Knowing nothing about Mexico or Mexicans, and even less about manufacturing, has not stopped every yahoo with an overblown ego and access to a TV camera or a printing press to bury the US in babbling drivel about illegal immigration lately. Knowing a little about both, I figure its time to weigh in on the topic and set the record straight – at least as it relates to American manufacturing becoming leaner and more competitive. In a nutshell, building the US equivalent of the Great Wall of China and manning it with several thousand of America’s finest would be the most ineffective, colossal waste of money ever – and given our national heritage of ineffective colossal wastes of money, that says a lot. More to the point, to the limited extent that it would actually keep a few Mexicans out (those who think it will actually stop the flow have no idea how determined and creative the Mexican folks can be when they set their mind to something), it can only hurt lean manufacturing.
With a wonderful Mexican wife and couple of Mexican step children, I know a few things about the culture south of the Rio Grande. One of my step children recently accepted a football scholarship to Northern State University. He was an ‘illegal immigrant’ for five or six years thanks to the bumbling of the State Department, nearly costing the US the services of a pretty good outside linebacker. His older brother just completed a year in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border with the 173rd Airborne making life miserable for Al Queda. However, don’t assume that my family ties give me a pro-Mexican bias. Most of my in-laws live in Mexico, so I know all about the down side of Mexicans too.
I write this blog from my home in Tucson, about an hour from the border and smack dab in the middle of the relentless flow of fence jumpers and tunnel diggers pouring into the land of opportunity.
Whether they are in favor of building the great wall, or for granting asylum and keeping the border porous, the conventional wisdom on both sides of the immigration issue is that the illegal Mexicans come into this country and illegally take low paying manufacturing jobs – American sweat shops, so to speak – enabling unethical factory owners to compete with low labor cost foreign competition. I imagine some of that goes on, but it is hardly the norm. Thankfully, most factory owners are not that stupid, and those that are tend to go by the wayside pretty quickly. That image only makes sense in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Hollywood, California; or Washington, DC and other places where both Mexicans and factories are pretty scarce. In the part of America in which reality reigns, we know better.
The fact is that, however they got here and whatever the politicians and social advocates think they ought to do about them, Mexican immigrants – legal and otherwise – are increasingly responding to lean manufacturing initiatives and proving themselves to be a powerful force for continuous improvement in quite a few factories. It comes as no surprise to anyone who has been to the maquiladoras that 21 Shingo Prize winners over the last five years have been Mexican plants. I was not in th least surprised to read that AIS, a 2003 Shingo Prize winner from Massachusetts has a mostly Mexican workforce.
It further comes as no surprise to read about companies like Blue Diamond Manufacturing’s lean effort in Washington: "Part of the great emerging success at DeLaval Blue Diamond Manufacturing was the changes that affected the largely Hispanic workforce, as they found themselves empowered and encouraged to make changes to their work areas and processes." According to Ken Johnson, General Manager, the Mexicans have has now "positioned [Blue Diamond] for success in the Asian market." Yep – you read it right. Mexican workers in the state of Washington have positioned the company to succeed in the Asian market.
It only makes sense, then that Wes White, Plant Manager at Patrick Industries in Oregon figured out that an essential element of his lean strategy had to be an aggressive inclusion of his Mexican workforce. "Chemeketa and
Those sorts of stories are becoming quite common. I am not suggesting that any of the employees at AIS, Blue Diamond or Patrick Industries are here illegally. I am not suggesting that any of them aren’t, either.
Form your own opinion on the Mexican immigration issue. I think that if you are reading this, you are, by definition, an intelligent, aggressive, hard working person. The slackers are all off surfing the on line betting and porn sites. I also think that means that if any of you, by the grace of God, had been born on the other side of the fence with all of that intelligence and initiative, you would have hopped that fence and got yourself in on the great American opportunity so fast your neighbors’ heads would spin, whether you could do it legally or not. I know I would.
Let your conscience be your guide, but as you listen to the news, lecture around the office water coolers and get engaged in the political process, know well that very few of the Mexicans in this country are the lazy stereotypes the condescending or bigoted experts will have you believe; and very, very many of them are aggressive contributors to successful lean teams all over the country.