Twenty years ago, as a young Merchant Mariner, I was sent to Japan where the ship I was assigned to, the Sea-Land Spirit, was undergoing a major refit. The ship had begun life as a LASH ship, a vessel that carried cargo-filled barges which it offloaded from its stern via huge, rail mounted cranes that ran on tracks down the length of its deck, and now, after the demise of that business model, it was being converted it into a container ship.
Prior to the refit, the ship had been virtually abandoned, left to rot in some bayside backwater for many years, and it had taken a pounding from the elements. To get it back into service, the ship was towed to Korea where it underwent most of the major modifications, after which it was then taken to the giant Mitsubishi works in Kobe, Japan for the final touches. It was there, so I was told, that Japanese laborers called into question the quality of the Korean’s work. Some of the massive steel braces that had been welded to the deck, they found, were as much as a centimeter off. Shocked by the poor quality of their counterparts’ work, the Japanese shipyard workers cut the braces off the deck, moved them a fraction of an inch and welded them down again.
The Japanese have a reputation for doing things right. Who else could take an iron ore of questionable quality and forge it into blades renowned for their strength, flexibility and sharpness? Who, but the Japanese, could take a pasty skinned, round face little girl and turn her into an object of enduring sexual desire? All cultures make things, but it is only in Japan that the making of things, “monozukuri” is elevated into an art unto itself, and where skilled craftsmen, who spend their entire lives honing their craft to perfection, become “gods.”
In recent years, however, thanks to the amount of production that has been handed over to robots, the number of “gods” on the factory floor has dwindled. Toyota, in particular, has noticed the problem and, according to a recent Bloomberg article, the company if now taking steps to reverse what it sees as a new form of brain drain by taking jobs away from robots and giving them back to men. The logic is slyly simple but infinitely deep, craftsmen, it goes, will always look for ways to innovate, always seek out easier more efficient methods and even find ways to reduce waste while robots can only do what they are programmed to do.
Over the past three years, the article continues, Toyota has introduced more than 100 “manual-intensive” workplaces at factories all around Japan. In one of the sections, men manually turn and hammer red hot steel as it is forged into crankshafts in much the same way that Henry Ford’s workers once did. True to form, the men in the section have been watching and learning and the result of their efforts has been a 10 percent reduction in material waste and a shortening of the production line that will soon be applied to the automated processes used to make crankshafts in the next generation Prius Hybrid.
There is no doubt that the robots are here to stay, but Toyota’s recent experiments show that keeping humans closely engaged in the process can pay real dividends. By empowering workers and encouraging them to become skilled craftsmen who truly understand what it takes to build cars, Toyota is setting the stage for innovation. It is, I think, a uniquely Japanese solution but it could be applied here in North America as well. Despite the many people who decry the lack of skills and poor work ethic of the North American factory worker, I believe that there are a great many men and women in our factories who would jump at the chance to work harder. Everyone, I think, wants to be valued and most people want to make a difference. This could work here too, maybe some of our own best and brightest should take a look at what’s going on.