The troubles in the auto industry go much deeper than incompetance and greed in a single industry. It is representative of how American Management has run the manufacturing sector for the past 50 years. The crisis on our shop floors goes to the very heart of  the adverserial relationship spawned by an eliteist mentality at our best university business schools.

Lets go back a few decades to see how men used to advance in our manufacturing industries. Very often they started as a laborer on the shop floor. First they learned how to sweep floors and do menial tasks. Then they acquired enough seniority to move up to running a machine. In time they bid on other, more complex, machines. Finally, when they completely understood a specific department, they were promoted to foreman. As foreman, they knew every job in the department, and how to solve problems in that department, because they had worked every job. Later they might advance to department manager, plant manager, or higher. But as they moved up the ladder they had a firm grasp of operations, and had earned the respect of the men working in the factory. These men knew that their boss knew as much, or more, then they knew.

Our industrial history is replete with examples of men who moved up through the ranks and became legends. An example would be Alfred P. Sloan, who started as a floor sweeper in a General Motors Plant, then rose through the ranks to become CEO of GM. There is Barney Kroger, who sold from a vendor’s cart and then founded the Kroger Company. Every employee at GM respected Sloan. They may not have liked Sloan, but they deeply respected the man for his knowledge and experience. The same was true of Barney Kroger and others. In Pittsburgh there was a steel company that made the famous “Long Tom” guns for our World War II ships. When a machine broke down and held up production, the president of the company was not above taking off his necktie, crawling into the oily, grimey machine, and showing repairmen how to fix it.

In my own family there are two examples of men who started at the bottom, and I mean the very bottom, and retired from high level management jobs. We lived in a four room tarpaper shack with no indoor plumbing in an Appalachian Coal Patch. My two brothers had to drop out of school, one from sixth grade, and one from eighth grade, to work in the coal mines to help support our family. They later got on as manual ditch diggers at South Pittsburgh Water Company. In the 40s and 50s most ditching was still manual, pick and shovel work. But fourty years later one brother, the one who dropped out in sixth grade, retired as General Manager of South Pittsburgh Water Company. He had engineers, microbiologists, and accountants that reported to him. The other brother, the one that dropped out in eighth grade, retired as Superintendent. He reported to my other brother, who reported directly to the president of the company. 

Could this happen today? Are there men and women in the corporate world working their way up the ladder based on job knowledge, hard work, and experience? The answer to both questions is no. Our system has attempted to substitute classroom training and pieces of paper for knowledge and experience, and this is a root cause of our decline as a great manufacturing nation.  Furthermore, people who actually do the work have been degraded because they have chosen to work rather than pursue pieces of paper. No matter their knowledge, ability, and work history, if they do not have a piece of paper they are lesser people.

This notion that people who work with their hands are lesser people who are not worthy of respect is deeply ingrained in our management system. The prescription for success is to avoid going to work, and, instead, spend tens of thousands of dollars, or hundreds of thousands, to earn a college degree, which will then qualify you to be in charge of people who actually produce the products that keep America humming, and know what they are doing.

The rise of this so called “Professional Class” after World War II doomed American manufacturing.  It wasted our skill bank and put our future in the hands of men who never really worked for a living. The current generation of managers grew up during the unprecidented prosperity of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The message they received was that only the stupid, the unmotivated, or both, went to work in factories.  The future would belong to those who got college degrees, and would be in charge of the stupid ones actually doing the work.

A hierarchy of elitetism developed among this crop of future leaders. If you earned two degrees you were smarter than people who earned only one degree. If you went to a “big name” private college, you were better than those who merely went to state schools. Your bright and shining future would see you in charge of less smart men who went to lesser colleges, and who would be in charge of the really stupid people working with their hands in the factories.

While this was not a documented management policy, it was a deeply ingrained attitude throughout the corporate structure, as well as throughout society. You either went to college so you would “be somebody” or you were a loser. This meant that our manufacturing industries were men wearing suits, who were successful, managing the losers who built the products.

Unfortunately, it worked no better than the days of the Lords in their castles overseeing peasants who did all the work and served the Lords and Ladies. It nurtured a deep resentment and a distrust of those who ruled, and fostered a sense of outrage. Men who did not even understand what the machines did were the bosses of the men running the machines. They spent most of their time playing one upmanship and politics because if they stayed in one position too long, and did not advance, they would be seen as losers. Success was seen as working a series of management jobs in rapid succession, being on a job only long enough to grasp the bare fundamentals, and then being promoted to the next level. We ended up with a management structure that was not qualified to manage manufacturing plants, and a resentful work force who fought back by giving only the minimum required to avoid being fired.

It is little wonder that for years our productivity was stagnant, our competitive position in the world slid every year, and every year the quality of our products deteriorated. Maybe a Levi Strauss ad best sums it up:  This Country Was Not Built By Men Wearing Suits.”

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