Thirty pages into a painful book on organizational behavior by an academic named Howard Schwartz, I came to a chapter in which he expounds on the anti-social behavior of large organizations – and the examples he cites to make his case are from the movie Silkwood. I hope Mr. Schwartz gets a chance to read this because I want him to know that, at last word, Meryl Streep is fine. She did not really die from radiation exposure propagated by evil business people. In fact, she is probably lounging in some spa as you are reading this. For that matter, it may come as a surprise to Mr. Schwartz to know that neither John Travolta nor Gene Hackman are really attorneys, and neither of them actually saved the world from evil manufacturers. In fact, I cannot think of a single movie ever made that comes close to reflecting manufacturing as it is.
Mr. Schwartz is hardly the only one who takes popular culture as a legitimate source for intellectual argument. Consider this from a prominent George Mason University economics wizard: "Service-sector jobs are the most desirable" and "Ever hear a parent say ‘I want my boy to grow up to be a pipe-fitter!’" Th term ‘manufacturing job’ is synonymous with ‘dirty’, ‘dangerous’, ‘oppressive’ and the term ‘manufacturing manager’ is on par with a pre-Civil War plantation overseer in the common culture.
Until manufacturing is viewed with the respect afforded just about any other line of work, it is hard to imagine that lean manufacturing will be taken seriously. Of course, the opposite of the Western disdain for manufacturing is the Toyota view. Fujio Cho, in the unlikely event he would ever care about them, is apt to need someone to explain stock derivatives to him when he takes over as Toyota’s chairman next month, but he won’t need anyone to explain manufacturing. Respect for the importance of manufacturing and the value placed on people who have done it well at Toyota goes a long way toward explaining their success compared to its competitors.
The practical fallout from the cultural disregard for manufacturing is all around us. The University of Arizona has a very aggressive program for turning its leading edge research in optics technology into entrepreneurial endeavors, bringing in wheelbarrows full of venture capital and spawning over 1,000 small manufacturers over the last few decades. At the same time, there is virtually no manufacturing management taught at the U of A. For that matter, there is no MEP in the Tucson region. Very few of the 1,000+ manufacturing start-ups have survived.
From the academic scientists who conjure up this Star Wars stuff, to the University administration to the venture capitalists, the prevailing attitude seems to be that if you dream up a great product, manufacturing will somehow take care of itself. Any collection of unemployed bums can be gathered off the street corners to make the whiz bang innovations. The U of A model is just a small scale example of national policy in the U.S. and the thinking that is sweeping through Europe. Innovation is the new rallying cry! Dream up more and better inventions – the higher tech the better! What we need are more engineers and scientists to do more of the sort of work the U of A has been churning out.
Who is going to make all of these innovative products? I suppose the plan is to round up all of the out of work extras from Silkwood, Class Action, A Civil Action and the rest of the Hollywood play list and have them run it. What else are we to think when the ‘Manufacturing Czar’ is a former marketing manager from a small carpet making company?
As I have often pointed out, lean manufacturing is almost non-existent in the colleges and universities – at least in the mainstream programs. An accounting professor at Georgia Tech recently explained that Lean Accounting is not part of the curriculum because the school has to respond to job requirements for its graduates, and there is no great call for lean manufacturing skills. I think he may be misreading the market, as evidenced by the fact that the MEP run in conjunction with Georgia Tech is one of the best and the busiest in the nation. Manufacturers in Georgia can’t seem to learn about lean fast enough.
That scenario plays out everywhere. MIT and Michigan run great lean education programs – but not for mainstream students. Manufacturing is all but ignored in the standard business curriculum. Wharton publishes operations management advice – almost exclusively devoted to outsourcing management. The universities establish these adjunct programs in responce to enormous pressure from the manufacturing community , while the tenured faculty rolls on viewing manufacturing as work for lesser intellects.
In many companies, lean manufacturing does not take hold because manufacturing is viewed with a combination of ignorance and disdain. The notion that manufacturing can be the greatest source of profits, rather than finance and brand management, is inconceivable to people who think that having your kids work in a factory for a living is a sign of bad parenting.
In Japan, China and throughout Asia, manufacturing management is viewed as a respected, honorable profession. The people who have positions of authority and influence in factories are admired. In the West, manufacturing people are described as "the slugs making turbines and lightbulbs".
If we do not work to restore manufacturing as an honorable profession, soon enough all of the ‘slugs making turbines and lightbulbs’ – and cars and furniture and just about everything else – will be Asian where the ‘slugs’ get the respect they deserve.