Taking The What To The How
IMPO • AUGUST 2013
Throughout my manufacturing career, I’ve spent many hours in customer waiting rooms, where I
would always read the company mission
statement if it were mounted on the
wall. I must admit that I have never been
comfortable with the idea of mission/
vision statements because I always
thought them to be statements on what
the company would like to do — not what
they are really capable of doing.
Most of these statements use boastful words and flowery language; they
are speculations on the future, such as
“becoming the world leader in…” — and
they use vague language and unsubstantiated claims such as “commitment to
excellence”. I always wondered if the real
intention was to just make everybody feel
better with positive words and happy talk.
What I learned after many years was
that, often, managers were very comfortable with painting some kind of a future
vision of what could be done, but avoided
a written plan that explained how it was to
be done — taking the What to the How.
second term. The Alliance for American
Manufacturing is keeping track of the
number of manufacturing jobs and, after a
few rough months of losses, only 13,000
manufacturing jobs have been created as
of June, 2013 — leaving 987,000 jobs to go
in Obama’s final term. The administration
has not done very much in How to create
manufacturing jobs. The Alliance wants
Obama to confront China on manipulating
their currency and reduce the number of
defense products and parts being made
in China. But so far, the administration is
operating in the What and not in the How.
Where Is The How In Training
You can always determine whether a
leader is going to commit to What vs. How
because of the methodologies they favor.
Instead of assigning individual responsibilities, they like to use committees, conferences, panels, partnerships, and studies
rather than taking action. This is particularly true in big government agencies who
are supposed to address big issues.
A good example is the issue of training
skilled workers. Since 1990, the National
Association of Manufacturers has sponsored five major studies on skill training
and why we need to train more skilled
workers. Here it is, 23 years later, and a
study by Deloitte last year said we had
600,000 jobs in manufacturing that could
not be filled because of unqualified workers. These large corporations know what
they need to do to fill their needs, but they
do not want to make the investment for
comprehensive training programs that
take thousands of hours to complete. It
appears they would rather continue studying the problem.
Another good manufacturing example
is President Obama’s goal of creating
one million manufacturing jobs in his
Getting Beyond The Discussion
I guess it is human nature to like the
What because it is a good cover. It allows
people to appear to be solving problems
and making progress without really having
to do it. It is like a perpetual rain dance. If
everybody dances and chants all night, in
the morning they are physically exhausted
and feel they have given the dance everything they had. Rain never comes, but
people feel better about themselves and
the problem. This is a lot easier than packing up the whole tribe and moving to the
next state where there might be water.
In American manufacturing today, most
companies want to grow. The point of this
article is that just creating the vision for
growth isn’t going to get you to growth.
If you want to grow, you must get past
What and into How. It begs the following
1. How will you convey the company’s
growth goals and measurable objectives
to all employees?
2. How will you develop specific strategies for each department – such as sales,
service, engineering, and promotion – that
can achieve the goals?
3. Is there a way for managers to convey
their needs and the obstacles they must
overcome to develop specific strategies?
4. What if the strategies will require
more investment than is in the budget?
5. Can the plan be specific enough
to describe the tasks that need to be
Failures in Strategic Planning
The best example I can use to illustrate
the What vs. How paradox is the infamous
strategic planning process still taught in
business schools. In my opinion, strategic
planning, for all practical purposes, has
not produced the results that are implied
by the name. It has been a failure for large
publicly held manufacturers, in terms of
accurate forecasting and predicting the
future, and it certainly has been a failure
for small and midsize manufacturing companies who really need “breakthrough”
performance or a plan that will transform
or turn around the company.
Professor Henry Mintzburg wrote a
book titled The Rise and Fall of Strategic
Planning, which reveals why it was a failure for so many companies. He makes the
point that the process of strategic planning
became more important than the results.
People who like quantification and processes love strategic planning because the
process makes them feel they have really
As obvious as this sounds, many strategic planners decide the strategies first and
ask the managers last (top down planning).
As an example, top management may
decide that a sales increase is needed
in a specific product line or that there
must be an increase in market share.
But the reality is that the sales manager may need additional salespeople, more funding for promotion, or
special products developed for
new markets to be able to
achieve these objectives.
But most of the time the
strategic plan focuses
on the What and not
If this sounds like a lot of work, it’s
because it is. It is much easier and sim-
pler to just have a vision or a mission.
Next time you are in a meeting in your
company, listening to a speaker at the
PTA or your local politician during an
election, ask yourself — does this
meeting have a chance of getting
beyond the What and into the How?
Check back for part two of this
article in the September issue of
IMPO, where I’ll explain getting to
Mike Collins is the
author of Saving American
Manufacturing. You can
find him on the web at