A century after the first Labor Day celebration, during a factory re-organization, I discovered firsthand the meaning of “territorial imperative.” Removing organizational boundaries within the shop is one thing, but when you venture into the ‘professional’ parts of the company that’s challenging the natural order! One office manager, call him Tom, adamantly opposed the idea of moving his department to the floor, next to his internal customer. Tom had been a good manager and dependable ally during early improvements to the factory floor, but now that his department was directly impacted, he acted as though they were being sucked into a vortex of lesser status. In a move to provide better internal communication and customer service, factory overhead departments had all been relocated the factory floor. The privacy and seclusion of offices was replaced by open spaces, desks with no cubicles, departments with no walls, and a company receptionist positioned on a raised platform, high enough that she could tell at a glance if someone what at his desk or bench to take an incoming call. We told our customers “When you call our factory, you’re really calling the factory!”
While both the internal customer (the factory) and our external customers appreciated the improved service derived from this open concept, Tom had a nagging concern: “Both my parents worked in a factory their entire lives in order to send me to college and get my masters degree so I wouldn’t have to work in a factory. This just feels wrong to me.” I recall getting a bit defensive and suggesting to Tom, “Well I’m sure there are still plenty of companies around who’ll be looking for a persons in three-piece suits.” I should have been more respectful. Problem was (and still is) that somewhere along the way from 1894 to 1994, making things had become unimportant – trivialized by visionaries who predicted three-day workweeks.
So much has changed since the first official Labor Day in 1894 when nearly everybody in the work force would have been classified direct labor. Today the ratio between direct and indirect labor is somewhere in the 1:4 range. To be sure, technological changes have effected a good deal of this change if not all for the better. Still, the trivialization of the frontline worker – the one for whom this holiday was established – continues unabated, increasingly isolating them from those indirect, supposed support services. In many cases the Gemba is no longer even onshore.
I have a lighthearted modest proposal for future Labor Days: Let’s make them only for non-exempt employees. They can have the barbeques; the rest of us professionals can go to work.
Happy Labor Day!
A couple reminders: My next free webinar, “Tea Time with the Toast Dude”, entitled Managing Up (click to sign up) is coming up Tuesday, September 10 at 3:00 p.m. I’ve had many requests to weigh in on this subject. And one lucky participant will win a free registration to our Northeast Region Shingo Conference in Hyannis, MA, September 24-25. Time is drawing near for our conference. Don’t miss it!