Jon Griffith

About Manufacturing -and Why Work in It?

By Jon Griffith, Director of Partner Relations and Administration
May 16, 2000

Recently I had one of those "aha" experiences. I’d been asked to review some PowerPoint slides on the partnership of the two programs I work for at MIT-Leaders for Manufacturing (LFM) and System Design and Management (SDM) Programs. In the past year, these two masters-level, professional education programs, focused on manufacturing and product design and development, were consolidated under one administrative umbrella at MIT. I was doing my usual thing, flipping through the slides quickly, since I’d seen most of them before. A year after consolidation, what LFM-SDM doesn’t lack are PowerPoint slides!

That’s when the information below hit me.

LFM and SDM Program Assets

  • 200 masters degree students
  • Undergraduate engineering degrees
  • Previous work experience
  • 50 faculty
  • 25 companies
  • Distance education
  • Industry-driven research and theses

Call me slow, but I am not sure until that moment that I’d ever thought of an academic program in terms of its "assets." Oh, don’t get me wrong. I know academic programs have "strengths" or intellectual content. But "assets" are more tangible-they’re what you base your future on; they are like money in the bank. As Websters’ says, they are anything owned that has exchange value. Even if an academic program thinks of its assets, they aren’t likely to place their students at the top of the list, yet that is exactly what this slide does.

So these are our assets, I thought to myself, and that’s when a bulb lit in my head. From that moment on I saw the two programs that I was working for differently, and it made me stop and wonder how often academic departments and programs actually underestimate their "assets" or can’t see the true nature of the value propositions for their programs. These aren’t just program strengths; these are what we meet the world with. Whatever credibility exists for LFM and SDM (and I think it’s considerable) comes for these assets that we hold.

But these aren’t assets thought of in the customary way. This approach is more akin to the way companies like Skandia are trying to devise methods of measuring intellectual capital as assets-not the usual static stuff you can measure and count. Assets for manufacturing firms, for example, could include such things as relationships with your customers and supplier processes, and by the very act of saying this companies are forced into trying to measure the "assetness" of these relationships and learn how to develop and expand these capabilities.

One asset for SDM in this way of measuring is its distance education capability. SDM, MIT’s first academic program that offers a degree primarily at a distance, has learned, for example, how to build a cohort made up of distance students (no small feat), a by-product of which is an evolving knowledge of how virtual teams might work (a tremendous potential asset).

What I realized in my "aha" was that the very act of defining assets in the way done above is practicing what we preach in terms of LFM-SDM’s new strategic vision. One of the primary focuses of the new combined organization will be on the total enterprise and the knowledge processes that support it. LFM-SDM believes that just as there is a material supply chain for an enterprise (suppliers building component parts, for example, for a car engine that are then integrated), there is an enterprise knowledge supply chain as well. At every step in the value chain, knowledge critical to the enterprise exists, and mapping that chain and developing it will be just as important as understanding what the material supply chain is all about.

As Charles Fine, MIT Professor in the Sloan School of Management, says in his book Clockspeed, "A company is its chain of continually evolving capabilities-that is, its own capabilities plus the capabilities of everyone it does business with." The same goes for an academic program. You could say that LFM-SDM is its chain of continually evolving capabilities (educating students, research, defining principles of world-class manufacturing, knowledge about systems, industry partnerships, distance education capability)-that is, its own capabilities plus the capabilities of everyone it does business with. For LFM-SDM, these capabilities-our assets-define what we are. LFM-SDM’s core capability of educating leaders for future technically based enterprises thrives because of LFM-SDM’s evolving relationships with students, industry partners, alumni, and with the faculty who teach our courses. But others are involved as well, from the Sloan School of Management to the School of Engineering (the joint sponsors of our programs) to the related centers and programs at MIT that share LFM-SDM’s intellectual agenda.

Take a look at the list of assets again, and you’ll see that here assets are more broadly defined and can be found in the processes of knowledge, in the way we deal with our partners, or how we conduct industry-driven research in our partner companies. Our assets can be found in the way we engage our faculty or in our distance education core competency. Behind the asset of our 25 industry partners, for example, is a whole process of connecting with them as partners and asking for their input. That relationship and its supporting process developed at LFM from the beginning is an asset and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

In our list of assets, LFM and SDM can say that at any one time, we have approximately 200 students in the combined program, and that’s a powerful statement that carries a lot of clout within MIT and the world of manufacturing and product design at large. But it isn’t just numbers-it’s quality and kind as well. We see this when we talk to companies interested in joining the LFM-SDM partnership. Often the best approach is just for the program administrators to clear out of the room and let the students speak for the program. They are LFM-SDM’s best ambassadors because they are the embodiment of the results of the whole enterprise process.

And what about faculty? Curious, since in the structure of MIT, LFM and SDM "own" no faculty. We get them from other departments and schools. Yet "our" faculty are assets. We see this in June when we hold a retreat for faculty and industry partners to get together to discuss the important issues facing product design and manufacturing and how our programs can help. Our faculty participate by teaching courses and advising internship and theses projects because they see their research aligned with our vision, or in Clockspeed terms, they are part of the evolving capabilities that define the LFM-SDM enterprise.

In many ways, the "aha" of assets is as simple (and as difficult) now as it was more than 2500 years ago when Socrates strolled around ancient Athens telling people they needed to know themselves. Socrates’ method was to ask penetrating questions to reveal the attitudes underlying people’s beliefs. The same process could be attempted in terms of assets. Sometimes you have to ask penetrating questions to understand what your assets are. In any annual report, these are assets we have to claim responsibility to nurture and grow, and by the very fact of declaring this is so, we are forced into reckoning with them as essential to our existence.