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Lean: Next Steps

Can Factory Jobs in America Be Saved?

By Dr. Sherrie L. Ford

What is happening to manufacturing in America? Always in a state of growing, shifting, and adapting, American manufacturing, as history came to demand, has always responded to such influences as immigration tides, wars at home and abroad, inventions, and the rise of a consumer society and its associated means of mobility. We have become entitled to having growth in the manufacturing sector, job security from one generation to the next, often with employees working in the very same factory doing the very same jobs generation after generation. Unrivaled except perhaps from state to state or region to region, American manufacturing for most of the 20th century enjoyed global dominance for practically everything it made, with work-cultures "enjoying" the luxury of such things as time to form unions and specialize in bureaucratizing professional ranks. 

In the later part of the 20th century, as is well described in any part of the country on any socio-economic level every time the subject of Japanese automobiles comes up, global competition alters American manufacturing. To stay ahead, we began to pay attention to how the Japanese did what they did in four, short decades, and discovered something called, eventually, Lean Manufacturing. Not yet sensing where it all might head, progressive companies mandated that their factories and their supply chain factories drive out waste associated with bureaucracy and overly engineered processes. The Toyota Production system became widely imitated, and indeed this imitation continues to flourish. But factories did not close in daily headlines. Or, if a factory closed, it was to create smaller business units more flexibly managed, perhaps in a new part of the country where taxes were lower. Job security, yes, was still there.

Decline in Manufacturing
We have begun now, though, a serious and I think in many cases unnecessary form of decline in manufacturing. American factories are indeed growing and shifting and adapting, not in this era to escape unions, not just in building smaller factories, having learned that massive plants and massive hierarchies were wasteful. Rather, products are being sent offshore without sufficient examination of the total cost of doing so, and certainly without calculating the human cost, the community cost. Factories are being abandoned for a benefit that is increasingly harder to trace.

What is happening to manufacturing in America? Any person on the street: in my town of Athens, Georgia, alone, in the last 10 years would point to the closing of General Time, the last American clock-maker, and Veratec, non-woven materials and key player in the historic product breakthrough of the century, the disposable diaper. Also: Johnson & Johnson Consumer Products / baby powder, Coats and Clarke threads, Levelor Blinds, Thrall Car rail cars, Chipman Union athletic socks, Alexis Playsafe baby clothes, Oliver Rubber tire re-treads, and dozens more. Around here, we know that the industrial parks have become ghost towns and, ironically, the large tracts of land being held back for the really big new factory of the future go unsold.

Okay, I suppose we can collect those factories in the textile industry and follow through on the classic principle that low-paying jobs such as those in garment-making (Coats and Clarke, Chipman Union, Alexis Playsafe) make more "natural" sense running elsewhere, that the lowest rung on the economic ladder should not be for long a space taken by an American worker. Let these jobs go to China. And we can see well enough that selling cars in Europe makes more sense if you make the cars in Europe. There are lots of reasons for American entrepreneurs and moguls alike to do business overseas rather than wax rhapsodic about dwindling jobs in America.

Is It Really Cheaper to Walk Away?
But as you look at Athens, Georgia’s industrial ghost town, and imagine the miles of heavy industry aisles behind the deserted gates, you have to think "Is it really cheaper to walk away from this solid concrete floor thick enough to support 60,000 ton injection molding machines? Walk away from the operators and mechanics who know how to run them? Walk away from the community’s security in its belief that, once erected, these mighty fortresses of electrical hum could never just be brushed aside?"

We just need to take a deep work-culture breath and realize what a compass error we make when we shut down factories in search of cheaper labor or when we continue braving the global winds of competition by forcing them to imitate another company’s, and another work-culture’s, solutions. Since the early 1990s, when trying hard to figure out how to assist local industry in bringing to life their mandates to "go Lean," I saw right away that training classes weren’t getting the job done.  Enlightened management wasn’t working, nor joining the right, progressive associations. Nor imitating what we though were Japanese methods. The more I walked shop floors, the more I understood, like that prevailing electrical hum in every factory, and like that prevailing eau de mineral oil, something more complex (yet simple) governed success or failure, and maybe keeping the place open even if its product were shipped across a border. And when I finally cracked the code, I felt the rush of jobs returning, jobs staying, jobs proliferating, jobs greening, jobs asking, "What’s next?" whenever the "old" ones need to morph.

Yes, factory jobs in American can be saved, if work-cultures and their communities can muster the will to save them, at least some of them.

Coping with Instability

We live in an era of extreme instability regarding the fate of factories across America.  People who work in factory jobs, whether carpet dwellers or concrete dwellers, cannot go home daily assured that they won’t be laid off in the next year, either because of plant closing, plant merging, plant downsizing.

We can point to global competition as forcing our hands, putting our backs against the wall, mandating that unless we master Lean Manufacturing RIGHT NOW, we will have to abandon factories and their workforces, and sell off their machines, swap their markets and customers for greener pastures in China. So of course when "Lean doesn’t work," we abandon. We can’t help it, we see no other way, or so we say, so we believe.

The owners of Power Partners, Inc., of which I am one, want to put a speed bump on that freeway. We do not have to close factories and put hundreds and thousands of people out of work. It is still possible to re-energize old workcultures, and not by forcing on them the salvation of Lean Manufacturing, "or else," though Lean methods are important. The legacies deep in every work-culture contain both the seeds of deadlock (what most are convinced it only is – "My factory resists change, I’m telling you! It’s hopeless!") and of re-invention. The dynamic of Toyoto’s rise to world domination of automotive markets by work-culture engagement in solving its own barriers is an avatar, but is not the blueprint we try to make it.

Our factory will not accept the fate of death and closure, and in a future installment, I would love to share an account of the work-culture change process on which we hang success. Lean manufacturing plays a role, but not center stage. It is an employee-focused process that has been introduced in many other factory settings under the auspices of Change Partners, LLC, of which I am also a co-owner and founder, and where helpful, some of those experiences and results are included here.

The Factory That Will Not Die
A preview of the tale: the factory that will not die. It has the work-culture of a proud American legacy corporation, the Westinghouse plant in Athens, GA, USA, which fell into the hands of a European (read remote, cold, uncaring) corporate owner ABB, and nearly flamed out over the shock. This 500 employee pole-type transformer factory, once a place where 1600 souls drew a paycheck, now being in the hands of two locals –myself and my partner Steve Hollis — has brought further shock, but the difference is that we still are making payroll, whereas with Westinghouse (read: bloated, out of touch with the reality of global competition, sweeping costs under the rug and planning golf links on the land out back) and ABB (read: paid way too much for this "strategic" name brand factory), the solution was only to bail.

"The TPS Gambit." — this is what I call the phenomenon of manufacturing strategists doing their level best to prescriptively promote the Toyota Production System in a haplessly American world full of so many legacies that to impose the serenity and lucidity of takt time and other baselines for true value vs waste is just that, a gambit, "an opening maneuver, action, or remark intended to gain an advantage . . . "unthinking in the least that the TPS arose out of cultural legacies far different from ours. The resulting magical thinking goes something like this: look what TPS has done for Toyota; TPS can do the same for us." And yet it was the effective engagement at post-war Toyota of a struggling work-culture that led to its solving the means of its own survival. It was not an opening maneuver, it was a decades long, inquiry-intensive, employee-centered process continuing to this day and regarded as unfinished, let alone prescriptive in nature (though "codified" one might say, as Toyota engrains its methods in America and around the world).

Another way of putting it: factory work-cultures now for nearly 10 years (more if you are or were part of organizations and societies that went to Japan and are still translating the meaning of JIT) have been taken on a metaphorical, gigantic trip to Disney World, and given tickets to ride the Speed to Market roller coaster; they come back somehow only with photos of themselves with Goofy. A 1990s goldrush to embrace Lean Manufacturing by forcing "non-native" solutions on generally self-satisfied American work-cultures, whose only real beef is "them," as in "us vs them."

"Them" of course is either the lone Lean implementors trying to push TPS through the plant, or shop floor workers who feel they are being unduly leaned upon to pull off unnatural manufacturing acts. (Both = Goofy).

Well of course Power Partners, Inc., – actually it was still ABB at the time – "went to Disney."  Beginning in May, 2003, as owners, Steve and I confiscated the "photos with Goofy," and now, four years later, feel we have scraped off the quick-fix, Lean mentality and have evolved an altogether different meaning of how Speed + Value = Survival happens.

Sherrie Ford is Principal of Change Parnters, LLC. She can be reached at (706) 546-4045. Copyright held exclusively by the author.

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