They Call it “The Chasing-Out Room” in Japan

AUGUST 22, 2013

Unwanted employees are made to feel forgotten

Shusaku Tani is employed at the Sony electronics plant in Tagajo, Japan, reports The New York Times(Aug. 17, 2013) front page story, but he doesn’t really work. For more than 2 years, he has come to a small room, taken a seat and then passed the time reading.  Sony consigned him to this room because it can’t get rid of him. His position at the Technology Center was eliminated, but Tani, 51, refused to take an early retirement offer in 2010 — his prerogative under Japanese labor law. So there he sits in what is called the “chasing-out room.” “I won’t leave. Companies aren’t supposed to act this way. It’s inhumane,” he states.

The standoff between Sony workers and management underscores an intensifying battle over hiring and firing practices in Japan, where lifetime employment has long been the norm and where large-scale layoffs remain a social taboo. Economists say bringing flexibility to the labor market in Japan would help struggling companies streamline bloated work forces to better compete in the global economy. Fewer restrictions on layoffs could make it easier for Sony to leave loss-ridden traditional businesses and concentrate resources on more innovative, promising ones.

Sony offered workers early retirement packages that are generous by US standards–severance payments equivalent to as much as 54 months of pay. But the real point of the rooms is to make employees feel so bored and shamed that they just quit. Labor practices in Japan contrast sharply with those in the US, where companies are quick to lay off workers when demand slows or a product becomes obsolete. It may be cruel to the worker, but it usually gives the overall economy agility.

This post provided courtesy of Jay and Barry’s OM Blog at www.heizerrenderom.wordpress.comProfessors Jay Heizer and Barry Render are authors of Operations Management , the world’s top selling textbook in its field, published by Pearson.

US Auto Makers Shift to Full Capacity

AUGUST 20, 2013

Chrysler plant in Detroit

This Wall Street Journal (Aug. 17-18, 2013) article describing how more U.S. auto plants are cranking out cars around the clock discusses a variety of tactics for matching capacity to demand. After years of layoffs, plant closures and bankruptcies, U.S. auto makers are pushing factories to the limits. At GM, Ford, and Chrysler, more flexible union agreements now allow the companies to build cars for 120 hours a week or more while paying less in overtime pay.

Nearly 40% of car factories in North America now operate on work schedules that push production well past 80 hours a week, compared with 11% in 2008. “There has never been a time in the U.S. industry that we’ve had this high a level of capacity utilization,” says one industry expert. In 2005, the industry had 925,700 employees. In 2012, the workforce stood at 647,600.

Changes in union labor contracts have been critical to running auto factories harder. The Detroit Three now can schedule work at night and on weekends without paying as much in overtime as they would have in the past. Adding a third shift, as many plants have done, also reduces overtime. Overtime pay also starts after 40 hours a week, not after 8 hours a day as in the past. And a newly hired Detroit factory worker now earns about $15/hour versus $28/hour for veteran workers.

In Toledo, Chrysler is building all the hot-selling Jeep Wranglers it can. The plant has been running nearly round the clock, churning out about 800 Jeeps a day and using overtime to staff production lines 20 hours a day, 6 days a week for the past 2 years. Temporary workers fill in when regular employees aren’t available. Ford has gone a step further, adding a 4th crew of workers at some plants to keep those factories running 152 hours out of the 168 hours in a week.

This post provided courtesy of Jay and Barry’s OM Blog at www.heizerrenderom.wordpress.comProfessors Jay Heizer and Barry Render are authors of Operations Management , the world’s top selling textbook in its field, published by Pearson.

The Box That Built the Modern World

AUGUST 11, 2013

shipping containersFor a fascinating story called “The Box That Built the Modern World,” enjoy this article in In Transit (Issue 3, 2013). The piece follows the Hong Kong Express, docked at Hamburg’s Container Terminal for 33 hours. “Already, the ship was half empty. Cargo from Asia was stacked in neat rows of shipping containers on the dock. The ship is nearly a quarter of a mile long; from side to side it’s 157 feet. It can carry 13,167 20-foot-long containers, the standard box used in commerce around the world.” In less than 2 months the Hong Kong Express will call at 11 ports and travel more than 12,500 miles. Circling the world 4-5 times a year, it can move 1.4 million tons of cargo annually.

More than any other single innovation, the shipping container epitomizes the enormity, sophistication, and importance of our modern transportation system.  Fundamental to how practically everything in our consumer-driven lives works, it is the Internet of things. Just as email is disassembled into bundles of data you send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox, the boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant.

Once they enter the stream of global shipping, the boxes are shifted and routed by sophisticated computer systems that determine their arrangement on board and plot the most efficient route to get them from point to point. The exact placement of each box is critical: ships make many stops, and a box scheduled to be unloaded late in the journey can’t be placed above one slated for offloading early.

The In Transit article traces a T-shirt sewn at a factory near Beijing. Tagged, folded, and boxed, the T-shirt is stuffed into a container with 33,999 identical shirts at the factory. The merchandise passes through 36 steps before arriving at a discount clothing retailer’s distribution center near Munich. There’s the trucker who moves the box to a waiting ship in Xinjiang, the feeder ship that moves it to Singapore to be loaded onto a bigger Europe-bound freighter, the crane operator in Hamburg, customs officials, train engineers, and more. The total time in transit for a typical box from a Chinese factory to a customer in Europe might be as little as 35 days. Cost per shirt? “Less than one U.S. cent,” says a shipping exec. “It doesn’t matter anymore where you produce something now, because transport costs aren’t important.”

This post provided courtesy of Jay and Barry’s OM Blog at www.heizerrenderom.wordpress.comProfessors Jay Heizer and Barry Render are authors of Operations Management , the world’s top selling textbook in its field, published by Pearson.

Li & Fung, The Most Important Company You Never Heard Of

AUGUST 9, 2013

Li & Fung workers protesting unpaid wages

Li & Fung — the most important company that most American shoppers have never heard of — has long been on the cutting edge of globalization, chasing cheap labor to garment factories first in China, then elsewhere in Asia, including Bangladesh. Now, with sweatshop disasters there drawing international scrutiny, the business is looking for the next best place where it can steer apparel buyers seeking workers to stitch clothing together for a few dollars a day.

As the world’s largest sourcing and logistics company,” writes The New York Times (Aug. 8, 2013), “Li & Fung plays matchmaker between poor countries’ factories and affluent countries’ vendors, finding the lowest-cost workers, haggling over prices and handling the logistics for 1/3 of the retailers found in the typical American shopping mall, including Sears, Macy’s, JCPenney and Kohl’s.”

The Hong Kong merchandiser owns no clothing factories, no sewing machines and no fabric mills. Its chief asset is the 15,000 suppliers in over 60 countries that make up a network so sprawling that an order for 500,000 bubble skirts that once took 6 months from drawing board to store shelf now takes 6 weeks at a sliver of the price.

“If globalization is a race to the bottom, where lowest wages win,” says an A.F.L.-C.I.O. spokeswoman, “Li & Fung is the sherpa showing companies the fastest route down that slope.” Li & Fung’s ability to exert pressure on factories can have unfortunate consequences, adds a labor advocacy group executive: “Every extra penny you squeeze from a factory is a step closer to that factory cutting the kind of corners that lead to deadly disasters.”

Meanwhile Li & Fung’s CEO says his company is considering South America and sub-Saharan Africa as possible places for growth. ”I wouldn’t write Bangladesh off,” he said. “It still has some of the cheapest labor in the world. For factories to get safer, clothing prices would have to go up. So far, consumers have just not been willing to accept higher costs.”

This post provided courtesy of Jay and Barry’s OM Blog at www.heizerrenderom.wordpress.comProfessors Jay Heizer and Barry Render are authors of Operations Management , the world’s top selling textbook in its field, published by Pearson.

Things China Makes

AUGUST 7, 2013

Even though economists expected that the Chinese manufacturing sector would contract in July 2013, it did exactly the opposite. China’s economy is heavily dependent on manufacturing and exports; its citizens consume only a fraction of all the goods made in the country, and the rest are exported to the U.S., Europe and other markets. In fact, China makes so much stuff that if it suddenly decided to stop, most of the rest of the world would experience impossibly high demand for many “essentials” of modern life — things like air conditioners, cell phones and personal computers.

This post provided courtesy of Jay and Barry’s OM Blog at www.heizerrenderom.wordpress.comProfessors Jay Heizer and Barry Render are authors of Operations Management , the world’s top selling textbook in its field, published by Pearson.

The Challenge of Fixing a Boeing 787

AUGUST 6, 2013

ethiopian airDesigning a new product such as the Boeing 787 is a huge undertaking. The thin plastic skin on the 787 Dreamliner, writes The New York Times (July 30, 2013),  ”is an engineering marvel, a mix of carbon fibers and epoxy molded into large barrel-shaped sections that are then baked at up to 350 degrees in giant ovens.” But while airlines love how this lightweight concoction saves fuel, the recent fire on a Ethiopian Air 787 in London provides the first test of how much more difficult and costly it will be to repair serious damage than on older aluminum planes.  Each day a jet remains grounded costs an airline tens of thousands of dollars.

The cause of the fire, a pinched wire on an emergency transmitter, was fairly mundane. But the high temperatures weakened the supports in a 10-foot stretch at the top of the rear fuselage and seared the paint on the top of the skin, causing the most extensive damage yet to one of the new 787s. Boeing will have to cut out the damaged areas and bolt a large patch, made of overlapping panels of composite materials, onto the plane. It will also need to install new composite supports and shore up the structural integrity of the plane. If the damage were more extreme, Boeing could remove the entire 23-foot-long barrel containing most of the jet’s rear fuselage and snap in another one.

The use of composite materials on planes has grown steadily over the last 4 decades. Only 1% of the weight of Boeing’s 747 jumbo jet came from composite parts when it was introduced in 1969. That increased to 11% by 1995 on the 777, which has an all-composite tail section. Composites now account for half of the 787’s weight, which, together with more efficient engines, cut fuel consumption by 20%.

This post provided courtesy of Jay and Barry’s OM Blog at www.heizerrenderom.wordpress.comProfessors Jay Heizer and Barry Render are authors of Operations Management , the world’s top selling textbook in its field, published by Pearson.

When Detroit Was a Cluster

AUGUST 4, 2013

VW's plant in Chattanooga TN

VW’s plant in Chattanooga TN

Clustering is an interesting topic. In Orlando, over 70,000 people are employed in the theme park cluster that includes Disney, Universal, Legoland, Sea World, Gatorland, and more. This week, Universal Studios announced record profits after sinking a quarter billion dollars into the Harry Potter exhibit–and is adding yet another 1,800 room hotel to its site.The Wall Street Journal (July 31, 2013) adds to the discussion with an article titled “Detroit Was a Cluster”.

“Clusters,” writes The Journal, ”offer powerful advantages such as labor market pooling. But these potent synergies can be lost when special technological competence becomes outmoded.” With lean manufacturing, clustering has become more important in the auto industry, with suppliers required to be between one hour and one day’s drive of factories. A new cluster has formed, known as the “auto corridor” between I-75 and I-65, which still includes the upper Midwest but has pulled the industry’s center of gravity steadily south.

The reason is well known: The Japanese, Germans and Koreans located their plants in the South to avoid the United Auto Workers. Honda was the bellwether when in 1980 it picked Marysville, Ohio for its first plant. Honda was expected to be required to employ the UAW, but picked a site in rural Ohio with little union presence. The firm soon concluded that its production system would be impossible with union workers, and that a UAW workforce could be avoided without undue political consequence.

Even a decade ago, more than half of all auto production jobs were still in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Now it’s below 44%. Kentucky alone today claims 440 auto manufacturing-related businesses! The transplants made little secret of their motivation in passing up the substantial benefits of the then-cluster around Detroit. Every Toyota factory in the U.S. is non-union and all but one is in the South. Ditto Nissan, Mercedes, Hyundai, BMW and Kia.

This post provided courtesy of Jay and Barry’s OM Blog at www.heizerrenderom.wordpress.comProfessors Jay Heizer and Barry Render are authors of Operations Management , the world’s top selling textbook in its field, published by Pearson.