In order to come up with blog fodder, I have a number of news sources and web sites I cruise every morning to see what’s up in the manufacturing world. Increasingly I see and read things that give me cause for concern about what seems to be a growing rift between senior management and middle management.
There was a day – not long ago, in fact – when the only real conflict in manufacturers was between management and labor. One offshoot of the current rampant strategy to outsource and send manufacturing to places with unpronounceable names is the abandonment of dedicated manufacturing managers. As the senior folks redefine management more as the art and science of spinning off, merging, acquiring and other wise uprooting the lives of their employees in some sort of grand game of industrial Monopoly; instead of the hard work of actually making and selling products, middle managers are more and more finding common cause with production workers than executives.
A company I know well recently launched a lean initiative in one plant, drove, inspired and cajoled plant management to work long hours and commit to lean, then out of the blue, they came out of a board meeting one day and announced that the plant was closing and the work was being outsourced to an Asian company with whom a deal had been in the works for several months. The hourly workers were out of luck, of course, but so was plant management. They felt they had been duped by the execs because, in fact, they had been duped by the execs. The senior managers expressed surprise that 100% of plant management took a scrawny severance package over offers to go to work for the same company in plants more than 1,000 miles away.
The disregard for people is nothing short of amazing. It seemed impossible for the senior folks to understand that these were real people, with lives and families and roots in their communities. They were not about to give that up when they knew that management felt no commitment to them, the products or any of the plants. Who would be crazy enough to uproot their family and move them 1,000 miles to a new community only to have the company decide to outsource that plant at the next board meeting?
Poll after poll of senior managers when asked why lean manufacturing failed to take hold at their company lays the bulk of the blame on "middle management resistance". Of course there are folks in factory management who do not understand lean or are resistant to change. Most, however, are enthusiastically for lean manufacturing. In most companies, the middle managers in the plants are the ones that are pushing for it. Then lean rolls out and senior management effectively tells the plants:
"Get people involved and committed to continuous improvement, but under no circumstances are you to let labor efficiency suffer. If that means laying off the people as improvements take hold, then so be it."
"Reduce inventory and cut cycle times, but under no circumstances are you allowed to under absorb over head and miss budget goals."
"Reduce set up times and attain perfect quality, but you can only do it with machines that are justified by labor savings."
In short, senior management tells the plant that they are still to be measured by the old yardsticks and provided with resources based on old thinking – but get lean results. The plant is expected to go out and pound hundreds of square pegs into hundreds of round holes. Under such ‘leadership’ lean cannot possibly succeed, and when it inevitable fails, plant management is blamed for having a bad attitude. The real problem is senior management who knows so little about manufacturing that they are unable to see the lunacy of such ‘leadership’.
Manufacturing companies that are led by people with little or no knowledge of manufacturing are a very real problem. Hourly people at least get overtime compensation when they are asked to go beyond the 40 hour call. Plant production managers and materials managers, shipping managers and production supervisors, process engineers and quality managers are all expected to work as long and as hard as they have to in order to get the job done. That is increasingly hard to justify. Why on earth would someone in one of those positions at a GM plant, for instance, put in ten minutes more than they absolutely have to?
The answer is that they do it because they are professionals and they do it out of a sense of pride they take from doing their job well. Less and less do they do it because they are proud of the company for which they work. Even less than that do they do it out of respect and a desire to support the leaders of the company for which they work.
The manufacturing lobbyists are in Washington pushing for a big break in the Estate Tax so they can pass their companies on to the next generation. I wonder if the people involved appreciate how little that is supported by the people who will end up working for an unqualified dim-witted son-in-law? The big corporate lobbies are pushing for tariffs on products brought into the U.S. by foreign competitors, but tax breaks on the stuff they bring in from their own plants in Asia. Does anyone think that the typical manufacturing manager supports blatant attacks like that on his or her job?
For many years, the senior managers have pushed Washington and Wall Street for regulations aimed at tilting matters away from the interests of hourly labor and toward their own. Today, the issues that so concern the executives are more and more aimed at tilting matters away from the interests of the middle managers who run their companies for them.
Alfred Sloan once pompously wrote, "What then is General Motors?" He answered his own question that it was not the 220,000 production employees. Instead, it was the 10,000 people in management. His bias toward the value of management and disregard for the people who actually added value and made cars was arrogant enough. Today, however, the senior managers of many of these big companies would reject the notion that Sloan’s 10,000 have much to do with it. The heart, they seem to think, is the dozen or so strategy and finance wizards who sit around the boardroom. And nothing else matters.