Not Tooting This Horn

eTruth.com — The Truth Online Edition!

Here is a sad article about a strike at a factory in Indiana that makes trumpets and trombones. It’s the UAW, yes that UAW! No, not car horns, brass horns. OK, enough bad boneheaded puns.

It’s a fairly one-sided story on behalf of the striking workers, but if you believe them it’s a sad story and a typical one about a failed lean effort. Well, it’s one sided because the CEO hung up and refused comment. Oops. He might have well get his side of the story out, because I think he’s just been raked across the coals, at least from this lean guy’s perspective.

For one, the company is threatening them with Asia production if they didn’t agree to concessions, this at a plant that has been running for many generations.

The employees blamed problems with instrument quality and the increase in repairs on managers and engineers who do not understand the complexities of turning a piece of brass into a trumpet or trombone. Some steps in the 100-year-old process cannot be changed or automated, they said.

This seems typical of a mass production management approach, the salaried staff not understanding the process (the curse of the professional manager) and managers not respecting people in the process. When I work in healthcare settings, I go out of my way to be respectful about me encroaching on their turf and their process. I don’t go barking orders about a process I don’t fully understand, myself.

“They want quantity and they want a cheaper product.”

Workers traced much of their discontent to [CEO] Stoner’s arrival about three years ago and the concept of lean manufacturing he instituted. Since then, some of the employees said, production has stopped at times because parts are not available and sometimes workers are told to go home early.

“We went so lean we went bulimic,” Steve Kiefer said.

A true lean implementation would not push quantity over quality, nor would it rely on beating up the workers for cost reductions. I’m sure there’s much waste in the process that could be eliminated first.

It’s certainly not “lean” to run out of parts that are needed for production. I’ve seen cases of companies “going lean” and getting rid of all their inventory in a (sorry) boneheaded “cost savings” attempt. I learned very early on from a good Japanese lean consultant that first you keep production running, then you reduce inventory. Low inventory does no good with zero revenue. Keep the line running, then make improvements that can help you reduce inventory, such as leveling production or finding more local suppliers. I bet this management team has already sourced many parts and components from China, where it was called “lean.” They probably found a cheap piece price and destroyed their supply chain.

Good luck to Conn-Selmer. I hope they’re back to making horns soon, and that they get some guidance at making them the right “lean” way.

Update 8 PM: The workers did not ratify their contract today. Here are some comments from the CEO:

Increased competition from Asian manufacturers has driven down prices for band instruments, putting significant pressure on U.S. manufacturers. Costs at the Bach plant continue to increase, and many of our student level instruments have been sold at a loss for years.”

Stoner explained, “We have been committed to maintaining manufacturing jobs in the United States. We believe that our proposal to these employees will help achieve that goal. Under our current proposal, the affected workers would continue to receive the highest wage and benefit package among the employees working at Conn-Selmer’s eight facilities and one that is significantly above prevailing rates in Elkhart County.”

So there you go, fair and balanced. I suspect there is some blame game going on, pointing to Asia as a reason to cut wages. So they are committed to protecting jobs… the UAW yet again has the familiar choice of jobs at lower wages or no jobs at all.

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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4 Comments on "Not Tooting This Horn"

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I work at one of Conn-Selmer’s other facilities. The lean implementation at my facility is doing better than Bach because our culture embrassed lean unlike Bach employees. Bach failed at lean not Conn-Selmer as a whole.

  2. Mark Graban says:

    Interesting, thanks for clarifying that. When you say that “Bach employees” didn’t embrace lean, do you mean management didn’t embrace lean?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Actually, it was both. Management could only go so far on Kaizen event with out floor employees. The UNION stop supporting the lean implementation. This happened 1 year ago. You need the employees from the floor to be on the events so they can own the change as well as management. Management dropped the ball by letting the UNION to stop supporting the Kaizen events. Quality does come before quantity, but when the employees are paid by piece they have a tremendous amount of rework. And we all known piece work does not work in a lean environment. Conn-Selmer does have other facilities that have unions and they embrace lean. As U.S. manufactures, we can drive down the cost of our products but when it comes to chine we try to provide a better quality product that can be delivered to the customer when the want it. (TAKT Time) China can’t compete with a 2 day lead time.

  4. Bach Worker says:

    Not so fast; ask yourself… do you know the rest of the story?
    Stoner said, “continue to receive the highest wage and benefit package among the employees working at Conn-Selmer’s eight facilities and one that is significantly above prevailing rates in Elkhart County.”
    And now the rest of the story…Stoner may be offering a fair wage except you must maintain your current average. If your average is 110% or 150% and you do not maintain after contract, they can reduce your base proportionally. Such that you can find yourself making half of the reduce pay of the contract. Plus given that quality standards change, you can find incoming and outgoing standards different then when the contract was negotiated. If you continue to work below 100% they can fire you. Doesn’t sound so good now, does it?
    “Anonymous said…
    Actually, it was both. Management could only go so far on Kaizen event with out floor employees. The UNION stop supporting the lean implementation.” Well, now the rest of the story… Kaizen goes against the signed contract, however the union agreed because of the competition from Asia. They also allowed ISO certification, Maynard consulting escapade, now lean manufacturing all not negotiated. They finally stopped working with the companies forced Kaizon because of grievance’s (under contract to be worked out) were dropped by the company.
    “Quality does come before quantity, but when the employees are paid by piece they have a tremendous amount of rework.” The rest of the story goes like this,…The union constantly informs the company the part does not look right is not right DO NOT RUN IT, but because of numbers they say, “run it”. In the end it gets reworked, those cost are added into the gross profit and it looks again like we cannot compete with China (spelled correctly) the strike is partly about changing management, with these guys we’ll lose the respect of the customer.
    “product that can be delivered to the customer when the want it. (TAKT Time) China can’t compete with a 2 day lead time”. How do you figure we have a two day TIKTI time (spelled incorrectly) we never finished all the back orders when we left (including the student line back orders) and more orders came in from the convention in Germany since the strike.

    A lot of the chatter in the music community supports this last outpost of Craftsmanship.
    http://www.brassreview.com/forums/showthread.php?t=286
    http://www.trumpetmaster.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=9449
    http://www.trumpetherald.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=50223

    To really understand what’s required in making a brass horn get the video called “Sounding Brass” made in 1989 that shows how the skills came to be. Oh, and yes; those workers featured are not all gone.

    Nebraska Educational Telecommunications
    PO Box 83111–Lincoln, NE 68501
    Phone 402.472.3611
    Or click on the link below
    http://www.netnebraska.org/
    Click on “Shop Net”
    type in keyword “Sounding Brass”
    It’s $9.95 and the only video about the craftsmanship in the making the Bach horn. See how Peterson speaks of preciously holding on to the quality standard of Mr. Vincent Bach.

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