Sometimes it’s worth spending a few minutes putting the challenges of U.S. manufacturing into their historical context.
Last week, I posted the highlights of a long discussion about lean manufacturing that I had with Elaine Thorndike, CEO of the Colorado Association for Manufacturing and Technology. One of her main points was the importance of involving everybody in the effort to improve, with emphasis on the people who actually do the work on the factory floor. The question that came up in my mind was, Why is this so difficult? Why do we have to have consultants, seminars, special initiatives and so on, all to do what might seem obvious: ask the people who are doing the work how it could be done better.
One of the answers lies in the history of U.S. manufacturing, which casts a long shadow even today.
Henry Ford created the first assembly line in America in 1913. In 1910, the U.S. census recorded 13.5 million “foreign born” residents in the U.S., about 15 percent of the total population. The concentration of immigrants was even higher in the major metropolitan areas where the factories were. For example, foreign born individuals in New York State in 1910 comprised 20 percent of the total population. So, at the time when modern factories were being invented, a large percentage the available workforce didn’t even speak English. Furthermore, there existed a deep reservoir of mistrust in native-born Americans towards members of the immigrant workforce, who were perceived as crafty individuals who would expend the minimum effort possible while at work.
There was some reality to this perception. Many workers were paid by the piece, and, to quote the Encyclopedia of Business and Finance on workforce behavior, “when a worker discovered how to produce more, management cut the rate.” In response, the workers stopped trying to do better.
This point was prominent in the thinking of Frederick Taylor, founder of the school of scientific management that, in one form or another, dominated the thinking of industrial engineers through the 1960’s.
Miscommunication, bigotry and greed (on both sides) are not a formula for cooperation. And as everyone who has read a history book knows, that’s not what we got. I’ll go on record here and say that the net effect of the union movement was good for the U.S. economy, but both management and labor have been guilty of huge abuses for decades – the point being, if anyone on either side wants to find fault, it isn’t hard to do.
So now we return to lean management, which, according to one consultant I spoke with, is a “dirty word” for many union members. It shouldn’t be. Given the realities of the global economy, we all have to pull together to succeed. But we should not believe that building trust is going to be easy.CORRECTION: In a recent post on made-in-America products I cited American Lawn Mower as an example. I received an e-mail over the weekend from a manufacturers’ rep informing me that the company now manufactures in China. Say it ain’t so, ALM