Just as Kevin Costner magically transformed a corn field into a baseball field stocked with dead Hall of Famers in Field of Dreams, some very lean manufacturers seem to be sprouting up among the rows of corn in Iowa, Kansas and some of their Midwestern neighbors. As has always been the case, most of the noise in the manufacturing news comes from either coast, or from the big, old Rust Belt manufacturers. Much of it can be accurately described in Shakespeare’s terms as "tales told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".
Behind it all, however, obscured by the smoke and noise from elsewhere, a number of these corn belt companies are starting to do some very impressive lean things in a very low profile manner. In fact, at the recent Lean Accounting Summit, generally attended by companies that are pretty far out there in their lean thinking, I met a very knowledgeable woman from the Kansas Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program looking to add lean accounting to the repertoire of training programs they offer. All of the MEP’s are first class outfits, but most are still limited to ‘kaizen’ kind of training. For that matter, a very disproportionate number of Iowa and Kansas based firms were at the Summit. A manufacturer in search of just about anything lean – suppliers, training, employees – would be well advised to go looking among the corn and wheat fields for the solution.
Speaking of Iowa, don’t be taken in by the ‘aw shucks’ demeanor of their Senator Charles Grassley. The man is dumb like a fox. He is currently making General Motors’ life miserable with a plan to make companies that falter financially put more money into the government pension insurance fund based on the idea that, if anyone is going to suffer, it will not be the retirees or the taxpayers. GM is whining at even high decibel levels for them, likening Grassley’s plan to ‘putting extra bricks in their backpack while they are struggling down the road to recovery’. GM took a pause from their braying last month to make a couple of announcements: First, they lost $1.6 billion last quarter and they are wrestling with how to fund their pensions; and Second, that loss of $2.89 per share will not stop them from paying their stockholders the $.50 a share dividend they so richly deserve.
I suspect there is a correlation between the two events. Grassley and the other folks in Iowa seem to go about life with a combination of common sense and hard work, which leads to results in either lean manufacturing or growing corn. GM and their cronies on Wall Street, on the other hand, seem to be go about their business loaded with something – but it ain’t backpacks full of bricks.
GM’s load brings to mind restrooms, and the Ford flap of a few days ago. The non-scientific poll in the Detroit News that has been running since the story broke has been running about 3 to 1 in agreement with Ford (and me, as remarkable as that seems). Reading the hundreds of posts from both management and the workers in the Detroit News would be comical if the quality of so many people’s lives were not going down the drain while Detroit is fiddling. It seems as though both sides of any issue in the big old manufacturers is viewed as some sort of grand Karl Marx-like struggle between capital and labor over which side is going to reap the benefits of production. They sound like two bakers beating each other up so badly over which one will get to eat the cake they are trying to make that they never get around to baking the cake.
Speaking of Karl Marx, the venerable old communist would not be at all pleased with the havoc Vladimir Putin is wreaking on his principles. In an interview on Dutch television, Putin asserted that the strong consistent growth of the Russian economy – averaging about 7% a year or so for the last several years – is not the result of oil exports or any other natural resource. It is driven primarily by manufacturing cut loose through free enterprise (relatively free, anyway). While many in this country seem to be losing some focus, the Russians are apparently learning fast where the source of real wealth lies.
And finally, while we are on the topic of communists, the Chinese are very upset about people pirating the logos for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. What a hoot! This comes from the country that does an estimated $3 billion a year in damage to American companies by pirating everything from DVD’s to car parts. I say every American manufacturer should unilaterally declare itself to be an Official Sponsor of the Beijing Olympics and slap that logo on the side of everything made in this country until 2008. We ought to make sure that, from one end of the planet to the next, no product is purchased that does not have that logo boldly displayed right next to the ‘Made In America’ stamp.