Thursday, February 7, 2013

Better labor relations = better product quality?

From the annals of "I'm skeptical", a brief (and rare) comment on chemical manufacturing in The New York Times by economics reporter Adam Davidson:
For 25 years, Monty Newcomb has worked at the same chemical plant in Calvert City, Ky., making products that hold pills together and remove sediment from beer. In his early years, Newcomb watched his union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, lose one battle after another in its ongoing struggle with management... [snip] Newcomb told me that at his company, International Specialty Products, workers were disgruntled and the work suffered — for example, more than 20 percent of one chemical they produced didn’t pass inspection. 
As a union steward, Newcomb feared that unless something changed, the plant would shut down and everyone would lose his job. So in the mid-’90s, his union asked management to attend its High Performance Work Organization Partnership program, which was creating a revolution in labor-management relations.  
[warm fuzzy section about improving management-labor relations, improvements in efficiency, etc.]  
And although the plant, now owned by Ashland Inc., currently exports about 50 percent of its product, it’s keeping production in Kentucky, where it recently invested $15 million in upgrades. “We make things so much cheaper than anyplace now,” Newcomb explained. Ninety-nine percent of that particularly pesky chemical now passes inspection.
I would really, really, really like to know the backstory behind this, and why one particular product did not meet spec routinely, and how that might be connected to management-labor relationships. Count me skeptical, but there are a host of other factors that might contribute to improvements, like, I dunno, a change in the process? Or a change in the spec? Or new raw materials? Perhaps I am a novice process chemist, but if human factors are contributing to 20% of batches failing, it's probably not the operators' fault. (Or maybe it might be. I'm doubtful (and potentially very naive) about sabotage.)

I don't doubt that Mr. Newcomb is correct and that things at ISP have gotten better from a labor/management point of view, but as a proud employee of NAICS 325, I am skeptical that we're getting the full story here.

5 comments:

  1. In my experience, sabotage is very rare and easily discovered in these industries. I also read this and thought that it was the process. 20% seems much too high for worker "sloppiness".

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  2. Plant invests $15 million in upgrades: Productivity improves!

    Not a great news headline if you ask me.

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  3. This doesn’t surprise me. Things improved at International Specialty Products because the High Performance Work Organization Partnership program resulted in labor and management developing “plans to collaborate on improving conditions, products and profits.” Probably for the first time labor and management studied the processes at the plant and were able to come up with ideas to improve them. I suspect that part of the program incorporated the ideas of W. Edwards Deming. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edwards_Deming

    I participated in a similar program at a municipal environmental lab and saw that it really works.

    The High Performance Work Organization Partnership program was carried out in the mid-1990s. The $15 million plant upgrade was done nearly 20 years later, so it had nothing to do with the earlier improvements.

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  4. Most chemists I know don't respond to poor workplace conditions with intentional sabotage, but I do know quite a few whose hearts aren't in it. They put in their 8 hours a day and do what's asked, but without going the extra mile. This is true for the former Rohm & Haas, and pretty much anyone who's been acquired by Pfizer.

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  5. I am little bit shocked by reading the post. Ya, its true that 20 percent of the made products do not pass the inspection test and it ultimately linked to employees as many of them have the lose their jobs. I think proper labour law has to be made against this type of course also. The blog shares very informative content regarding the same. I think a new high performance work organization program has to be started again to work effectively in this matter.

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