent years. Today, a 60-year-old can look forward to many productive and fulfilling years, and many want or must continue to be active and/or earn income. What a shame that we do not let them and at the same time handicap the organization by the loss of their capabilities and contributions, a serious disservice to both.

“After he retired at age 60, Othmar Ammann designed, among other things, the Connecticut and New Jersey Turnpikes; the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, Dulles Airport, the Throgs Neck Bridge and The Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Paul Gauguin “retired” as a successful stockbroker and became a world famous artist. Heinrich Schliemann “retired from business to look for Homers legendary city of Troy. He found it. After Churchill made his mark as a world statesman, he picked up his pen and won the Nobel Prize for Literature at age 79.”[25]

Ronald Reagan’s second four-year term as President of the United States, arguably the most demanding job anywhere, began at age 78. What about Nelson Mandela? What do you think about the difficulty level of his job to govern and to take his country out of apartheid at age 71 after spending 27 debilitating years in a prison?

“Not only are more of us living longer (and often a lot longer) but we are not spending the extra decades twiddling our thumbs. Perhaps we’re inspired by something maverick novelist George Eliot once put into words: ‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been.’”[26] or to continue to be fulfilled in a quality “life’s work” for all “the reasons we work?”

For the most part, seniority should be its own reward and should not be the only factor in evaluating overall performance for position security or advancement. Those that feel that work is labor and have not realized the great benefits of the “reasons we work” could be among those chosen in a reduction in force.

The customers/clients of the special machine tool industry sometimes do themselves a very serious disservice by simply not challenging that industry in a fair and honest competitive bidding process to find better ways. There are many examples of dramatic breakthroughs that have resulted from a hungry competitor out-thinking worthy competition. The process, done well, can energize the imaginative, competitive passions of great companies from around the world.

[25]United Technologies Corporation, A Message, (Reprint from The Wall Street Journal, 1981).

[26]Editorial, (Remedy Magazine)