The DNA of Making Things: Higher Dimensions of Manufacturing-M.S. Srinivasan

Making thing or what is now called as manufacturing is one of the oldest of human activities.  This activity has evolved over the year and has built around it a complex and sophisticated paraphernalia of science, technology and management.  However, sometimes we have to get back to the basics of an activity and ask what are the basic human drives or the motive behind it.  This is not merely a philosophical question without any practical results. If we can find the right answers to such fundamental questions and implement them in our corporate life, it can lead to greater human fulfillment and wellbeing.  This article is an attempt to understand the DNA of making thing and its implications for the future of manufacturing.

Why Do We Make Things

Our modern mind is enamoured of technology and most of the futuristic studies tend to focus mainly on the technological advances and possibilities.  But if our aim is not merely endless increase in the efficiency and productivity of the economic and social machinery but human wellbeing and fulfillment, we have to pay equal or even more attention to the human dimensions of every activity of our life.  We must ask questions which help us to understand the DNA of an activity like for example: what is the original human need which gave birth to the activity?  How much this need has changed during the course of human evolution?  What is its role in the evolution and fulfillment of human beings? Let us now examine manufacturing the light of these deeper perspectives.

Why do we want to make things?  Why a child feels a great joy in building castles in the sand?  There are some fundamental human motives or needs behind it.  First is the urge for self-expression; second is the need for creating something with our own hands and the satisfaction of seeing our own creation, solid and concrete; third is shaping matter according to the idea and imagination in our mind.  When we come down to a less fundamental level, manufacturing is the act of adding value to matter.  And finally as a commercial activity, things are made in order to satisfy the customer.  These are the basic elements of what we may call as the DNA of making things.  If the manufacturers of the world want to achieve highest human fulfillment in their factories they must strive to satisfy all these human need which constitute the DNA of manufacturing.  Technology has to be used in such a way that it leads to this human fulfillment.

In the old assembly lines of Ford, technology was used to create a dehumanizing work-environment where the worker was reduced to a small, insignificant robot doing a repetitive and mechanical task.  In a more living and humanized manufacturing, the worker should have the creative satisfaction of making things with his own hands and shaping the product according to his own ideas and imagination.

Aesthetics and Utility

The other basic function of manufacturing is to add value to raw matter and make it into a useful or pleasing product or in other words, added value may be utilitarian or aesthetic.  In the ancient world, most of the manufacturing activity is predominantly aesthetic and the makers are craftsmen.  And in our modern world, it is mostly utilitarian and the makers are technocrats and businessmen.  In the future, we may witness a new synthesis of the ancient and modern ethos in manufacturing.

There is at present an increasing recognition of the importance of aesthetics in product design, packaging and marketing.  This recognition of aesthetics is one of the major factors behind Steve Job’s success.  As the technological and utilitarian dimensions get increasingly generalized it is the aesthetic and emotional dimension which will determine the choice of the customer.  However in the future aesthetics cannot be left entirely to the product designer.  Makers of the future have to arrive at the right balance between cost, utility (or efficiency), aesthetics and quality with a clear understanding of the changing tastes and needs of the customer.  This requires a close cooperation and coordination between production, engineering, marketing and product design departments or in otherwords between production managers, design engineers, product designers and marketing executives.  And this is already happening in some of the leading automakers.

And finally, the customers focus.  Makers of the future have to be as much customer focused as the companies in the service industry.  The new paradigm in manufacturing will be something like what Ford tried to do in its Saturn project: product is reverse engineered from customer perceptions of what she wants and what she is willing to pay for it.  In this paradigm production manager and design engineer cannot say, “Customer satisfaction is not my work but the responsibility of marketing.”  They must understand the customer needs and work in close cooperation with the marketing and product design people to create the product which fulfills the customer needs.

The New Technology

This brings us to the question can the new or future technology help in this higher human fulfillment in manufacturing.  There is a promising technology which has the potential for bringing this creative satisfaction to the worker; it is the concept of “additive manufacturing,” a mind-boggling technological advance which creates the possibility of downloading whatever the object we want, solid and concrete, form a 3-D printer.  As a report in The Economist,  explains:

“The old way of making things involved taking lots of parts and screwing or welding them together. Now a product can be de­signed on a computer and ‘printed’ on a 3D printer, which creates a solid object by building up successive layers of mate­rial. The digital design can be tweaked with a few mouse clicks.  The 3D printer can run unattended, and can make many things which are too complex for a traditional factory to handle—- In time, these amazing machines may be able to make almost anything, anywhere-from your garage to an African village—-.  The geography of sup­ply chains will change. An engineer working in the middle of a desert who finds he lacks a certain tool no longer has to have it delivered from the nearest city. He can simply download the design and print it.”

This technology when it is used with an innovative human touch can be of great help in building a sense of creative satisfaction not only to the worker but also to the customer.  For example some of the Toy companies in US like Lego use the Internet innovatively to provide opportunities for the customer to build their own toys according to their specifications.   The other future possibilities in manufacturing outlined in The Economist report are: elimination of the unskilled or low skilled blue-collar work which will be replaced by more skilled work-force; similar replacement of the dirty and greasy factories by clean, sophisticated and remote-controlled workshop; increasing use of more and more intelligent robots.  All these possibilities have to be viewed, evaluated and researched interms of their impact on human wellbeing and fulfillment with a clear understanding of the DNA of manufacturing which we have discussed earlier.

Towards a More Humane Assemble Line

However these are possibilities which belong to a more distant future.  Even with the present level of traditional manufacturing technology, it may be possible to provide a greater productive satisfaction to the worker by a more innovative organisation and layout of the assembly line.  For example in the Brazilian firm SEMCO, wellknown for its innovative work-place democracy, factory workers designed a work-system which is much less mechanical and repetitive and more humane than the Ford-type of assembly line.  As Ricardo Semler, who calls himself mockingly as “Senior Sultan” of SEMCO, describes how the workers of SEMCO, created a new flexible system of manufacturing:

“Instead of a series of lathes and then a series of welding operations and so on, all in a long line Henry Ford-style, the workers formed small groups of different machines. The idea was to have, at each of these clusters, a team whose member would fashion a product from beginning to end, giving them accountability for the product’s quality and the enormous satisfaction that comes with completing a task. What’s more, these workers would know how to operate all the machines in their cluster, not just one, and do whatever else was needed, too, even drive forklifts to and from the storeroom. This type of organization, which had first been adopted by the workers on the dishwasher line at the Ipiranga plant, was known as a manufacturing cell.”

The other great example of humane manufacturing is the Toyota Production System [TPS] which is a topic of extensive study and research by management scholars.  One such study is an article in Harvard business Review, “The Contradiction That Drive Toyota’s Success” by three Japanese management scholars, Hirotak Tekeuchi, Emi Osona and Norihiko Shimizu.  This article is a must-read for those who want to understand the human dimensions of TPS because it is the result of a meticulous and detailed research spread over many years.  As the authors of this article describe the nature of the study:

“We studies Toyota for six years, during which time we visited facilities in 11 countries, attended numerous company meeting and events and analysed documents.  We also conducted 220 interviews with former and existing Toyota employees ranging from shop floor workers to Toyota’s president.”

This article begins with the statement, “No executive needs convincing that Toyota Motor Corporation has become one of the world’s greatest companies because of the Toyota Production System, TPS.”   What is the secret behind the fabulous effectiveness of this marvel in manufacturing?  There is the technical side of TPS, the lean manufacturing (LM) technique like Just-in-Time inventory. Simultaneous Engineering and others, which can enhance efficiency of systems and processes of the work-place in any industry.  Many of the Toyota’s competitors such as Chrysler and Ford and also many service industries like hospitals and retail stores have applied the concepts and practices of LM for maximizing efficiency.  We must note here that the technical side of TPS or LN is only a more advanced version of the efficiency techniques of Taylorism.  But efficiency of LM alone cannot account for the inimitable effectiveness of TPS.  There is the soft human touch.    As Takeuchi and his coauthors points out,

“Toyota believes that efficiency alone cannot generate success.  Make no mistake.  No company practices Taylorism better than Toyota does.  What is different is that company views employees as knowledge workers who accumulate chie-the wisdom of experience-on the company’s frontlines.  Toyota invests heavily in people and organizational capabilities and it garners ideas from everyone and everywhere, the shop floor, the office, the field.”

In Toyota, human resource development, especially the development of workers is not something relegated to the HRD division; it is a continuous ongoing and intrinsic process of its work-culture, diffused into every level of the corporate hierarchy.  Learning by experimentation, problem-solving and continuous improvement is an integral part of the job of every Toyota employee or worker.  In another article on TPS in Harvard business Review, Stephen Spear and Kent Bowen state:

“All the organizations we studied that are managed according to the Toyota Production System share an overarching belief that people are the most significant corporate asset and that investments in their knowledge and skills are necessary to build competitiveness. That’s why at these organizations all managers are expected to be able to do the jobs of everyone they supervise and also to teach their workers how to solve problems according to the scientific method. The leadership model applies as much to the first-level supervisors as it does to those at the top of the organization. In that way, everybody at Toyota shares in the development of human resources. In effect, there is a cascading pathway for teaching, which starts with the plant manager that delivers training to each employee.”

Many companies repeat like a parrot, “Our people are our greatest assets” but do not take it seriously and quite often behave in an exactly opposite way when they indulge in indiscriminate layoff at the slightest of environmental pressures.  But Toyota takes its human assets very seriously and develops them in a scientific, systematic and methodical manner. And Toyota still holds on to that traditional value of Japanese management, life-long employment, and never resorted to layoff or downsizing.

Toyota is a world-leader in advanced computer aided manufacturing technology.  But the primary emphasis of TPS is not on technology but on developing people and serving the customer.  All good and successful company do this with various levels of effectiveness because these two factors, people and customers, are the primary source of organizational effectiveness.  But Toyota does it in a way which is very different from most of the companies in the West and also within Japan or Asia.  In brief, it is this unique people-centric culture which is the main factor behind the success of TPS.  As Takeuchi and his coauthors explain:

“People often ask ‘tell me one thing I should learn from Toyota’.  That misses the point. Emulating Toyota isn’t about copying anyone practice; its about creating a culture.  That takes time and it’s not easy.”

References:

  1. Special Report, ‘The New Industrial Revolution,’ The Economist, April-21-27, 2012.
  2. Ricardo Semler, Maverick, Arrow Books, London, 1993, p. 25.
  3. Hirotaka TakeuchiEmi Osono, and Norihiko Shimizu, ‘The Contradiction That Drive Toyota’s Success,’ Harvard Business Review, June 2008, p. 70-79
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