Capturing headlines and attention while I was in Germany was GM’s announcement about restructuring its manufacturing, closing plants, and terminating thousands of people.

This becomes a huge political football, of course.

I’ve been on both sides of this equation. I’ve been laid off and have done the terminating. There are no winners.

The foundation of manufacturing consists of having customers who will buy the product we are making. No customers, no production needed.

This puts an enormous burden on executives to make the correct product decisions and scale plants appropriately. Sometimes the problems are tied to the general economy. Sometimes (often) the fault lies with bad management and/or wrong decisions.

Automotive markets have been whipped to and fro for years. First, we have plenty of oil, build bigger and bigger cars, and everyone in the industry is making big incomes. Then the economy changes and the scramble to build small, fuel-efficient cars. Then the economy changes and people are demanding big vehicles again.

But I’ve seen far too many workers (salaried or hourly) who get into the mindset that they’ll always keep doing the same job, making the same product. But then customers stop buying. No demand, no jobs.

Of course they are angry. I was angry the times in my life where I’ve experienced that dislocation. Then it’s just, oh, well, here we go again. Gotta look for something new to do.

It takes years of engineering and billions of dollars of investment to make a new car line. A manufacturing facility can’t be changed over in the space of a two-week shutdown.

Our challenge as leaders and engineers in manufacturing becomes designing more flexible production capabilities that allow management to make a wider variety of products. This would help maintain employment to a better degree and stabilize companies, communities, and families.

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