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Viewpoints: Lean Assembly: Hard to Find in China

  Richard J. Schonberger

By Richard J. Schonberger
Schonberger & Associates Inc.
Bellevue, WA
Ph: 425-467-1143

We’ve all read the stories: angry employees at Chinese factories protesting and striking over working conditions, pay, and in some cases co-workers’ suicides. And companies responding with wage increases.

It’s a bitter palliative: Chinese companies are jacking up pay so employees will stay at their workstations doing intolerable jobs. How intolerable? The typical high-touch assembly task in China (and other developing countries) takes 10 sec or less. At that rate, the assembler must repeat the same few motions some 3000 times per shift. Usually there is no cross-training, no job rotation. The utter boredom is bad, the repetitive-motion injuries worse—for the company as well as the employee. They result in high quit rates—quit and take a job down the road for the same or higher wage and a different 3000-repeats-per-shift job.

These plants employ legions of supervisors, there to deal harshly with disruptive behaviors, including, in some cases, talking. Backing up the supervisors are extra-large staffs of timekeepers, inspectors, monitors, gatekeepers, and security. Plenty of trainers, too, because with dozens or hundreds quitting every week, new dozens or hundreds must be hired and trained.

Another reason for, and consequence of, the high quit rates is social: Most of the employees are from small villages far away. Scared out of their wits, they find their way to a metro area, get a job, and before long are relieved to make a friend—someone at the next chair on the assembly line who knows the ropes. By that time the new friend and mentor is fed up, can’t take it anymore, and soon resigns. And the scenario repeats.

Before they outsourced their production to China and other low-wage countries, companies such as H-P, Dell, and IBM had transformed their plants following the basics of lean manufacturing. No more long assembly lines with dumbed-down jobs. The new methods featured multiple compact workcells in which each multiskilled production associate performs several stand-up, walk-a-bit assembly tasks, and then a final check before handing off to the next associate. Cell-team members are valued for their versatility, enabling quick changeover from one product to another. Job rotation is frequent within each cell. Beyond that, more experienced cell members will rotate to another cell or department in response to problems or changing order patterns. Each associate learns how to build, check, and pack an entire unit, and is proud of it. Labor turnover is low, and so is supervision and the number of inspectors and monitors. With all those, and more, benefits, labor productivity is not the issue, but with higher skill levels the cellular method always raises it.

Big question: How could our electronics, apparel, and other OEMs hand off the products, but not the superior work design? Here’s an example: IBM sold its money-losing personal-computer line to Lenovo in 2005. Since then, Lenovo has been busy opening and upgrading factories as sales of its PCs have grown. Today, at Lenovo’s most advanced factory, which is located in the Shanghai vicinity, managers hosting tour groups speak of value streams and six sigma, and assert that the tour will include, on one floor, cellular production of laptops. But visitors see nothing of the kind. Instead, what they see on the laptop floor are three conventional long, straight assembly lines, each with around 80 assembly and test operatives. Cellular concepts apparently are still foreign to management at Lenovo.

Chinese employees are as smart and as able to learn multiple skills as Westerners. If Dell, Nike, Mattel, Gap, and the rest really cared about treatment of the labor forces of their Chinese suppliers, they would insist that the Chinese owners and managers throw out their mind-numbing assembly lines, and learn and apply lean methodologies. Give production associates in outsource countries jobs they can be proud of, and the protests, strikes, and high employee turnover will subside. Longer range, wages will grow more slowly, thus providing stability for both the outsource company and its OEM customers.

Editor’s note: Schonberger’s book, Japanese Manufacturing Techniques (1982), was the first Western-authored book detailing the Toyota/lean methodology. His latest book (2008) is Best Practices in Lean Six Sigma Process Improvement: A Deeper Look . . . Telling Evidence from the Leanness Studies. Currently, Schonberger is director of the "Global Leanness Studies" and the "World Class by Principles" international benchmarking project. ME


This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF


Published Date : 4/1/2011

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