With the giant US economy finally beginning to snap back from its long winter of recession, American industry has a unique opportunity to assert once again the spark and creativity that for so many years gave special honor to the phrase ''Made in America.'' Will the United States business and professional community seize the moment - by devising new and better ways of making and selling products and providing essential services? Will a rebirth of entrepreneurial skills lead to even higher productivity? Or will the US business community fail to take advantage of the moment - even as other nations continue to progress in manufacturing efficiency and new enterprises?
If the US is to retain its world business and technological hegemony, it must take steps to upgrade its rusty managerial skills. The US has already seen its once dominant primary manufacturing industries - autos, steel, consumer electronics, shipbuilding - take a back seat to their counterparts abroad, particularly in Japan. And the US is now facing intense competition to keep other industries - chemicals, machine tools, hand tools, computers, information processing, aircraft production - out front. Indeed one recent study by the American Productivity Center warns that, barring significant im-provements in efficiency in the US, Japan may overtake the US in overall manufacturing productivity by the end of this decade.
The challenge is clear: American industry must find new and better ways of doing business. But how does it attain that goal?
Talk to managers and one factor stands out. Japanese firms, unlike those in the US, do a much better job of dealing with their employees and customers. That is not to say that all Japanese firms have exemplary records on ''people issues, '' nor that all American firms are indifferent to workers and customers. Many US firms are ''people oriented.'' Examples would likely include Delta Airlines, IBM , 3M, McDonald's, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett-Packard, Frito-Lay, and Procter & Gamble.
Despite such examples, differences between US and Japanese firms remain striking. Consider this comment from a Sony executive, quoted in Fortune. Discussing how his firm deals with its US workers, he says: ''We aim to make them feel psychologically secure that they won't be sacked under our management. . . . in a Japanese company when there is overproduction we will try to squeeze profits before laying people off . . . there must be a continuous dialogue between management, the foremen, and workers.''
And to cite a top corporate executive in Japan itself: ''People are our most valuable resource and should be treated with consideration.'' How many US firms can truly say that they deal with people - customers and employees - in such a fashion?
Other elements also need to be honestly addressed:
* Layers-upon-layers of staff. Many US firms are management top-heavy, compared to their leaner counterparts abroad. In fact, for whatever reason, the number of persons in American management circles continues to grow, despite the recent economic downturn. By December 1982 there were close to 9 per-cent more managers in the US than in January 1980.
* Short-term vs. long-term planning. Far too many American firms, because they are preoccupied with their investment standing on Wall Street at any point in time, tend to gear corporate policies to what is successful for the moment - not over the long haul. Japanese firms tend to think in long-range terms.
* Compensation. How can some US corporate leaders justify huge salary and benefit levels - often running $500,000, $600,000, and more - at a time when salaries for most employees have shown little real increase (or in some cases even reductions)? Such obvious disparities cannot help but have an adverse effect on employees.
* Performance. Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman Jr., in their book ''In Search of Excellence,'' note that many US firms spend far too much time on what can be called the ''analysis'' side of business. That is, they focus on quantitative studies, shifts in corporate structure, and endless financial analyses - rather than concentrating on the job to be done, whether it is providing a service or manufacturing a product. Better US firms, by contrast, are constantly following through on action of some type, while encouraging innovation and risk-taking on the part of their employees. At 3M, for example, management allows workers to take some time each day to work on their own experiments - which can in turn lead to new products or production techniques.
Throughout its history, the US business and industrial community has proven itself responsive to change and innovation. Industry's remarkable ability back in the early 1940s to shift quickly from civilian to war work - and back again - is proof of that. There is no reason why US industry cannot again assert the flexibility and inventiveness that once made it admired by people everywhere. But this will require honest self-examination, a change of thinking - and reforms in line with the new ideas.