Do We Really Believe In Competition?

In precision parts manufacturing there are winners and losers. Companies that create a competitive edge by investing in the business through productivity enhancing technologies and process improvements will outscore those who do not.


As I write this, the Olympics in Salt Lake City are winding down. It has been, as always, interesting to watch the athletes from around the world participate in the games and compete for medals. Because of the Olympics, I am now a fan of curling, a sport I only knew the name of prior to the coverage during the games.

Touted as the ultimate in pure competition, the Olympic games are indeed—at the core—athletic competitions at the highest level. To me those events that can be measured against time, points or other quantifiable standards best represent the concept of pure competition.

I'm not as fond of the events that derive winners and losers from subjective judgment by a panel of experts. As we saw in figure skating, this can become problematic. But I'll come back to that in a moment.

Most Olympic sports produce clear winners and losers. In individual sports such as skiing and speed skating, the true test is not beating another competitor but conquering the hill or the ice by beating the clock. In team sports such as hockey or curling, the highest number of points wins.

These are contests devoid of ambivalence. Best time, best score wins. All others don't.

In precision parts manufacturing there are winners and losers too. Companies that create a competitive edge by investing in the business through productivity enhancing technologies and process improvements will outscore those who do not.

But it's not that simple. The business equation has many more variables to solve than any sport. Actually, in many ways, measuring the success of a business may be more akin to subjective sports such as figure skating.

Because of the complexities of our tax laws, labor laws and ever changing regulations of all kinds, the precision parts manufacturer sometimes seems like a slalom skier who can't use the poles. The time and treasure that must be invested to fulfill demands outside the fundamental business model have an impact on the performance of the shop.

In the Olympics, there is a focus on performance. Sports equipment is designed to maximize the athlete's native ability, training is custom designed to help create the exact physical condition required for a given type of athletic activity. The hardware, tracks, rinks, slopes and courses are laid out to be fair but challenging. Everyone has access to the same equipment and training, and all competing athletes use the same venues.

For precision parts makers, access to technology in the form of products and services necessary to manufacture parts is democratic. Everyone can have the technological means to produce.

However, it's the venue where competition in our business diverges. Where a company sets up shop is a big determinant as to how well or poorly it can compete with companies located elsewhere.

It would be unthinkable to suggest that a downhill skier from Norway should compete for gold on a different hill and course than a skier from Switzerland. But for domestic manufacturers that "unlevel" playing field is very much what they must face every day in the shop.

Of the numerous manufacturers I have had the pleasure of meeting in my travels, none fear competition. Quite the opposite is true; they enjoy it. Competition is endemic in the American psyche. Likewise, fair play is also part of that same psyche.

The Olympics are a good example of how international competition in sports can be executed in a fair manner for all participants. How good you are at using your talents is the differentiating factor. Seems that the emerging global economy could take a lesson from the Olympic model and create an atmosphere whereby the most productive and creative parts makers can succeed based more on ability rather than subsidy.