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Editor’s note: What’s the most adaptive part of a machine? The person operating it.

We don’t talk a lot about manufacturing in the Washington area; ours is an economy that is supposed to be powered by knowledge.

But I learned a thing or two last week when Washington Post Live sponsored a conference on “America’s New Manufacturing” here at the newspaper’s downtown headquarters.

For all our obsession about the ways technology is driving innovation, it is still true that people matter.

“There’s nothing more flexible than a human being,” said Bill Krueger, senior vice president for manufacturing, purchasing and supply chain management at Nissan North America.

His point was that people can adapt in a way machines can’t when circumstances change. I see that over and over, not just in the manufacturing realm, but in countless other industries as well. Take the Internet space. One day the world is falling all over itself to associate itself with one technology, then it is racing toward another, leaving those tied to a particular platform stranded.

Being nimble is a people thing, and the successful workers are those who are not afraid to be lifelong learners, and try something new.

The discussion reminded me of another conversation I had the week before last with a dozen or so entrepreneurs in Penn Quarter. One of their biggest challenges is finding the “right” person for the job, someone willing to lean in, to use a popular phrase, to the task at hand. The search can be so difficult that one executive said he just keeps key positions perpetually open so he can grab a promising candidate whether there is a free position or not.

Likewise, in our cover story this week, we meet several entrepreneurs who have been able to get their food-based businesses off the ground by adapting to the situation at hand and showing a little ingenuity. We chose to feature this group to demonstrate that new business models are not just the purview of tech mavens.

What qualities do manufacturers value above all others? “Be a learner. Show initiative,” Krueger said.

I can think of a lot of employers in many other sectors who would say the same thing.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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