Tuesday, September 20, 2011

today, and looking back...

Today in the CSS wood shop, my 7th through 12th grade students worked on thank you cards for a company that donated fine tools to the wood shop. In public I've been asked to leave them unnamed, but that in no way diminishes our gratitude. We also whittled and practiced dovetails for making hand crafted wooden boxes. I also introduced the use of the scroll saw in place of the coping saw for removal of waste prior to final fitting of dovetail joints. The object of course is not only to develop skill, but also to make boxes that will be a source of pride for their whole lives.

I have been reflecting on my time working for a manufacturing company. Dutton-Lainson makes winches, oil cans and a variety of stamped metal devices just as they have done for over 100 years. They are located in Hastings, Nebraska, where I went to college as a young man. I was looking for a job to allow me to continue to hang out with friends for a summer in Hastings, and Dutton-Lainson was hiring. I became a "punch press operator," an "unskilled" position, in that it was thought that nearly anyone fresh of the streets could do the job. My work was to place a metal part in position on the punch press, then press a pedal which set a fascinating series of operations into action. Each time I pressed the petal, the machine took over and an arm swept across to make certain there was no way I could have my hands in the way to get mangled by the operation of the machine.

There were three levels of staff at Dutton-Lainson. There were unskilled workers like me, then there were machinists and tool and die makers who were responsible for making and maintaining and setting up the complicated machines, and at the top there was management. There was a clear pecking order. At break time and at lunch, the unskilled labor sat around on crates and complained about management, and how little the unskilled workers were paid. The tool and die makers were working in another part of the factory setting up machines to do various tasks. I have no recollection of having seem then while at work. I would arrive in the morning to find new machines in place ready to do new things. Never-the-less,I found myself getting into the rhythm of the work. Place the piece of metal in position, move the hands to safety, press the pedal with my foot, and then remove the finished part and put a new piece of metal in position for the next step. The stamped metal parts were hot to the touch. I could look at the various parts I made and imagine where they might fit, but I had never been actually shown how what I was making fit or where. Each part was given a stock number. I could however, look around me as I worked at my machine to see others at their machines and feel a slight sense of greater mission... That these parts in which we were so engaged would become whole things, to be sold and create value. But I also knew that years of that kind of work could become mind numbing.

There were no real provisions for quality control. If I screwed a piece up by pressing the pedal too soon, that mangled part went right into the finished bin with the rest of the parts. I was not to take time to sort them out, as meeting quota was the only stated objective.

At break one of the old-timers (who must have been at least 40) told me,
"Slow down, son. You are working too fast and will give the rest of us a bad name. Whenever we go faster, they raise their quotas and we could never keep up."
It was an honest remark. It was that conversation that made me aware of strong class loyalties and the social and psychic distance between labor and management. I also began to realize that manufacturing was something I was not really cut out for.

I gave my notice to the foreman one morning, and that was the afternoon that I first met management. I was working at my usual fast pace, feeling harmony between the machine and the motions of my own body. There was a large box of parts I had stamped to my right and a large stack of metal plates to my left. Out of the corner of my right eye, I noticed a man standing behind me in white shirt, narrow tie, with a clipboard in one hand and with his thumb on a stop watch in the other. It was obvious he was observing my own work. After standing there for about 15 minutes and as I stepped away from the machine to get more parts, he interrupted me and said,"You are really doing well. You are working fast. If everyone worked as fast as you, we would make a lot more money." I told him that people worked for too little money, and that I saw no assurance that more efficient work would not be turned against the workers. "Besides," I said, "This is my last day, I turned in my resignation this morning."

What I had just experienced, with the narrow tie, clip board and stop watch in the hands of management was the implementation of "Scientific Management," in which workers, their sense of participation and partnership mattered less than efficient processes and profits. Scientific Management or "Taylorism" named after its proponent Frederick Taylor, should not be confused with W. Edwards Deming who sought quality, believed in teamwork and was responsible for the Japanese success story following WWII. The Arkansas Governor's Award for Quality for which I made award bases earlier in the month is an outgrowth of the Deming movement. I will let you know when the recipients are announced.

Perhaps you can tell that I have empathy for the American worker. The walls between labor and management can be severe. There is a sense of joy in being a part of larger things, and it is a shame that has too often been shattered by feelings of disrespect. Even in the making of oil cans and boat winches, pleasure and satisfaction can be found. Dutton-Lainson still exists, making most of the same products they made when I had my own adventure in American manufacturing, so perhaps they've found better ways to do more than a few things right.

Are there lessons to be learned from this? Of course I was naive at the time. I was young. But when Educational Sloyd was first proposed by Uno Cyganeus and Otto Salomon in the 1860s and 70s, part of its purpose was to create a sense of the dignity of all labor. I would like to think that my words to management had some small effect. When men in skinny ties, know something about the challenges involved in working with their hands, and treat those with and without skills with respect, we will have a renewal of American manufacturing that would mean so much more.

There are days in which my own wood shop resembles a factory floor as I work my way through operations on parts in batches to fit whole objects. My operations are less wondrous than the complicated processes the tool and die makers at Dutton-Lainson had devised. But there is no loss of dignity in the process.

Make, fix and create...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When workers are seen as objects, and the value of their work isn't recognized, my two summers at the galvanizing plant and my son's time the steel plant will just become stories. We saw it as a way to pay the bills until something better came along. For some people it's a lifetime's work.