Not Tooting This Horn
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.