Titanic Syndrome Alert!

A global phenomenon that can endanger your company's health.

By Tom Dossenbach

Four years ago, I first wrote about a serious crisis that I felt was threatening the very life of furniture and woodworking companies in this country. The most descriptive title I could create to describe this phenomenon was "The Titanic Syndrome."

For those who missed the two-part article in January and February 1999, let me explain this issue, which has become a major concern globally and is more critical today than ever before, to every reader of this column - no matter how small or large.

It was 90 years ago that the whole world marveled at the greatest new ocean-going vessel ever built. It was a symbol of mastering the new industrial age and was even described as unsinkable because of its 16 watertight compartments. Everyone agreed that it was a well-engineered masterpiece.

But those involved in building and marketing the ship had concentrated on their own greatness and that of the machine they built instead of also looking at the outside factors which could wreck their plans for success. At about 11:45 p.m. on April 14, 1912 (on its maiden voyage), the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg that sliced through six watertight compartments and sent the ship to the bottom of the ocean in just over two hours. The sinking of the ship was a terrible tragedy with a huge loss of life.

Symptoms of the Titanic Syndrome

There are woodworking companies in this country and around the world that have a quiet arrogance about them that says, "We are not concerned with the trends of shorter lead times; our customers have been used to six to eight weeks lead times for the past 20 years. No, we do not need to be concerned about lean manufacturing. We have been in business for over 40 years and know what we are doing. Besides, we don't have time for such 'programs' that are here one day and gone the next." Companies with these or similar attitudes are suffering from the Titanic Syndrome (TS) and the numbers reveal it to be an epidemic.

Do You Have the Titanic Syndrome?

If the following applies to you and your company , then it has the Titanic Syndrome.

* You don't think you need to learn from others.

* You and your company generally think you have it all together.

* You are not aggressively implementing new ideas throughout your company.

 I have visited companies and talked with managers around the world that sincerely think they are immune to the global competitive pressures in the industry today that demand constant change to compete in the marketplace. It is as if they are saying, "Don't worry, our company has built enough watertight compartments over the years to keep us afloat in good times and bad. We can weather the storms of business and even survive hitting an iceberg or two."

Large and small companies have gone out of business during the past four years because they had a lethal case of the Titanic Syndrome. TS continues to be a problem in every segment of our industry from large office furniture makers to small custom cabinet shops. Those companies which do not have TS themselves are finding that many suppliers of parts and finished products are infected and threatening the company's survival.

The Titanic Syndrome in U.S. Manufacturers

It is easy to diagnose TS in a company. You can ask yourself just a few questions to see if there is a TS infection. You have to be completely honest with your answers.

* Do you think you need to learn from others?

* Is your company continually looking for better ways to run your business?

* Are you implementing new ideas in every area of your company almost every day?

If you can answer all of these questions with an unqualified "yes" you do not have TS.

On the other hand, those companies who think they are too unique or too far ahead of the pack to learn from others are in danger of sinking their ship. Many have been doing business the same way for years and feel it isn't necessary to change because they have always managed to survive during challenging times.

I am not a proponent of fixing something that is not broken, but it is imperative that we know if it is broken or not. When a company becomes so self-focused that it is not continually looking for new ideas and making comparisons, it has no way to know if it is broken. Many woodworking companies today are bankrupt and don't know it. It is just a matter of time until that critical watertight compartment floods and takes the whole ship to the bottom.

For instance, if a woodworking company is not aggressively pursuing lean manufacturing, and not continually driving its manufacturing lead times downward, it is in danger of not being competitive in the marketplace. Hopefully, your company is moving toward lean and is striving in all areas of the business to produce a quality product, in the shortest time possible, and at the lowest cost.

Many have decided that it is in their best interest (and that of their customers) to outsource or purchase parts or complete wood products from an outside manufacturer or supplier. Unfortunately, this makes even a progressive company vulnerable to TS through its supplier.

The Titanic Syndrome in U.S. Suppliers

If a company begins outsourcing to suppliers who have the Titanic Syndrome, the effects of the disease will spread and permeate their company and eventually have fatal consequences if not addressed quickly. It is important that you ask the questions mentioned above in a way that you get answers which truly indicate the attitude of a potential supplier. Don't wait until you experience problems to find out that your supplier has TS.

Suppliers should be a resource for more than just products. They should be a source of new ideas to give your company a competitive edge. They should be innovative themselves without constant prodding from you. They should be asking you at every opportunity, "How can we help you become more competitive?" If you cannot find a more creative answer than "lower your prices" - the supplier should be able to respond by inviting you to visit their plant or business to show the results of their efforts to become lean.

Suppliers and woodworking manufacturers have to work together to eradicate the Titanic Syndrome.

The Titanic Syndrome in China and Beyond

Unfortunately, there are some suppliers abroad that are proving to be notorious carriers of the TS virus. I have consulted with manufacturing and distribution importers of furniture made in China regarding this alarming fact. The same story is being repeated over and over again.

A U.S. manufacturer or other customer decides to buy furniture from a manufacturer in China. The customer may even visit the overseas company. Many issues are discussed at the factory including product design and engineering, quality, cost, finishing, packaging, delivery, etc. When problems are identified during a visit, the U.S. representative requests that changes be made. "No problem" is the universal reply, "don't worry."

Little does the buyer know that the company actually has the Titanic Syndrome until it is too late -time for delivery. Any company (in any country) who is not willing to continually change has a lethal case of TS.

Many manufacturers in Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere have gotten used to doing things their way for the past 20-plus years. You may tell them how the veneer tops must be processed with cross-bands, but they may decide it is a waste of time. You may agree on a color panel, but it is never used. Worse, the management or owner of the company may agree with you that your ideas are good, but will not interfere with the workers when they continue to do it their way.

Those companies who say they embrace your ideas and technology but are unwilling to make sure they are implemented are destined to harm your company if you conduct business as usual with them. Some importers have found TS so serious, that they have had to send employees or hire firms to stay on site 100% of the time to try to force change. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in many cases and the reason is that the Titanic Syndrome has infected the company from top management down to the machine operators.

TS is an extremely serious issue that has put many companies in financial difficulty and others out of business. You can call it a virus, a sickness, or a bad attitude, but be very sure that neither you nor your company has it. Then, also be certain that none of your vendors - neither here in the United States nor abroad - have the Titanic Syndrome.

Every one of us in this industry needs to continually search for new and innovative ways to prosper through constant change and renewal.

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