Aims and means

Posted on 4 Jun 2013 by The Manufacturer

Chris Ward of PDCA Consulting reflects on the recent Cranfield Manufacturing Debate and the conflicting views on the core what the core objectives of a national manufacturing strategy should be.

Chris Ward, PDCA Consulting

During the recent National Manufacturing Debate at Cranfield University there were many conflicting views on the need or otherwise for a National Manufacturing Strategy. The motion under debate was: “The manufacturing industry in the UK needs a national strategy in order to reach the goal of achieving 20% of UK GDP by 2020”.

As a delegate at the event, I was struck by two issues that were in play.

Firstly, there was little discussion of, and no agreement upon, the key objectives of a national manufacturing strategy. For example, it became clear that few delegates believed a minimum, maximum, or specific percentage share of GDP was the primary objective.

As such, every contributor approached the debate largely from their own perspective, whether consciously or not, and this led to the exposition of some very diverse points.

The Manufacturer published a good review of the many opinions expressed. But even after listening to two hours of collective wisdom from senior and very successful people, I’m still not sure precisely what a national manufacturing strategy is meant to achieve.

Secondly, as individuals and groups began to formulate and articulate their positions, a number of metaphorical silos sprang up – some with heavily fortified defences. The discussion ebbed and flowed as first one, then another argument held sway, and the elusive national strategy pitched and rolled in the wash.

There are only two possible causes of any conflict if you discount personality clashes and lack of chemistry – these over estimated as causes of conflict. Many consider a dysfunctional individual to be the root cause of conflict but in fact incidences of this are negligible.

In reality, conflict is caused by:

1)     Disagreement over objectives.

2)    Disagreement over alternative ways of reaching (agreed) objectives.

In the context of the Cranfield debate, there was no clear consensus on the objectives.

In fact the elephant in the room was tacit disagreement which we were all far too British to express in polite company! So it should not be surprising that the alternatives put forward – the potential routes to the (rather fuzzy) destination – varied wildly.

Of course the delegates who gathered in Cranfield are influencers, not owners of national industrial strategy objectives, and that’s the heart of the matter.

If someone doesn’t own an objective, they cannot make the final decision about its shape, or what it should address. A truly national manufacturing strategy is beyond the remit of any individual company, sector, or even government department. Some would also argue that government itself is too transient a construct to own such a strategy. And so, logic suggests, without considerable and sustained cross-party support for basic tenets and principles any strategy created in one government’s term is destined, ultimately, to fail.

Perhaps we would have been more successful or useful at NMD if we’d taken a step back and first posed a question such as “In an ideal state, what are the key, global, enabling factors needed to create the right environment for manufacturing businesses to prosper?”

Admittedly this is a very big and slightly-ambiguous question in need of clarification and possible refinement. But it contains a more-realistic objective within the grasp of the assembled delegates. As such, it would likely have built more of a working consensus in a reasonable time frame and subsequently led to a series of well-considered, practical points to take to the next level of key decision-makers.

The diverse opinions on how to reach those objects would still have been aired. But with a clear agreed destination it would have been easier to obtain a compromise on the specific route, or agreement to try several routes in parallel.

This perspective of the causes of conflict is fractal so it works at every level of decision making. If there’s disagreement about the objectives, only the real owner of the objective can decide which to pursue. In such circumstances you need to be clear who the real owner is, and get their directive before trying to discuss alternatives.

If the destination is clear and agreed, you’re in a position to discuss the best way forward, and if the objective is kept in focus, people are more-open to consider the alternative routes towards it dispassionately.

A full review of the National Manufacturing Debate 2013 will be circulated with the July/August issue of The Manufacturer