An old boss of mine was fond of saying, "There are few things in life more tragic than to see your beautiful theories murdered by a gang of brutal facts," usually when I approached him with a hare brained idea about turning one of our manufacturing systems inside out. It seems to me that if the national and global thinkers would take their grand economic theories about service economies and knowledge economies and the global marketplace out into the communities where Americans actually live and work, the carnage they would see from having their grandiose theories slaughtered left and right by the brutal facts of American life would be shocking.
They might travel to Iowa and compare their grand thinking of creating a nation of innovative scientists who can continually invent breakthrough products for other countries to manufacture with the proposed "lean manufacturing institute". They should talk to Democrat Phil Wise from the Iowa state legislature who is pushing the idea of creating the state funded training and resource center to help Iowa manufacturers become leaner, or to Republican legislator Dave Heaton who is helping to push the plan, or any of the other politicians from both parties who are making the plan pretty much a done deal.
And the faculty from Wharton, MIT and the other elite schools that seem to focus on global economic theory ought to go along on the tour and find out why Southeastern Community College and Iowa State University are committing to the the State lean manufacturing strategy, rather than training their students in the strategies of "Business Process Outsourcing" and "innovation".
Better yet, the big thinking academics and politicians ought to look into affairs in Coeur d’Alene Idaho where the State legislature is raking the administrators of Northern Idaho College over the coals because they did not get the grant paperwork in on time to get the same $2.5 million Southern Idaho College got for conducting lean training at their workforce training center.
While the big picture theories may make sense in the halls of Washington and elite academia, more and more, the local officials are not buying it. These folks have seen long standing local factories replaced by call centers and it isn’t working. The folks that deal with the realities of economics are increasingly deciding to exempt their towns and states from the ‘service economy’. The colleges and universities that define their missions as support for the community or the region are not committing to the call for more Ph.D’s, instead they are seeking to make every day folks better at manufacturing.
The theory of the service economy just doesn’t cut it when applied to the reality of local economies, and a growing number of politicians and academics who only focus locally are turning to lean manufacturing as the key to security for their constituents. Every now and then, someone needs to stand up to the Emperor and telling him he is not wearing new clothes – he is actually as naked as a jay bird. That is what Rep. Wise, his peers in Iowa, and the Idaho legislators are doing to the think tank philosophers.
Closing down a factory that pays $15 an hour, and replacing it with a call center that pays $7.50 is not good economics. The fact that the slack may be made up by increased salaries for a small number of folks to manage things at some remote headquarters, or made up by greater dividends paid to Wall Street investors, might make the math work out for the big picture thinkers, but it doesn’t help the math in the town where the people do the work. To the great credit of the local people, they are, from one end of the United States to another, seeing that lean manufacturing is the key to making the local math work out.
It is heart warming to a passionate manufacturing guy like me to see the genuine outrage in Idaho over missing out on the lean grant money. (The folks at Northern Idaho apparently just screwed up and I am sure they will get it right on the next go around and lean in Idaho will certainly stay on track). And I am also optimistic about America when Democrats and Republicans in Iowa are working together to make a lean resource center come to life. Lean manufacturing simply makes so much sense for America – and every country – that even the big thinkers and national politicians cannot stop it