Monday, August 6, 2012

Everyone's adaptable

From the New York Times' series on "the iEconomy" and the fate of American advanced manufacturing, an interesting story on Nissan's Smyrna, Tennessee plant and Japanese skepticism about American auto workers:
Nissan’s early doubts are reflected in recent debates over whether American workers can compete with overseas laborers. Within the technology industry, workers in Asia are viewed as hungrier and more willing to tolerate harsh work schedules to achieve productivity. The numbingly repetitive jobs of assembling cellphones and tablet computers, executives say, would be scorned here; they worry that many Americans would not make the sacrifices that success demands, and want too much vacation time and predictable work schedules. 
In the auto industry, the belief that American workers could not match Japanese workers has long since faded. “A big part of the reluctance of Japanese automakers to come to the U.S. was the belief that their manufacturing systems could only work with loyal Japanese employees,” said Dr. Cohen, the American University professor. “Everybody was surprised how quickly the systems were adopted here.” 
This year, Nissan held an internal competition to decide where to produce a new Infiniti-brand luxury sport utility vehicle. The plant in Smyrna was vying against one in Japan. 
The surprising winner: Smyrna. 
“All my life I’ve heard about how great luxury brands like Lexus and BMW are,” said Richard Soloman, a 20-year veteran at the Smyrna plant. “Now we will be building a vehicle of that standard right here in Tennessee.”
[For those who are interested in the policy debate at the White House, towards the end of the article, there's an oblique summary as to how to induce companies to locate manufacturing in the United States: the 'soft' approach (diplomacy, tax breaks) or the hard approach (tariffs, labeling China a 'currency manipulator.)]

While this is mostly good news for The American Worker, I think the quality story is much more ominous for chemists. At the moment, it's all good fun to joke about the quality of chemicals received from overseas (incorrectly labeled! terrible QC! packaged by a 3 year old!). They can learn and adapt, too, just like the workers in Smyrna. When we quit joking about Chinese- or Indian-made chemicals, then we'll know we're in real trouble.


  1. To make higher quality chemicals they will have to invest in better-trained/higher-paid workers, better QC, leading to higher costs. It's a classic project management triangle.

  2. “… they worry that many Americans would not make the sacrifices that success demands, and want too much vacation time and predictable work schedules.”

    Those executives are strong contenders for the 2012 Massengill trophy. What a bunch of pompous jackasses.

    Nissan management should not have been surprised at the success of the Smyrna plant. Their quality system was the product of the application of the ideas of the American W. Edwards Deming. Unfortunately, for the United States, Japanese executives proved to be much better than their American counterparts.

    1. Later in life Deming blamed a lot of problems of American business on management culture. How right he was if you look at pharma today.

  3. There's also another article out about Nissan's hiring.

    "The new hires are temporary full-time workers. Their starting wage is in the $12 range, subject to increase every six months but topping out after five years."

    So, temp workers for a 5-year probationary period. With probably no benefits in sight.