This article first appeared in IMPO's August 2013 issue. 

Mike Collins, Author, Saving American ManufacturingThroughout 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.

Where Is The How In Training Skilled Workers?

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 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.

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 accomplished something.

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 the How.

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 questions:

  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 accomplished?

If this sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. It is much easier and simpler 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 How.

Mike Collins is the author of Saving American Manufacturing. You can find him on the web at