This article is cross-posted in Artful Sourcing.
Disclaimer: I am well aware of the historical and current conditions in some factories and that many factories have been and are places of injustice for workers. The impressions I share in this article are not intended to deny such problems or minimize them. The types of factories I am describing here are the ones run by the kinds of firms Baselodge Group represents and those I have personally toured.
I still remember the first time I stepped into a factory and went on a tour. While the workers who were “cranking widgets” may not have agreed, I thought it was the coolest workplace I had ever seen. My first factory visit was actually at a plastics injection molding facility. I visited on a cold winter day that seemed to accentuate the energy and warmth of the factory. The bright lighting and hum of molding presses dropping out newly formed parts testified that something important was happening.
Depending on your definition of a factory, I actually had already been in one many years before. My second job out of high school was working for a polyethylene facility in the Houston area. This was a large plant producing the plastic granules and pellets that were used in injection molding factories just like this “first” one I visited many years later. Having worked in a polyethylene plant, there was a nice completion to visiting the injection molding facility and seeing those pellets being vacuum filled into the top of the molding presses and then feeding into the augers for melting and injecting into the injection tools.
Since that first visit to the injection molding facility, I have had the privilege of being in many factories. I have toured printed circuit board factories where bare boards were produced. My office for a time was basically in the IBM Austin board house which was purchased by Multek. I have also been in many circuit board assembly factories both in the the US and Mexico. Many of these factories also do complete product builds. I have also had the privilege of touring a die casting factory and a very high end medical equipment facility where the products being manufactured were around $500,000 each. One of the most interesting facilities for me was a pharmaceutical factory that I visited along with our VP Dr. Sam Lockwood.
So what is it about “the factory” that impresses me so much? Why is there what I call the joy of the factory?
Some factories are better organized than others, but every factory has to have some level of organization in order to produce goods. When I tour a new factory, I always enjoy listening to the managers and employees discuss the layout of the machines, the number and type of shifts, and the changes that have recently occurred. The opposite of organization is chaos. Chaos inhibits productivity while organization enables productivity.
What I mean by this is that factories are places where humans are industrious, and I usually come away energized myself. Now, I have been in factories where there was not enough work, where the machines were idle, and the people were scarce. There was little noise and little industry. Those types of factories are sad because the artifacts of better times are everywhere, but the lack of activity reveals that things have gone wrong. Active working factories, though, are encouraging and exciting.
Facilities that are ISO certified (or that hold other certifications) have to be very meticulous about their documentation and their processes. Many factories have automated extensively while others are still primarily using paper, file cabinets, and white boards. Documentation is vital not only to producing quality products but also to tracking problems and resolving quality issues.
As with documentation, some factories are more technologically advanced than others. I always enjoy watching the technology in action. Whether it is a high speed drill system drilling thousands of holes per minute in circuit boards or robotics in a plastics plant, the technology employed can give a factory an edge and really improve productivity.
The Dignity of Work
This is a bit philosophical, but there is a certain dignity that I find in the factory. Most people agree there can be dignity in any kind of work. In the factory I see men and women contributing to the production of something tangible that has a use in the world. I have been in factories that manufacture plastics and electronics for toys. It is true that those toys will make money for the factory that produces them, the distributor that moves them, and the retailer that sells them. Those are all good things, but the toys produced sell because they are wanted. They are wanted because they have the ability to make children happy and possibly to help in their development. The same thing can be said about most products that are produced in the factory — they have a purpose. The lowest paid line worker has a hand in producing these valuable products, and there is dignity in that.
In his book Maverick, Ricardo Semler retells an old business parable:
“Three stone cutters were asked about their jobs. The first said he was paid to cut stones. The second replied that he used special techniques to shape stones in an exceptional way, and proceeded to demonstrate his skills. The third stone cutter just smiled and said: ‘I build cathedrals.'”
Some people in factories are just going through the motions I suspect, but I get the sense that most of them find dignity in building cathedrals.
No finished product is created from raw materials without a lot of teamwork. Much of the teamwork is outside of the factory itself. It includes the electric power plant, the water treatment facility, and other utilities that are contracted for by the factory. It also involves the truckers who transport raw materials to the factory and the suppliers that make up the supply chain of equipment and raw materials. The financiers, investors, and entrepreneurs who provide the working capital are critical. The janitors, the managers, the engineers, the machinists, the carpenters, the operators, and everyone else that works in the factory is part of a large team working together to make something happen.
When I visit the factory, I am usually with a prospective customer that is considering contracting with that factory to have their product contract manufactured. As I walk the factory with the prospective client, the plant manager, and engineers, I often wonder what the line workers think about us and what they think we think about them. I am not sure what they think about me/us, but I view their work with the understanding that I am part of their team. If it were not for them doing what they do and offering a valuable service to the customer, I would have nothing to sell. I admire the work they do and am grateful to be able to win business for them to help them continue doing their part for the team.
I am a fan of the factory, and it is my hope that in the years ahead our factories will grow and prosper as they produce the goods required by our economy. As that happens, more and more people will be able to find dignified work that will allow them to take care of their families and buy the goods and services that everyone else produces for them.