Most students of lean know that Toyota gives much of the credit for their manufacturing approach to Henry Ford, and for very good reason. Ford's Today and Tomorrowis still about the best book on the underlying principles you can find. Now Ford was a lot of things and some of them pretty ugly. There is no understanding or excuse for the vicious nonsense he spewed about the 'International Jew'; he ranks among the worst fathers of all time; and the Peace Ship venture was just plain stupid. But one area in which he gets undeserved criticism is in his treatment of people. In many regards he was very much an equal opportunity guy living in a very bigoted age.
The pay, career opportunities and equality of treatment he provided to women, African Americans, paroled criminals, immigrants, and just about everyone who was by and large viewed as a lesser citizen back in those days is extraordinary. He was particularly driven in pursuit of providing jobs for the handicapped.
It was determined that a little over half the jobs in the Ford plant required less than full physical capabilities, and as a result, were able to be filled by people who were blind, feeble, or missing arms or legs. Ford took great satisfaction in this, writing, 'For instance, a blind man was assigned to the stock department to count bolts and nuts for shipment to branch establishments. Two other able-bodied men were already employed on this work. In two days the foreman sent a note to the transfer department releasing the able bodied men because the blind man was able to do not only his own work but also the work that had formerly been done by the sound men."
Ford was right, and his 50% number is even greater today as mechanization and automation have greatly reduced the physical element of manufacturing since his day. Special Excellence is a project to bring an enormous untapped American manufacturing resource to bear on our economy and on just about every community. I have identified over 1,300 organizations across the country in every state and even in Guam and Puerto Rice where folks with the whole gamut of physical, mental and emotional disabilities come looking for a chance to work. The productive capabilities being left on the table by under-utilizing them is massive.
There have been a couple of obstacles to utilizing these folks in the past – and those of us who understand and are committed to lean principles are the right people in the right place at the right time to make a serious difference because we have all the knowledge and tools to knock down those obstacles.
Most of these centers are staffed by committed social workers who are great at what they do, but are short on manufacturing management knowledge and experience. The work the people in these places do is incredible and selfless, but they and their leadership often lack the basic quality control skills, scheduling capabilities, and factory layout and flow knowledge to convert worker ability into delivered results to local manufacturers. The centers often require too much babysitting and hand-holding from their customers.
Lean principles are perfect for the typical rehabilitation/job skills development center environment. Mistake proofing work, simple source inspection and controls, standardized work, visual controls, basic process flow layouts, and simple kanbans are ideal solutions in settings heavy on manual assembly and packaging work; and ideal in situations where the money and expertise to deploy complex computer based management processes is notin the cards.
These folks are often working at least partially under the guidelines of state and federal grants, and the terms usually dictate that they be paid the local prevailing wage. Their unenlightened potential clients who cannot see past labor costs ignore them in their outsourcing efforts, assuming that China and Mexico must be cheaper. In fact, those same grants usually pick up a lot of the overhead cost and, coupled with the fact that they are located right in the customer's neighborhood, they are almost always a much better economic alternative than China.
I am asking every lean expert, whether you are a consultant, an academic or a lean leader within a manufacturer to find and visit a local center and have a look around. You will find that a little bit of your time and knowledge can go a very, very long way in turning the eager workforce and almost always eager-to-learn staff into a very capable supplier for the local manufacturing community. Just volunteering to teach and mentor them for an hour or two every week or two will have an impact beyond your imagination.
I am asking manufacturers to take a long look at the local organization providing these great services. If you don't know where to find one, there is a list on my web site. If you had a bad experience in the past, please take another look with an eye toward how you can make it work. You shouldn't have to schedule and manage the quality of these folks any more than you do any other supplier – but maybe you can lend some expertise in teaching them to better manage manufacturing themselves. Your folks can be trainers and mentors – and end up helping the disabled folks, the community and your bottom line.
I am asking the folks running the centers to reach out and ask for help. You cannot thrive in the long haul looking for charity, but you can serve your admirable cause well by becoming very cost, delivery and quality effective alternatives to China. Ask the local manufacturing community for help, or ask me and I will find someone to help you out.
My role in Special Excellence is to serve as the matchmaker, the clearinghouse, the place where you can connect with each other. For now I am just using a page on my site but soon I will have a dedicated Special Excellence site up and running. If you have any information to share, questions to ask, or stories to tell, please get in touch.
Finally, make no mistake, Special Excellence is not about charity. It is based on the very real capability hundreds of thousands of Americans with disabilities have to be very high value adding contributors to manufacturing. They have the ability to make a big improvement to lots of bottom lines, and to the communities in which they live. It is about providing them with the world class manufacturing management infrastructure needed for them to make that contribution. The icing on the cake is that when manufacturers use these folks to help their bottom lines, they make a difference in human lives that cannot be measured.