Can IT Learn Any Lessons from Manufacturing?

Information technology in the United States might be in danger of falling into the same productivity stagnation that the U.S. manufacturing sector faced in the 1970s and 1980s, according to Joe Hessmiller, director of the IT Metrics and Productivity Institute (ITMPI). In a presentation at an ITMPI conference in Chicago last week, Hessmiller said the challenges IT is dealing with today are not unlike those factory floor workers and managers encountered just a few decades ago.


The manufacturing industry in this country led the world by a large margin following World War II, due in part to the wholesale obliteration of several combatant nations’ infrastructures—many of which had been leading producers only a few years before—as well as the United States’ own high wartime production levels. However, the U.S. advantage in heavy industry was challenged in the 1970s by leaner, more efficient industrial models in Japan and Europe. Although U.S. firms had to play catch-up for a few years, the eventual result was an explosion of productivity in all countries.


Similarly, American IT professionals have been turning in relatively static performance in terms of output per full-time worker for several years now. Meanwhile, while they likewise face challenges from their European and Japanese counterparts, productivity competition is heating up in places like India and China (although, to be fair, output measurements in less developed nations probably started from a very low baseline).


One of the problems with the IT industry right now is the way performance is…


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