I graduated from college in the 1960s when my degree in philosophy was as much in demand as it is today—which is to say, not at all. But I needed a job, so I applied for factory work and was hired to assemble, paint, and ship display cabinets. As a student, I had aspired to attain an entry-level job in a large organization where I could work my way up the corporate ladder while enjoying the lifestyle of the American middle class. That hope may have been dashed, but it turned out to be a truly great life event because I fell into what would become a very rewarding career.
I wore my blue collar proudly and gave my best to the job. Within a few months, I was twice given more responsibility and was learning to be a receiving inspector. In those days, we thought we could inspect quality into the product, and I did my best. But the plant superintendent kept insisting that the quality standards were just guidelines, and I should accept anything likely to run problem-free through the production process. However, I found it strange that we should accept marginal material instead of correcting problem suppliers, so I kept rejecting material my predecessor had accepted.
This created a conflict between the superintendent and my boss, the quality manager. The situation came to a head with both of them shouting accusations over the din of the stamping presses, until the vice president of this family-run company stepped in. Both managers claimed authority over quality standards, but neither addressed what was best for the company. Perhaps that is why the VP asked for my opinion.
“We set the standards necessary to produce a quality product,” I told her. “But certain suppliers are content to perform just close to our standards because we have allowed them to get away with it. Over time, we can expect them to become even more lax on quality because it costs less. We can confront them now or confront them tomorrow when the problem is worse. But every day’s delay increases the risk that we will produce and ship sub-standard product. You decide; it’s your family name on the boxes.”
“That’s nice theory,” the superintendent fumed, “but in the real world…”
“This young man just described the real world perfectly,” the VP interrupted. “You get your suppliers under control. There will be no compromising our quality standards.”
I was called into the VP’s office later to discuss my career goals. My life in operations management began with that discussion 45 years ago.
With the economy providing fewer opportunities, new college graduates might consider taking a blue-color job. They will observe close up how a factory is managed. They will live with the company’s procedures and disciplines instead of just imposing them on others as a management trainee is likely to do. Critical thinkers will observe a target-rich environment in which to suggest improvements. And if the suggestions are smart, these young people may surprise managers and likely will be noticed, with promotions to follow. That’s how it worked for me.
In a changing manufacturing environment, superior analytical ability is mandatory. Whereas a business degree teaches you accepted solutions to known problems, a philosophy degree teaches you how to think. If I had it all to do over, I would double major.
Randall Schaefer, CPIM, is an industrial philosopher and independent consultant. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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