5 Questions with a Professor: Willy Shih and American Manufacturing

Roanna Wang, Contributor


While many of us may know Willy Shih as a beloved professor of Technology and Operations Management in the Required Curriculum, fewer may know about his research on industrial competitiveness or the work he’s done advising the White House around American manufacturing. With 28 years of experience in industry at companies such as Kodak and IBM before coming to HBS, Professor Shih is well equipped to advise students navigating the working world and thinking about ways to affect change through the private sector.

  1. What inspired you to launch your career in manufacturing?

I actually started out on the product side at IBM, and as I moved more into general management roles, I took over responsibility for more and more manufacturing operations.  So you might say I backed into it.  But as I picked up more of these responsibilities, I soon recognized the leverage of having a good manufacturing operation, so I made it my business to understand them and learn how to operate them well.

  1. You worked with the Obama administration on revitalizing American manufacturing. What change did you hope to make and what progress was made?
Prof. Willy Shih

Professor Gary Pisano and I wrote a paper on “Restoring American Competitiveness,” and that paper had a great deal of influence on people in the Obama administration. I understand even President Obama read it.  It opened a regular dialog for me with the National Economic Council.  That paper and our subsequent book had a significant influence on the establishment of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation that the administration rolled out in 2012.  More recently, I have been a strong advocate for a close review of the future of the semiconductor industry in the United States and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology just released a very thoughtful recommendation on the topic.

  1. Given the new president’s key focus of revitalizing American manufacturing, how do you think things will change and what advice have you given the new administration?

I think the new administration is busy formulating its policies. They have made
manufacturing jobs a priority, but the challenge of growing these jobs is much more complex than simply establishing tariffs or jawboning firms into relocating facilities back to the U.S.  My priorities are to try to educate people in the incoming administration on the complexity of modern supply chains, the impact of factors like complementary supply networks and taxation on location choices, and to push for thoughtful proposals that recognize the realities on the ground.

  1. What concerns do you have for MBAs re-entering the workforce at the dawn of the Trump Presidency?

I don’t have concerns that are unique to the incoming administration; that’s not how I look at the world.  There are plenty of market, competitive, national, and global issues to understand and deal with every day, and the important thing to do is get a broad understanding of the different views.  I think it is important for our MBAs to always be honest about realities, and consider them as the “boundary conditions” that one has to work with at any given moment.  One can wish for an alternative reality, but don’t confuse that with what the actual circumstances are.  And we know things are constantly changing, so if you don’t like the facts on the ground, you might not have to wait that long.  But at least understand the facts and remove coloration from any biases.

  1. Many HBS students headed into the corporate world care deeply about political and social issues. What advice can you give them for advancing those causes through the private sector?

I think the most important way to be heard is to develop credibility so that people will be interested in hearing your views.  Part of this entails developing deep expertise and an understanding of all sides of an issue.  Then over time you can become a go-to person for all parties.  Thus I try not to affiliate with a political party or tell people how I vote in an election, because I
don’t want to be labeled as being on one side or the other.  I want people to know me as an honest and trusted source of expertise.  In early January I led an EC Immersive Field Class in China; it’s remarkable how many government and private sector people have read the book Gary and I wrote (the Chinese translation).  The chairman of one Chinese corporation I met listed about a half dozen cities where he had discussed the book with the local leadership.  That of course created more opportunities for me to learn even more.  If you develop credibility and expertise, it will put you in a position to advance your ideas and passions.

Roanna Wang (MBA ’18) spent time prior to HBS first as a consultant in NYC, before joining an IoT startup in Boston. She enjoys playing squash, trying out new restaurants, and hosting dinner parties. She is the VP of Social for the General Management and Operations Club.