It is easy to slam manufacturing: manufacturing is synonymous with pollution, lost American jobs, and an overall national slide from prominence. American ingenuity is focused on big budget Hollywood films, reality TV, and according to former Facebook research scientist Jeff Hammerbacher, “thinking about how to make people click ads.”

Conventional wisdom has Japan, then Korea, and now China replacing the US as manufacturing powerhouses. We aren’t good enough to make iPads. We  focus on the using part: watching movies and playing games while employing near slave labor in immense Chinese factory-towns to actually create our technological magic.

Early in my career, working at GE Energy’s Schenectady Steam Turbine factory, I felt the prejudice against manufacturing. At GE’s Crotonville Institute, the company’s internal leadership development school, (now the John F. Welch Leadership Development Center), I introduced myself to a group of fellow engineers and new managers. When I said that I worked in Schenectady, the leader of the session (and a senior manager in GE’s leadership structure) asked, “isn’t that where we make bolts?” His tone stung. In the mid-90s the heroes at GE were 16 people in a couple of rooms at CNBC making $80m/year for the company and Enron (this is not a joke).

The leadership-guy equated manufacturing with making nuts and bolts, perhaps the kind used to repair lawnmowers. I was proud of my work and of the huge devices I helped create. I was pro-worker, anti-union, and uncertain about management’s role.

For once I had a come-back, and I spoke up. I replied immediately, loudly, correcting this insult to the complex manufacturing world, specifying that the ‘bolts’ we made were four feet long and as thick as his leg. There is nothing simple about a 1,100 megawatt steam turbine. The scale was breathtaking. He moved on, looking unconvinced.

So this week, when Sir Ken Robinson repeatedly used “manufacturing” as a negative analogy for the state of education around the world, you can understand why my contrary nature reared its contrary head.

Sir Ken was the keynote speaker at the 2012 AACSB ICAM conference – a meeting of the world’s leading business schools. Emphasis on “world” – half the people I met were from the Pacific Rim or the Mid-East. Astounding.

Famous for his TED Talks and books (The Element and Out of Our Minds), Sir Ken Robinson is a retired education professor who has a seat at the table with His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Eckhart Tolle, The Blue Man Group, and ‘Paul.’

Paul would be Sir Paul McCartney, who Sir Ken used to self-deprecating effect several times as he discussed the non-linearity of human life in contrast to the absolute assumption, by education systems, that we can plan our lives to a T. Paul and George Harrison shared a music teacher in elementary school who thought neither of them was good enough for the chorus, apparently. In the eyes of those charged with the formal education of Liverpudlians, 50% of The Beatles should not have pursued a career in music.

We write our resumes backwards, Sir Ken explained. While education around the world is increasingly subject to standardization and conformity, actual life and work are becoming more varied. We can only make sense of our shifting careers and passions in retrospect.

He tied this argument, with crisp and entertaining stories, to the threats of overpopulation and challenges to a sustainable Earth. An optimist, Sir Ken described the creative achievements of students who are encouraged to pursue interests, make intriguing connections, and discover.

It was a far-reaching conversation, given in a confident, conversational style and without any notes.

But the “conformity and standardization” Sir Ken discussed, the emphasis on “command and control when leaders should focus on climate control,” repeatedly used manufacturing as a punching bag. Sir Ken equated “Taylorism” with modern manufacturing while repeatedly holding up “iPods and iPads” as examples of innovation.

Taylorism – the time-study approach to optimizing efficiency – and the manufacturing strategies of the industrial revolution bring Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Henry Ford’s “any color as long as its black” to mind.

Charlie Chaplin’s View of Factory LIfe

 Working in one of Apple’s factories in China (or any other manufacturer there) might resemble Charlie Chaplin’s depiction for the individual employee, but the “supply chain” created by visionaries like Tim Cook is not organized around an individual’s productivity. Manufacturing is a competitive advantage for Apple: their speed to market, quality, the beauty of their industrial products are a big part of the magic (did you ever notice the invisible power light on Apple keyboards and mice?). If Dell Computer had manufactured an iPad-like device in 2008, with Dell’s aesthetic and attention to detail, few would have cared. See HP’s Touchpad and Blackberry’s Playbook for proof.

Sir Ken should rethink his comparisons and perhaps look to manufacturing for best practices that might help save education.

Something happened to manufacturing starting in the 1970s: America got it’s rear-end handed to it by the Japanese. Perhaps the mainstream press and education professors stopped paying attention around that time, too.

The Japanese showed that quality, low-cost, choice could exist at the same time.  They were, in fact, complimentary. So how did manufacturing change to become a dynamic, always changing process?

While American companies were building for obsolescence, the Japanese were figuring out how to make consumers appreciate Hondas and Toyotas that ran for 100,000 miles. Much of Japan’s success, and that of US companies like Ford who learned as quickly as they could, can be traced directly to W. Edwards Deming.

Deming was an engineer, professor, and management consultant  involved in the 1940 US Census, then the 1951 Japanese Census. The Japanese listened to Demings’ approach to statistical analysis, when Americans would not, and embraced his “quality will reduce expenses AND increase productivity” message. He subsequently applied his thinking to education and industry, but it is manufacturing that saw his theories born out. Some key Deming principles that should resonate with any 21st century educator:

  • Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality.
  • Drive out fear.
  • Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets.
  • Eliminate work standards/quotas. Substitute leadership.
  • Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
  • Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship.
  • Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.
While industry has not necessarily stuck with his entire agenda, the amazing quality and breadth of contemporary products is proof of a revolution in manufacturing. Companies can create huge numbers of variations on a theme. Products like the iPad have customization (in the form of apps) baked into them. I can order an iPad today, via Apple’s website, even add a custom engraved message, and the device will arrive within a day or two. Unless, of course, Apple is sold out because they can’t keep up with the hundreds of thousands of iPads required every day by consumers around the world.
Sir Ken was comparing contemporary education systems to early 20th century manufacturing systems. Which makes sense, because our education systems were designed to produce the workers for that exact manufacturing system.
But manufacturing has changed, and has many lessons to teach educators, assuming we can avoid rejecting Deming’s message for its language: learners are obviously not “products.”
In a modern Honda, GE, or Ford factory any individual worker can stop the line. Their opinions are sought to continually improve processes. They work in an environment that many bright, hardworking K12 educators would appreciate for its empowering culture and total difference from their experiences in most public K12 schools.
Modern manufacturing has outcomes that are measurable, relevant, and constantly adjusted as the world changes. Modern manufacturing also cannot get enough skilled labor, even though unemployment is so high. If today’s  parents were smart, they’d enroll their non-academically inclined high school student in a welding or offshore oil rig roughneck training course. Our education system isn’t only starving engineering and the sciences of qualified graduates.
It may be oversimplifying Deming’s appeal and impact in post-WW2 Japan, but clearly the war’s devastation made dramatic change possible. Perhaps Japanase culture also contributed to making Deming’s approach an easier fit. Regardless of the reasons, however, our thinking about the ways culture and systems change must become more sophisticated in education if we are to achieve any real change. We’re at an inflection point, where  college degrees regularly cost $50k per year, and K12 schools spend 40% of the year preparing for standardized tests. The change has been slow, but visible. and we haven’t revolted yet. What, short of the total devastation Japan faced in WW2, will bring educators, stakeholders, and families to the table to create the authentic change that Deming sought and that contemporary manufacturing has largely created?