Had I been born 20 years earlier… I wouldn’t have invented the internet, but I might have been a messenger for the message of quality control. Someone defined stupidity as “doing the same thing and expecting different results”, and apparently that is what large companies like the auto makers were doing in the 1980’s. “We’re Number Five”, boasted Buick: This became the title of a chapter in Chuck Colson’s book, “Why America Doesn’t Work”, a book which I have reviewed on this blog. Quality Control, Continuous Improvement, Lean Processes, Cost-Quality-Schedule; these were terms I learned to breathe in college. Where do these high-minded ideals fit in the real world? Last year I took the CAPM test- Certified Associate of Project Management- to see how my education in “Shipyard Management” measured up to other undergraduate management courses. I was up to par.
Taylorism, originating in the early 20th century, took autonomy away from workers, with a vision of “slide rule and stopwatch”. In place of craftsmanship, writes Chuck Colson, came a feeling of disassociation between employees and their work. Dr. Deming, who emerged after World War Two, insisted that employee buy-in was essential for successful quality control. The Japanese, whose industries were flattened by war’s end, bought into this idea. The Americans held off.
Union Carbide or Bethlehem Steel, anyone? On that note, I’ve looked at pictures of the now-abandoned Martin Tower, Bethlehem Steel’s former headquarters in Pennsylvania. After-hours access required employees to state their name, department- and alphanumeric personnel code. Humble the peons! This is Illustrative of rigid thinking; just one of the factors that allowed the continuously-improving Japanese to eat Bethlehem’s lunch. The Dilbert cartoon contemporaneously parodies the corporate world’s discovery of quality control. Beginning in the late 1980’s, Dilbert’s Pointy Haired Boss comically portrays the implementation of Japanese methods, from implementing sleeping tubes to animal costumes; to training sessions conducted with no clear objective.
I said in a previous blog post that big business today is a finely tuned machine. Buick went bankrupt; and it seems that today, a low-performing CEO would be sacked rather than be rewarded with a bonus. This perfection cuts both ways for the consumer. Yes, you might get the right product in the mail, but expect no perks. I recently ordered a book “How Boys and Toys Were Made”, a story about AC Gilbert and the once-famed Erector Set. Two-day shipping became six-day shipping over a holiday weekend- all accurately predicted by the website. I ordered on Thursday and received the book on Wednesday, not a day late nor a day early.
This “new way of thinking”- employee empowerment for better, quantifiable results- specifics be darned- has been co-opted by the right-to-work movement, which insists that labor unions, working as an intermediary between workers and management, are not compatible with these worker-enabling production and quality methods. My own experience? The Department of Defense is looking into Six Sigma’s Lean Operation system. In addition to being a valuable credential, it would put a formal cap on what we were already doing- predictive maintenance and statistical analysis. It could be received with skepticism by the tradesmen- is it just another management tool that prefers the science of data over the art of skill? Brainwork over brawn? You can now see how employee buy-in matters.