Jieliang (DL) is a line worker at Precision Electro-Tech’s Dongguan, China manufacturing plant. During a plant walk through, Marty Cole (OEM – Global Team) witnessed Jieliang being publicly disciplined in front of her fellow line workers for not following Total Quality Control (TQC) procedures and using her own method.
Precision Electro-Tech is a large contract manufacturer (CM) that produces products (i.e., cell phones) for another company or OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer). “In the case of complex assembly tasks, if those tasks can be broken down into simple unit manufacturing steps that can be completely specified, they can be sent to low-cost countries like China where unskilled labor can be trained to follow those steps in detail. This business concept is known as “labor arbitrage” and is the foundation of the global economy and outsourcing (Shih, Bernstein, Bilimoria, 2009).” The above business model of CMs is a tried and true paradigm and is consistent with the lean principles of manufacturing. While this model is widely used, particularly in outsourcing operations; the key is that each step must be clearly defined, delineated, and rigidly followed in order to maximize productivity. The advantage of the CM approach is that it allows OEMs to specify the exact steps in the manufacturing process; ostensibly, to ensure exact specifications and a high level of quality control and efficiency. The nature of the detailed step-by-step TQC procedures lends itself to a production line of unskilled or marginally skilled workers that need only know how to sequentially follow simple directions. The implication is that these types of unyielding procedures do not encourage worker ingenuity or creativity, which some may think is exactly the point. In other words, discretion and latitude is a wonderful workplace privilege only if administered appropriately. Given language and cultural barriers, as well as varied employee skill sets, this may simply be the managerial default position (lowest common denominator) for controlling unknown variables of outsourcing and assembly line production. “The term “visual factory” describes how data and information are conveyed and utilized in a lean manufacturing environment (Shih, et al., 2009).” At Precision, equipment and work processes were organized to make communication simple, obvious and seamless. Signs, status indicators and other visual cues in and around the production lines were arranged to allow for ease of communication and information flow. The strategic purpose of this type of visual system is to make floor operations transparent to all involved in production. An example is how each station had a post with color-coded lights to reflect the status and sequence of assembly. This genius of the visual system is that workers can see at a glance what has been done and what needs to be done next. There is no need to shout across the floor when information is exchanged. Managers can see at a glance the general and specific conditions of the plant operations. The production model that many CMs, including Precision used in their factories was based on lean manufacturing principles. According to Plant Manager, Marty Cole, “we do kaizens on the floor and involve people on the line, but we have noticed that while things steadily improve while we are on site, as soon as everyone goes home, things slip back to where they were (Shih, et al., 2009).” This condition of reverting back to the status quo to some extent is human nature. Humans are creatures of habits and are often reticent to change. I do not believe that this notion is uniquely Chinese (or American for that matter); rather, it is a universal inclination to resist the unknown or unfamiliar. But there is also another explanation. In the article, “The Real Reason People Won’t Change”, the authors suggest, “people have competing commitments that conflict with...