Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Using what you know

I met with a firm today to discuss a partnership between our firms. The firm I met with works a lot in new product design and industrial design. We started talking about how innovation is working even in places that might seem less than innovative - for example, propane distribution or furniture.

Since we both live and work in North Carolina, we cannot help but notice the impact of furniture manufacturing jobs fleeing to China, Vietnam and other low wage countries. We talked quite a bit about what the people in Hickory, High Point, Lexington and other long time furniture towns are losing, in terms of jobs and in some cases, hope.

But what strikes me is that while the folks in these towns and others like them in Virginia, and Michigan, and other long time furniture manufacturing towns is that they have so much knowledge about furniture - its design, its manufacturability, the quality and style of furniture, that these locations should reposition themselves as the front end design and innovation centers for furniture. True, this repositioning will not replace all the manufacturing jobs that are lost, and some people will need to be retrained, but there's got to be an enormous amount of institutional knowledge about furniture in these cities that is begging to be tapped.

It seems to me that these locations can strike out as innovation centers for the furniture industry, dreaming up new materials, new fabrics, new uses for furniture. They can work with leading designers to design new furniture and keep one step ahead of their foreign competitors. After all, furniture manufacturers in the US have been at the manufacturing a lot longer, have strong ties to distributors and retailers, and are much closer to the end customer than their competitors. The institutional knowledge needs to be tapped. There's even a significant amount of knowledge in these locales about furniture supply chains and distribution challenges.

Who's gathering the information on furniture trends? What is just over the horizon in terms of new demands and new furniture requirements? I doubt our foreign competitors have nearly as much information or access to data and good decision making as the folks in High Point or Grand Rapids. Sure there's a huge transition to make, but the loss of the manufacturing jobs is not going to slow very much. We've got to capture and use the knowledge we have to differentiate and add more value in the market.

Let's take advantage of the knowledge, the history and the insights we have in this industry and create a whole new capability to continue to lead the markets. And once we've done it for furniture, we can do it for any other product that is becoming "commoditized".
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 9:27 AM

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