Sunday, December 18, 2022

Plant Managers (bringing back manufacturing)

A very short story:

In the early 1990s astronomical amounts of money in the form of Federal Grants were made available for States to create a domestic manufacturing base for photovoltaic cells.

Michigan, being a state with a lot of expertise in manufacturing, got a goodly slice of that money.

The grant was renewed several times but then fizzled.

My friend, the manufacturing expert who I quoted extensively in a previous post, identified the proximal cause of the failure as a lack of understanding of the role of "Plant Managers". Especially at the .gov level.

My friend (no, I will not abbreviate it!) had interactions with the Plant Manager for the Michigan PV initiative and quickly suspected that the effort was doomed.

Background information

Percentage of workforce in Manufacturing discontinued. Must not be important.

Few people have a clear grasp of manufacturing since only 10% of the workforce now works in manufacturing.

Consequently, I am going to reference a more accessible profession to provide a mental-model for the roles a typical Plant Manager fills in the "industrial ecosystem".

Consider a High School Principal: He functions as the lens of a camera in the sense that he interacts with the environments/resources outside of the high school and serves as the prime portal to the environment/resources inside of the high school. He takes tasks (light) generated outside of the school and directs it to the internal resources needed to address those tasks.

The principal's role is partially "acting regal". He is the face of the high school to the community and to the students.

The heavy lifting of the tasks inside of the school are done by other characters:

  • Rusty Pipes the Head Custodian and Maintenance guy
  • D.I. Detrick the Assistant Principal and Discipline guy
  • Anil Retentive the book-keeper
  • Coach "Biff" Kramer the Athletic Director
  • Mo Bookes the Curriculum Director
  • Chuck Wagoner head of Food Services
  • Melody Adagio the Director of the Fine Arts Program and so on.

Those players are the focal plane where the film is positioned. The lens collects and projects information from the outside onto this plane.

Outside of the camera are the parents (customers), Superintendent (his immediate boss), School Board (corporate management), media, law enforcement and principals from other high schools.

While nominally the "face" of the school and the single portal, the principal will authorize others to speak on his behalf because he cannot be everywhere and know everything. Never-the-less, the principal is still responsible for what the appointees say and commitments they make. He retains veto power and the authority to replace his minions.

If the players fail to execute their duties in a timely manner, they are subject to re-education, discipline, demotion or dismissal.

If you don't like the mental picture of a camera lens, then think of it as a node in the authority/accountability "economy". The principal delegates authorities granted to him by outside powers but those authorities are accompanied by a commensurate burden of accountability. The principal is the single-point where those authorities/accountabilities funnel into the school.

Back to my manufacturing friend....

My friend quickly determined that the Plant Manager was totally clueless about their role in the authority/accountability economy.

The "Plant Manager" had the "face of the organization" part down! They flew to Washington D.C. to meet with government dignitaries. They presented at Manufacturing Symposiums and Rotary Club meetings and visited Universities.

They were very good at documenting "metrics" that drove the Grants: How many tens-of-thousands of square-feet of brownfield occupied (and might potentially create property tax revenue...someday), number of people put on payroll (and might organically generate income that could be taxed...someday), credentials of people employed and so on.


Manufacturing cells were not constructed.  Tools might have been ordered but they were "lost" when not immediately installed. Pilot runs were not executed. Data was not collected. Processes were not refined. Employees were not trained in production-specific tasks.

It was as if the major stakeholders who had written the grant expected magic or spontaneous-generation to happen if they constructed a facade that looked like government's perception of manufacturing (property and income tax generating entities). In a sense, it was a Cargo Cult failing.

This was verified by my friend when he talked with another professional associate (who had been a Professor of Manufacturing Engineering in Europe) and who worked for the PV initiative. The former Professor told my friend that the organization (inside the camera) was dead. There was no heart-beat. People clocked in and played on their computers for 7 hours and then went home. The only function that operated in the "high school" was the detention room.

If there was a tomb-stone date task-chart, nobody got their ass-chewed if they missed a date. Nobody got fired when other tasks on the critical path got bumped. That was a prime-failure on the part of the Plant Manager. He failed to exercise his Thunderbolts-from-Mt-Olympus app.

It was not a total loss, though. The Plant Manager got a ton of celebrity visibility and a spiffy item to put on their resume.

---as always, all errors are mine (ERJ's)---


  1. ERJ - I perhaps have a smidgeon more of exposure to manufacturing, both because of having to work at some level in biopharmaceutical manufacturing as well as being in Quality and exposed to Joseph Juran. Your example is a really good and digestible one - and yes, a good plant manager (like most sorts of managers) are a rarity indeed.

    I though some of the overall concepts of the difficulties of being a plant manufacturer were well demonstrated in The Goal by Eli Goldratt, which introduced me to Theory of Constraints (which made a fair amount of sense to me).

    1. Ed, of all the "business" stories I have read, it is far and away the best. Goldratt can actually write.

  2. Unfortunately I'm not surprised.

    A couple of years ago the only US panel manufacturer was Shell, outside Baltimore. They shut down because they couldn't make a profit here.

  3. Don't get me started on grants...They are nothing more than a payment for a 'hope' of a deliverable...

  4. I think this describes the failure of even small and medium size family businesses when they get to the second or third generation. Even things like a grocery store with the produce, bakery and meat departments.---ken

    1. The actual work of manufacturing or baking is hard and not sexy. Thus the trips to DC or the future generations destruction of the original business. See Ford going public for example.

  5. The plant managers of automobile manufacturing that I knew were mostly credentialed, dressed for success, and had polished images.

    The men who got things done were small business owners, working for The Big Three. They drank coffee, smoked, cussed, boozed it, identified the needs of the customer and most importantly- they made their dates.

    Federal boondoggle money just gets burned up.

    Credentialed. Pshfah!

  6. Plant Managers are now Ops Managers.
    Production Managers are now Value Stream Managers.
    Numbers people without a backbone, or a clue.
    And no leadership skills.

  7. A couple steps here to my point...
    In the military, Privates do the work
    Sergeants (NCO corps) make sure work gets done
    Lt's/Captains provide direction to NCO's where to get work done
    Colonels coordinate LT's/Captains of different groups
    Generals arrange material/logistics
    Russian military is topdown, they've minimal NCO's
    That's why you hear about generals getting whacked on the front lines - they're there directing the troops!
    ERJ example of the grant winners failing is same reason
    They think one central planner can wave a magic powerpoint presentation and make things so
    Utopian castles in the sky make a grand dream but you'll always need someone to run the water and sewer lines

  8. Not for nothing, but this is part of the problem called "soft quitting" today. Why work (hard) when bobblehead gets all the praise, and none of the scorn? Was manifested many ways, best was the "bonus" for salaried people (mgmt), while hourly employees got none. Well, you get time-and-a-half, so, no bonus when we hit goal. See the disconnect? "We" hit goal? Whom exactly did all the work, pencil pusher?


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