Tag Archives: production

True North Pole

truenorthpoleMany years ago a small expedition to the North Pole was funded by several American toy manufacturers, anxious to better understand how Santa’s workshop achieved such incredible productivity and just-in-time delivery.

“How can Santa produce all those toys in such a short time?” one manager questioned in disbelief as the small group of managers furtively approached a window of Santa’s workshop. “Be quiet,” the group’s leader whispered to his fellow conspirators as he carefully wiped away a patch of window frost, “we want to learn as much as we can about their process before we’re discovered.”   Through the window, an army of diminutive workers could be seen producing to a cadence such as never before witnessed by these American managers.

“Look how they move these toys down the line without a hitch,” exclaimed one manager.

“Yes and look at the smiles,” noted another, “no entitlement here. My workers are three times the size of Santa’s but don’t produce even a fraction of the volume. All they do is complain.”

A third manager observed, “There appears to be a chart in the middle of the floor that tracks production by the hour. No doubt Santa uses that to crack the whip.”

“Indeed,” noted yet another manager, “and there is some kind of chart above the workers that shows how they optimize their production, and another white board that shows what’s expected of the team.”   “We could never get away with this my plant,” lamented one manager. “It’s clear that the North Pole has a team culture that’s foreign to the U.S.”

Suddenly the production line stopped. Apparently one of the workers had found a defect. Workers swarmed to the area where the defect was found and then gathered to talk about it. “How can these little people be so productive when they stop just because of a single defect?” laughed one of the managers who was immediately joined in laughter by the others.   “Yes, shouldn’t they just call the quality department?” one queried.

Still, the managers agreed there we some unusual new tools that appeared to be central to Santa’s secret. If only they could learn more about how those tools worked.   As if to answer their wish, Santa suddenly swung open the workshop door and bid his industrial spies, “Merry Christmas! Please come in. What would you like to know?”

The startled visitors thereupon entered Santa’s workshop and spent the remainder of the day asking questions about the tools that he had devised to improve productivity.   With cordiality that befit the season, Santa answered every question.   “Even if our employees are not as good as Santa’s,” remarked one of the managers, “at least we can take advantage of these new tools.”

As the shift was winding down, Santa’s visitors thanked him for answering their many questions, and then departed, intoxicated with these North Pole manufacturing techniques. When the visit ended, one of Santa’s employees asked Santa, “Why have you answered all of these questions from our competitors?”   Santa smiled wryly and replied, “Do not worry, what they need to know they will not see.”

Ho, ho, ho and Merry Christmas. See you next year.

O.L.D.

Knowledge Work

An engineering manager whom I worked with twenty-five years ago challenged me one day, “You know, Bruce, if all employees were engineers, you wouldn’t need mistake-proofing.”  At the time, I was too stunned by his comment to even respond.  But happily, the memory provides good fodder for another post.

There persists a notion today in some quarters that persons with college degrees, in particular technical degrees, have cornered the market on smarts – and value.  When, in 1959, Peter Drucker predicted the rise of “knowledge work” and the concurrent demise of manual work, I think he might have inadvertently led American manufacturing down a knowledge worker rat hole, one where manual work, or in fact any kind of work involving production, became burdensome to our great culture.  Drucker’s prophecy may have been self-fulfilling, as American manufacturers raced to find ways to replace manual labor with automation.

In the 1990’s for example, General Motors spent $90 billion (yes billion) on robots, conveyors and computers in a failed attempt to supplant manual work. I wonder how they calculated the ROI.

Around this same time, manufacturer Mazda sarcastically referred to the canonization of the American knowledge worker as the “big brain approach.”  Mazda favored the collaborative thinking of many ‘small’ brains.  (At GBMP we like to refer to this as ‘Everybody, Everyday.’)

US manufacturers have spent the last twenty-five yknowledgeworkears off-shoring their burdensome manual work.  In a perversion of Drucker’s prediction, American manufacturers have largely ignored the “making” part of business, preferring to ‘innovate and incubate.’  This is their definition of knowledge work. Products can be born in the US, but they quickly migrate to other countries and grow up there to be improved by so-called manual workers.  The alluring promise of this kind of knowledge work fits well in to high tech marketing and sales plans like this one, but it obscures the holistic nature of manufacturing.

Lest I be labeled a reactionary technology hater, I’ll assert that I’m actually a bit of geek, a former IT manager.  I’m awed at the potential for information and production automation.  But I have a big problem with the implied opposite to knowledge work.  This was a recurrent theme at last September’s Production in an Innovation Economy (PIE) Conference PIE at MIT.  Speaking at the conference, Harvard Professor of Management Practice in Administration Willy Shih reflected on his work in the 1980’s with a Korean manufacturer:

“Well, I was in Asia where a high executive at a company that I was working with said, OK. You guys in the US, you do the R&D. We’ll do the commercialization. We’ll do the manufacturing. We’ll make all the money.”

Dr. Shih commented to me after his presentation “Thirty years later, American manufacturers still don’t understand how much innovation is occurring in production.  Overseas manufacturers are laughing at us and still making all the money on our good ideas.”

In my world, all work is knowledge work.   How about in yours?  Are you following General Motors’ innovation concept or Mazda’s?   Send me a comment.

O.L.D. 

BTW – There’s still plenty of time to sign up for my free webinar on Tuesday, February 11, from 3:00-3:45 p.m. EST.  The topic is “Tips for Manager Gemba WalksHope you can join me.  Click here to register. 


You can learn about all of GBMP’s public lean training events here  – from benchmarking Plant Tours to Lean Accounting Workshops, Six Sigma Green Belt Certificate programs and more. Hope to see you soon!