When profits and productivity aren’t enough

Losing Sparta by Esther Kaplan on VQR tells the following story.

A Philips lighting fixtures plant in Sparta, Tenn., was named by Industry Week in 2009 as one of the 10 best factories in the USA.

Workers and managers had worked together to increase output on some lines by 60 percent, lower changeover time between small orders by 90 percent, and reduce defective parts by 95 percent.  As a result the plant generated a good profit.

Yet in 2010 an executive showed up from corporate headquarters in the Netherlands and announced that the plant was closing, and its operations moved to Monterey, Mexico.

To people in Sparta, this didn’t make sense.  Local business leaders did a study that showed that any savings on wages (which generally are no more than 10 to 15 percent of manufacturing costs) would be offset by increased transportation costs of Philips’ markets in the Northeast and Midwest.  They were unable to make contact with anyone in Philips who was willing to listen or who had authority to make the decision.

Esther Kaplan thinks that the decision probably was based not on study of the Sparta plant specifically, but on an overall policy of centralizing manufacturing in low-wage countries.

I know from reporting on business years ago that there are fashions in management.  In one era, the fashion was diversification, so that your business is not dependent on any one market; in another, it was divestment and concentration on core competency.  And I know there are managers who think that willingness to cause human suffering is a sign of realism and tough-mindedness.

I also know from my own experience that when managers tell employees it is necessary to do X in order to keep their operation going, they almost always will do everything humanly possible to achieve X—provided that they think the statement is being made in good faith.

Workers in Sparta did everything management asked of them, but to no avail.  Kaplan wrote that this is the story of American workers as a whole.   Americans by many measures are the most productive workers in the world, and U.S. productivity continues to increase, but this does not keep manufacturing jobs in the USA.

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