The Manufacturing Advancement Center

About MAC
The MAC Action Newsline
Manufacturing our Summit
Upcoming Programs
Resource Library
Contact Us

Send a Letter
to the Editor

Lean: Next Steps

Can Factory Jobs in America Be Saved? Part 2

By Dr. Sherrie L. Ford

Beginning in May, 2003, as owners of the formerly Westinghouse, then ABB, Inc., transformer factory in Athens, Georgia, Steve Hollis and I, with a little help from Hurricanes Isabel, Katrina, Rita, and a few others, as well as the upward spiraling costs of oil, steel, copper, and aluminum, scraped off the failed and now foiled attempts to get Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma embedded into the work-culture as profit solutions to nearly 50 years of losing money. That May, we began a journey with the plant now named Power Partners. Inc., that in six months (a mere six months!) led to being in the black (18 months "ahead of schedule"), but then swiftly into a gushing of red that did not subside until the later months of 2006.  I still describe that era as the time that we achieved "accidental Lean." Definitely no warehouse full of buffers, no aisles full of WIP as had always been there – for decades.

Scraped off — meaning, that, though well-intended managers in the past had tried desperately to do so, you cannot foist onto a suffering business the prescriptive elements of the Toyota Production System, though, Lord help me, that is exactly what we thought we might have to do by early 2004. The "organic" approach to survival wasn’t happening fast enough, given the increasingly long list of materials shortages and their spiking costs you will all remember, those of you who have yet to catch up in pricing what was lost in that terrible first, dark quarter: "Get in line if you want aluminum, copper, steel, mineral oil. By the way, you will get only about 80% of what you order."  At the height of subsequent storm seasons we literally had to furlough employees – so no, the biggest hurricanes of the centuries did NOT help in turning around this transformer factory – if anything, they made matters worse. It made us for a short period of time abandon what we knew to be fundamental to work-culture turn-around, then grasp desperately for the Lean prescriptions, but only for a short time, since you can’t really convince veteran employees that the shortages were a blessing in disguise, forcing us to manage JIT.  Our employees instead hunkered down and watched to see what would happen next.

Organic Lean
By "organic," I am referring to the original Toyota process led by Ohno and what I have read was his endlessly patient watching, standing in a circle on the shop floor for hours, getting his engineers to observe operators at work and then only to ask "Why?" as often as needed so as to get to the sources of waste, confusion, bad quality. Gradually all of those answers to "Why?" became systematic, something you could repeat, replicate and improve yet again.

That was an organic approach.  Here is another: as with Ohno, help an entire work-culture awaken to its unique identity. I haven’t encountered a work-culture yet that isn’t profoundly interested in itself: how do we compare to others?  And, who else does what we do?  Do we do it best?  In America, probably differently from in Japan post-war or even nowadays, there is a different kind of factory ego, regardless of union or not, new factory or old, pharmaceutical or metal banging.  Employees have a sense of loyalty, but not in the same hierarchy of values as in other countries– here, factory work-cultures work first for self (if single), then family, then community / church, then the company.  But the attachment to company is most often completely hidden from consciousness, collective and otherwise.  Only by stirring at this deepest, least recognized element in a work-culture can you even ponder the answer to saving manufacturing jobs in America.*  Only by stirring into awareness that there is more to the factory’s identity than whether we got a raise this year, or who raised the most for United Way, or whose baseball team won the most games does a strong sense of needing to get in shape so as to compete kicks in.

How do you stir the sleeping giant of deep loyalty in a work-culture to the company where one works so as to steer it into the common purpose of profitability, from which all job security stems?  From asking simple questions of all of them: what changes have you been through in the last, say, 10 years? (Post WalMart take-over of everyone’s business model of cost plus). Yes? Well, then, based on that answer, what changes do you foresee in the coming, say, three years (a long time for an American employee, let alone manager, to ponder). And as you answer that question, please do so in terms of changes expected in customer demands, competitors, suppliers, technology, products and processes, the cost of doing business, and, finally, your own organization.

No need to go in to detail here about how you ask these simple questions of ALL of the employees, including the uncertain temp worker shivering in the corner, but just listen to what the answers all give — the past has been horrific in terms of change: change in owner, change in management philosophy, change in benefits, and "don’t get me started on change in union / management relations."

What Happened to Work Culture?
Suffice it to say that the next question is "Tell me, do you have the work- culture in place today to deal with all of the changes you foresee in the next three years?"  The answer is always "Hell no" and "I feel like updating my resume tonight."  No one believes that today they are part of a work-culture that will survive pending quarters.  Next question: "How would you define ‘work-culture’?" (if they get stuck, ask what work-culture they most would like to be a part of. Answers 95% of the time are either Microsoft or work-for-myself – no matter what the industry I am working with and including those working at ABB when these questions were posed to them). Go ponder that. People want to work for a company that virtually has no competition, i.e., want to work on a winning team, OR, they want to work for themselves – the Ownership Factor that management always is telling me is missing in their work-cultures!! This deep dive produces long silences followed by intense discourse, almost a speaking in tongues, so many deficits today  in the incumbent work-culture come tumbling out, with such obviously easy answers, now that we are all here in the same room. Talk to me. Listen to me. (Stand in the circle of your work-culture).

Breakthrough Thinking
Next question: "Alrighty then, what would you change in order to be on top three years from now?" Hundreds of 3 x 5 cards are written and mapped and labeled and diagrammed for relationship influence (don’t worry about the details here –it’s all breakthrough thinking on a massive scale) and you learn the most amazing thing:  you don’t start with throughput or six sigma or machine uptime. You start with how your site’s work-culture uniquely defines, in this order, Leadership (Georgia Pacific employees used their legacy phrase "white hats"), Communication (Weyerhaueser employees used their legacy phrase "Let’s start with Good Morning"), and Training (Reliance Electric used their legacy phrase "I can’t give what I ain’t got"). Keep in mind that this inquiry process does not segregate management from hourly – engineers sit next to accountants sit next to machine operators sit next to quality techs.

Value Stream Mapping the Culture
My friend Glenn Marshall at Northrop Grumman calls this systematic inquiry of the entire workforce "Value Stream Mapping the culture." The culture knows what to do to stay alive and kicking, but like all best kept secrets, the Us’s and the Them’s continue their stand-off postures unaware that they both agree on what to do to re-direct their destinies.

At first I was just out to help particular factories cope with ISO mandates or to implement teams or implement Lean manufacturing. Then, before giving them a prescriptive list, I asked just the top management teams questions such as "well, what do you expect to happen in the next couple of years, so that we know what to train on?" (I had not learned yet that to segregate levels was only to defer the breakthrough). Because the answer to that one question got amazing results, I knew I was onto something big: time to dismantle the bureaucracies that had outlived their potency.

Amazing results mainly because, as they – HR, Purchasing, Quality, Maintenance, Customer Service —  listened to one another give answers, they were learning for the first time about changes they had no mutual notion of. Can you imagine a unified workforce pulling toward a competitive place in the market when their own to management is mutually unrevealing about their own plans?

Top management for too long has relegated "work-culture" and "training" as  secondary add-ons: If we buy this equipment, we will have to train the mechanics and operators on how to use it. Yet clearly Training, in the relations diagramming, plainly told us that unless Leadership and Communication, as defined in our own legacy terms, change in the ways we point out, Training withers and fails. Including Lean and Six Sigma training.

This space is too brief to explore the profound nature of value stream mapping the work-culture – think of all the tomes on your shelves on Lean Manufacturing alone and the profound ways your thinking about operations changed when you came to know them. There are answers here for saving factories in America, and good questions, if you want to do something besides stand by and watch travesties that you know in your gut don’t need to occur, yet nowhere has anyone yet quite understood how to get to Step One: be brave and then go to the work-culture itself. It is the oracle.

* The preamble to our contract with the IBEW includes a line that says "The purpose of a work-culture is to not be put out of work. Ever.

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


Home | About MAC | The MAC Action Newsline | Manufacturing Our Future Summit
Upcoming Programs | Toolbox | Resource Library | Partners | Contact Us

© Copyright , Manufacturing Advancement Center
100 Grove Street, Worcester, MA 01605, USA, Privacy Policy
Developed by Telesian Technology