Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Caste System in the Modern Company - by Mike VanOuse

When I was a boy attending elementary school in the 1960s, it was a common occurrence for someone to ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up, young man?"  The responses were pretty much boilerplate: policeman, fireman, soldier, sailor, football star, etc.  I don't recall anyone answering, "I want to make the best high-performance gears and gear-related products for the power transmission industry."
But that's what I do.  I'm a production monkey in a gear factory.  There's a caste system in place within the organization reflected by salary: the bottom rung of the totem pole is support personnel, followed by production.  Above them are the tradesmen, then managers, then engineers, then executives.  The great Brahman high priest of this system is the CEO.
The amazing thing about this structure is that in order to be a production monkey, you have to acquire basic knowledge of gears.  That's true even of support people.  It's obviously true of engineers.  But you can be the CEO with complete ignorance of the complexity and physics of our product line.
This is my 27th year at the plant.  I can remember the names of 12 CEOs during my tenure, but there have been 13.  I think the longest one lasted six years, but the average works out to 2.08 years.  Each one shows up with his own game plan of how he's going to turn the business around.  They bring their cronies with them to establish the new leadership team.
A friend of mine who's a design engineer once gave a presentation to a new leadership team, and their response exhibited abject ignorance of the dynamics of our industry.  So he elucidated the situation:
This is a specialized industry. We have machinists out there who have been plying their trade for over 30 years and they're still honing their skills today. We have engineers who live, breathe, eat and sleep gear-tooth geometry. Nobody else in the industry is capable of doing what we do, only because of our knowledge-base.
You guys drift into a company with absolutely no idea of what we're doing, look at the profit margin, shake up the milk, skim the cream off the top, then move on down the road to destroy another company.
If those guys out on the floor operated like you do – stick-and-move every 3 years – this company couldn't operate. It's their combined dedication, experience and expertise that feeds your family and pads your retirement account. They are the host. You are the parasites. Yet you have no consideration nor respect for them.
And why would they?  That's how a caste system operates.  The "untouchables" are not worthy of the high caste's regard.  Once you garner an MBA, you are the Oracle of Delphi.  No one else's input matters.
The Company has been in existence for nigh on 100 years.  During that period, some traditions have been established: the Athletic Association has a social function twice a year, subsidized by the Company.  The employees receive a bonus just before Christmas.  The vending machines in the break areas and the cafeteria are subsidized to keep refreshments affordable.  There is an annual banquet for employees who have 25 years' seniority.
Over the last decade, these traditions have been abandoned by the Company.  The Christmas bonus was replaced with a free turkey (which was replaced with a coupon for a turkey at a local merchant).  The turkey was replaced with a gift card.  Last year, there was nothing.  Not even a greeting card.
The Athletic Association was dissolved, and the biannual social was replaced with an annual company picnic.  The vending machines are no longer subsidized.
The latest of the perquisites to fall was company sponsorship of the 25-Year Club.  They're no longer interested in honoring those who feed their families and pad their retirement accounts.
Though I'm a lowly production monkey, I've had the privilege of rubbing elbows with peons from other companies across the nation.  I've gleaned from my experience that executives are lemmings.  In the 1980s, you could sell any business model to any billionaire by claiming, "That's how Walmart did it."  In the '90s, you could sell Six-Sigma by claiming, "That's how Motorola and GE did it."  And over the entire span, you could sell Lean Manufacturing by claiming, "That's how Toyota did it."
That's great, Mr. Lemming, but if you study Lean Manufacturing (which all of industry is currently under the spell of), you'll discover that it is predicated upon "respect for people."  When you dispense with all of their time-honored traditions merely because they are not financially expedient in the short term, or because they don't orbit around you, you demonstrate contempt toward your subordinates.
You have dissolved the foundation of the edifice you're attempting to erect.  Respect is reciprocal.  How much loyalty and dedication can you legitimately expect from those whose dignity you have trounced?
I'm not speaking only to my company.  All the lemmings are headed over the same cliff.  Until they've replaced their diligent and loyal employees with robots, they would do well to consider their humanity.  What example do the employees get?
Even robots will require oil and maintenance.  So do the diligent human drones who feed the executive's family.
By the grace of God, America will be made great again.  But it will not be at the hands of those who dismiss the humanity of their employees as superfluous.  Nothing awaits lemmings but the base of a cliff.
Mike VanOuse is a Factoryjack (one who works in a factory) from Indiana.