Saturday, January 12, 2008

Factory Assembly Lines: Evil?

If I take Axiom One and I go look at the job of the average assembly line worker, I find that there's probably something wrong. Their job sucks. But why? My sonar is detecting an anomaly, but I still have to go out in the submersible to see what's wrong. Standard procedure.

It would appear it's because the factory system is evil.

I was reading this and while the author makes a few mistakes, such as assuming that capitalism is inherently evil instead of merely historically evil, I was struck by their contention that factory production lines are generally manned by slaves only, and that this is because there's no inherent production benefit to the division in labour, only in the division of tasks into repetitive blocks, to cut down on set up time.

They use a pin factory as an example. Rather than having one person repeatedly drawing the wire and another repeatedly sharpening the end, you can have one master artisan draw a large lot of wires, followed by that same artisan sharpening the end of the whole lot.

Notably, you can test this yourself. Next time you need to make a whole bunch of something, try making a production line out of it. You will probably notice, as I did, that you don't need one person per task to make most of the gains. A single person filling in all the stations will do fine.

Also, it's fun.

Obviously, this does not apply to robotic assembly, which supplies profound production gains.

Still, if this contention is correct, it would relieve the stressful lives of tens of millions of factory workers. Clearly, being treated like a slave sucks. If it's not really economically necessary to lower retail prices, then it is evil.

But all we have is this basically historical correlation. Roman factories used slaves. Our factories, according to their analysis, use slave-like labour. For real proof, we need more.

Like this.

A whole factory, at GE, run not as slave labour but as master artisans. Specifically, their most productive factory. By far. Still using a production line system, but really, calling this a factory is a misnomer.

So why are our factories evil? Why don't they take the obvious production gains by converting to a worker-responsibility model? As it turns out, it's exactly as accused; because the owners are greedy. Slaves are cheap. Even with the market costs of higher retail prices, the owners can retain more cash. As long as the markets remain fairly uncompetitive and everyone is doing it, the slave labour paradigm can work.

In case you haven't read the whole article about GE/Durham, let me just show you a few quotes.

'Clearly, not everyone has the temperament, skills, or intellect needed to work in an environment like that of GE/Durham. So who, in particular, doesn't fit in? "People who expect to take orders," offers Dave Hyde wryly.'

As in, not slaves.

'"Multiskilling is how the place is kept together," says Derrick McCoy, 32, a tech-3 and a buddy of Duane Williams's on Team Raven. "You don't hoard your skills. That way, when I'm on vacation, the low-pressure turbine can still be built without me."'

Every artisan can do the entire process, or at least large parts of it. Skilled labour ends up being cheaper than unskilled labour...unless you can pay slave wages. Similarly, this is a story that highlights the entrapment of other workplaces. Hoarding skills, either because management punishes cross-learning or because you're afraid of being fired, ultimately imprisons the worker.

For instance, consider this.

'The technicians not only build the engines; they also take responsibility for the work that middle management would normally do. "I was never valued that much as an employee in my life," says Williams. "I had never been at the point where I couldn't wait to get to work. But here, I couldn't wait to get to work every day. That's no BS!"'

Similarly, it shows the basic soundness of Axiom One. Your workers are unhappy because you are mistreating them. If you're unhappy at your job, it's usually because you're being abused.

'Two months later, Sims's boss sat in his Office in Evendale, just outside Cincinnati, and offered a slightly different perspective on GE/Durham's performance. "They have been producing the CFM engine for eight weeks," said Bob McEwan, 46, general manager of Evendale assembly operations. "In Evendale, we have been producing it for years and years. And in Durham, they are already producing it for 12% to 13% less cost than we are here.'

Humans, given freedom, produce better.

The factory assembly line is evil. And it's tragically easy to end. Nearly every factory in the world could be converted to the GE/Durham model, and anyone who cares to do so will immediately thrash their competitors in the marketplace.

At some point, I will discuss how this situation came about, how similar situations continue to arise today, and I'll enumerate the steps necessary to stop it.

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