“Yes, but it’s my life has been wasted,

And I have been the fool

To let this manufacturer

Use my body for a tool.”

                                                  James Taylor’s “Millworker”

Of course Taylor hit the mentality of managing by numbers – especially headcount numbers squarely on the head. That mentality relegates people to machine status; little more than black boxes with a calculated cost and a predictable output in terms of volume and quality that can be traded off against other similar black boxes be they constructed of flesh, blood, hearts and souls; or steel, wiring and hydraulic fittings. All just numbers to be modeled and optimized on spreadsheets, and all commodities to be bought and discarded when the numbers no longer point to them as the best tool to use.

That business schools can crank out people with so little appreciation for human spirit and the unlimited human potential is appalling but one of the harsh realities we have faced for thirty years or so since NAFTA and subsequent ‘free trade’ agreements introduced the money folks to the availability of cheap labor. It fed on their arrogance, of course – the belief that folks without their intellect and education have nothing of much value to offer to the improvement of the business. That arrogance, of course, is only possible when built on total ignorance of how things really work on the front lines of the business.

The heartless headcount optimizers become especially troublesome when they sully the good name of lean thinking and lean thinkers with their view of people as disposable tools. And they have set a new standard for such at Pfizer where they “Hail portable manufacturing as the latest in lean”.

“We can put together a manufacturing process anywhere we want in the world, validate the system, put in on a boat or helicopter or truck and ship it to wherever you want it to go.

[Pfizer director of Process Analytical Support Steve] Hammond called the strategy Pfizer’s ‘vision of manufacturing in the future’ as it gives the flexibility to manufacture anywhere globally and still have a recoverable asset if market conditions change.”

In other words, they have a factory in a box – one they can plop down and operate, and then pick up and haul off when business goes down. The hardware is a “recoverable asset”. The people who worked in the factory-in-a-box are left behind when “market conditions change”. Not an asset that needs to be recovered, it seems. But then there is no value in them – there will be plenty of people to plug into the box wherever it is next plopped down.

“Two simultaneous changes in Pfizer’s global manufacturing strategy – the desire for lean, continuous manufacturing to limit distressed inventory, and a push to produce locally – brought about the project.”

To call this lean manufacturing is an abomination – it misses the central concept of lean entirely. An old Chinese proverb says, “If you want 1 year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.”   The Chinese could add, if you want quarterly results design a factory-in-a-box and use people’s bodies as tools.

People and culture are the heart of lean manufacturing. Tools come and go, technology changes and someone more clever than us will conjure up a better kanban formula. But a business driven by empowered, committed people at every level, all pursuing little fixes and little improvements every day is the enduring engine that enables lean companies to thrive and grow year after year after year.

The Pfizer system “can be monitored remotely, in real-time for problems in production”. But of course it can. The smart folks believe they can keep everything under control and under their thumbs from some place far from the point of production. No need at all for smart folks making things when production is under genius remote control. It cannot work, of course, no matter how clever the folks monitoring things remotely may be. They can never know what is really happening or what to do about them, but that is something they can never comprehend.