The Only Thing We Have To Fear ...

Fear itself finishes this thought, but don't let it finish you.

Fear has always been a great motivator. At man's earliest stages of evolution, if a predator crossed his path, he had two options: fight or flee.

Now man is more sophisticated. So are our fears and the things we're afraid of. They include: technology failure; bad investments; going broke. With such sophisticated fears we've added a third F to our fight or flee options: Freeze!

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers Manufacturing Barometer report, executives of industrial manufacturing companies are more fearful than ever of competition from abroad, and will have to overcome many more obstacles than counterparts in other business sectors to achieve solid growth in the year ahead. They also lead in plans for closing or reducing facilities abroad and are well behind their non-manufacturing counterparts in the study in planned net new hires over the next 12 months. On average, industrial manufacturing businesses expect to reduce their current workforce by an average of 1.7 percent over the next 12 months, compared to an increase of 0.3 percent for the other sectors studied.

As a result of such a freeze on facility and manpower growth, manufacturers must find ways to do more with less. The material handling industry is positioning itself to help. During my interview with John Nofsinger, CEO of the Material Handling Industry of America, he told me that MHIA has been working on projects in the public and private sectors to help organizations beat the odds that have been stacking up against them.

For example, the U.S. Navy will in the next 10 years start rolling out new classes of warships. These ships will have fewer people on board and will be resupplied at sea. There will be fewer people to tend to material handling and distribution activities on these ships. As a result, the infrastructure of the modern warship will change. Material handling education will play an important role in that change.

"The challenge is to apply proven material handling solutions to these hostile environments," Nofsinger says. "As an association, we're trying to open the eyes of some of the developers to new possibilities." Another example of an industry that needs to free itself of old paradigms is rail transportation. Most people don't associate the rail system with next-day delivery. Order something from Land's End and you don't expect any railroad will be involved in getting it to your house the next day. But according to Nofsinger, rail is such a critical player in intermodal logistics that most of the major rail carriers have created standalone business units responsible for logistics. That means material handling.

"They're trying to get away from the traditional ton/mile measure because it's irrelevant," he explains. It may apply to coal and grain, but not to shirts of various styles and colors. He concludes: "There are some huge infrastructure issues for which the material handling industry can be one of the solution partners. We're trying to keep in front of the rail industry the ideas of consolidation, merging in transit and all the things that could get them more integrated into modern supply chains."

If your company has frozen its growth and innovation activities for fear of getting eaten by the competition, it must also realize the danger of freezing to death. It's a more gradual death, but death all the same. Just remember, there's a discipline that's continuously repositioning itself to help you. It's material handling, and its wisdom is available via several outlets -- trade shows (like this month's NA 2004 Material Handling & Logistics Show and Conference), associations (like MHIA and many others listed under "resources" at www.mhmonline.com) and, of course, Material Handling Management. With friends like these you can freeze out your biggest enemy -- fear itself.

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