From today’s NYT:
But whether growth in manufacturing indeed spells new jobs throughout the economy remains a question. Mr. Shapiro, the MFR economist, argues that companies have become permanently lean, mastering the art of producing more with fewer people — a trend with staying power.
When I started reading the paper this morning, I thought I was going to write about everyone’s seeming case of collective amnesia, where everyone forgets that manufacturing and industry almost always picks up every January as they have to make up for the depleted inventory they ran down for tax purposes in Q4, when the paragraph above jolted me to a stop. Because the short sighted thinking articulated in it makes the Baby Jesus cry.
I currently work at a small production facility. And I love a lot about that fact – instead of being stuck in a corporate engineering role for GloboChem, working for a smaller organization means that I get to/have to get involved in every aspect of the business. I need to know who the sales people are talking to, and be ready to provide them with technical support. I have to understand the operating procedures, the inventory system, and the accounting system for when things go wrong, and that knowledge gives me a better insight into what projects would really have a positive impact on the company as a whole, rather than focusing only on my narrow assigned focus, and end up robbing Peter to pay Paul.
But in the current economic reality, a lot of companies cut past fat and into bone. At this point, if somebody leaves the company, or is even out for an extended absence, either their duties get ignored completely until a replacement is hired, or those duties get parceled out to those who are left, which pushes something off their radar. (Yes, there are still some people at every location who could take on extra duties, usually a LOT of extra duties, but we all know that he won’t, and that for whatever reason/incriminating pictures he has, the company won’t get rid of him either, so let’s do what we do at the office, and pretend he doesn’t exist)
This can work for a while, in fact this can work for a very long while – as long as the company is willing to just tread water and remain where they are today. But the first tasks that go are those that will build your company’s future – the developments, the new products, the step-changes in productivity and applicability to your customers. If your crew is running on all cylinders just to get the product out the door, you might be able to brag to your shareholders about your productivity, but there’s a new guy in your rear-view mirror about to overtake you. And he’s leaner, and isn’t carrying the weight that comes with existing customer demands.