The One You Don't See Coming

Things have been going pretty well for quite a while now.

Things have been going pretty well for quite a while now. Most of the U.S. companies that make parts and that make technology have been busy as all getout for three or four years running. And though the general metalworking sector is now showing some signs of softening, nobody seems all too worried. Any rocks in the foreseeable road ahead look like mere pebbles in comparison to the boulders we've overcome in the not too distant past. Truth be known, some people are happy for the chance to catch their breath.

Considering the hard work many American manufacturers have put in over the past decade to regain their competitiveness, it would be easy to see how some would be tempted to skate for a while. We've earned our position, one can argue, and there's no one out there right now that looks ready to take it away.

Even the threat of international competition is diminished. The Japanese continue to struggle in their domestic economy, must deal with high manufacturing costs and carry the burden of unfavorable exchange rates. The Western European welfare states will be dealing with cost problems for years to come, and their Eastern neighbors have few resources. China looms somewhere down the road, but for now it's well over the horizon.

Then again, in 1980 nobody saw Japan coming. Five years later we were all wondering if America had a future in manufacturing.

A pretty wise baseball coach I once knew would warn us after an easy victory with the expression: "May you be cursed with unworthy adversaries." For this purpose I'd probably sharpen it up a bit to something like: May you be cursed by hampered competition. Either way, the point is the same. If a player goes untested for too long, he becomes unprepared for the true challenges to come.

Now I'll admit that hardly anyone, including me, is going to wake up in the morning and say, "Darn, I wish I had stronger competition." But over coffee, perhaps we could ponder the thought that conditions for our success have been extraordinarily favorable over the last few years. And maybe, just maybe, we're not as good as we need to be for the longer term.

And then ask yourself: What am I going to do about it?