Western labor costs are better than ten times higher than corresponding labor rates in China. Overcoming that gap with vastly superior productivity is possible without too much difficulty, but when it is compounded by having to pay additional people to find, check, fix and babysit the task becomes nearly impossible.
Most manufacturers have a direct to indirect labor ratio in the 3:1 or 4:1 range. For every ten people creating value they employ three or four more to get their parts, inspect their work, maintain their machines and supervise them. Perhaps this is the result of misguided beliefs that keeping the direct folks producing at the highest possible volumes is somehow contributing to profits and they don't want to distract them with such support work.
More likely it is driven by thinking the direct people can't be trusted to do such mentally difficult work without fouling it up. How else can we explain the routine practice of 'promoting' the best people to support work and paying them more than the production people in the face of the fact that all such work is waste? Value adding – the only work customers are willing to pay for - is the domain of lesser paid, often entry level, people, while the best people handle unnecessary inventory and perform inspections. Go figure.
People should be paid for knowledge and skills – not seniority or production volumes. The most valuable and therefore most highly paid person in the plant should be the one who can do the greatest number of tasks – both direct and indirect.
People can and should do all of their own parts support work – and if it is perceived to be impractical or impossible it is because the flow of material hasn't been thought out too well, or people haven't been trained.
People can and should check their own work product. Performing scheduled, routine work on machines – changing filters and lubricants and the like – exactly the same work people do on their own cars – is hardly the sole purview of specialists. And if the adults creating value for customers cannot be trusted to show up for work on time and meet their responsibilities the company has far bigger problems than I or anyone else can solve.
In the best companies people are assumed to be there as long as they want a job, and therefore are a fixed cost. In return for the commitment from the employer they are willing to go far above and beyond the call to assure success. If people are a fixed cost the company surely should invest well and wisely in that resource, and that means relentless training, setting expectations high, and assuring that people are thoroughly engaged in every aspect of their work.
It means pay for knowledge and relentlessly eliminating every support specialist job possible.