EXAMINER PUBLICATIONS – JUNE 17, 2009
By Rich Trzupek
So now GM has become Government Motors and Chrysler is Italian. That sound you hear is William C. Durant and Walter Chrysler rolling over in their respective graves. The plucky Ford Motor Company soldiers on independently, but for how long?
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Ford. Their competitors’ incompetence netted them billions in government handouts, while Ford had to make do with what it actual earns. It’s a topsy-turvy world. Rewards go to those who deserve them least. I imagine that Adam Smith is whirring about in the dirt as well.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, from idiots at the top to petulance at the bottom, but I rather think that management and labor can divide the blame evenly. Both were greedy. Both were short-sighted. And, both were stupid.
Did I forget to blame George W. Bush as well? Dear me. Of course this is Bush’s fault. Goes without saying. Everything is.
The U.S. auto industry’s woes got me to thinking about my one interaction with what used to be the Big Three, during the day job. It occurred several years ago.
GM had called me, Mr. Big Time Environmental Consultant, to help them out with a problem in one of their plants in the Detroit area. It was really more of a worker safety issue than a real environmental issue, but I’m a consultant and that’s a respected branch of the world’s oldest profession, so I took the assignment. To be fair (to myself) I did warn the company that there were better people for the job than I, but they wanted me, so what the heck? I went.
The issue involved sand; sand in bags, specifically. The sand was used in water filters. Basically, workers dumped sand into tanks (out of the bags), the water flowed through the sand, and the sand filtered out unwanted gunk in the water. It’s a simple, but effective, technology that is common to the water treatment world.
The problem arose when the workers opened those bags of sand. Stray particles flew through the air, irritating the nasal passages and lungs of the laborers performing the task. What to do?
Now, dear readers, though you are not Big Time Environmental Consultants, you probably hit upon the solution about five milliseconds after reading about the problem. It’s an incredibly obvious solution. But “obvious solution” and the American auto industry are phrases that have not been uttered together for years.
I proceeded to travel to Motown and was ushered into a conference room filled by about twenty people, half management and half United Auto Worker representatives, where the issue was laid out for me in somewhat excruciating detail.
What to do?
I asked the group what solutions had been considered. A bunch had been, apparently.
Perhaps, one person suggested helpfully, they should cut open the bags under water. The problem with that, he said, was that the workers would have to bend way down and they were concerned about safety and worker’s backs.
Another said that an automated bag-opening machine might do the trick. Problems there were two-fold: one, nobody made such a machine in those days, and two, management was reluctant to pay for such a thing – even if it did exist.
What to do?
It when on like that for quite a while, till I could take it no more. Had they given any thought to issuing dust masks? You know, the dust masks that one can buy in a hardware store for like a nickel apiece?
Turns out they had thought about that, but rejected the idea. Why? Well, the workers hated the things. Too stuffy. Too hot. Too constricting. Wouldn’t do, old boy, just wouldn’t do.
How often, I inquired, do workers change the sand filters?
Once a week, I was told.
And how long does it take each time?
About fifteen minutes.
So you’re telling me that your workers are unwilling to wear a dust mask once a week for fifteen minutes?
Well, they protested, won’t they have to wear them all the time, if we make them wear them at all?
Problem solved, or such of a problem as it was. As I recall, I billed GM about $3,000 for that little jaunt. And, as often happens, I felt guilty about making a profit over something that pointless, but I also consoled myself with the certain knowledge that many of my competitors would have trebled that price and drawn the “problem” out far beyond one meeting.
And then I wondered what the real price was. The amount of productive time and talent wasted in that meeting far exceeded my bill. And that was just one pointless meeting. How often, I mused, does this go on? How much productivity is wasted like this, when common sense and firm leadership could solve the “problem” in five seconds? Is this what the mighty American auto industry had become, I wondered.
Looking back to that meeting, I guess I am not surprised that the Big Three have fallen so far, so fast, to become the Crippled Two and the One Still Standing. It’s more of a surprise, I suppose, that it took so long to get here.