Manufacturing of the Future: A Manager and His Dog?

Note from the Author
This article is intentionally provocative. It turns upside down the quote from Warren Bennis about the factory of the future. I wrote it thanks to the auspices of Stephan Whitley, who among other things is one of the founders of Caravel Solutions, LLC. I hope it will spark readers to think about an alternative approach to the workplace and workforce of the future. —EC

Close up of a bulldog resting his head on a hardhat with manual worker behind him.

Warren G. Bennis, a pioneer in leadership studies, famously wrote, “The factory of the future will have only two employees: a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.” Let me be clear: if you have the courage to see what is in front of your eyes, then you know this is a one-way ticket to mediocrity at best and failure at worst. This path permits you to stay in the game, but it prohibits you from excelling at the game.

The “manager and his dog” mental model makes it impossible to adapt, improvise, or improve. This mental model makes it impossible to change the way the game is played. Only people can change the game, change the rules, or break the rules—that is, innovate!

New equipment, new controls, and new automation provide a feeling of security, a sense that we are staying ahead of our competitors. This is a dangerously false sense of security, because in reality, there is no such security. The reality is that, with the necessary capital, any equity group, any company, or any individual can purchase the same equipment, the same automation, and the same distributed controls. All that is required is money. New technology is a momentary advantage. This is written and spoken about ad nauseam, but unfortunately is almost immediately forgotten. With incredible speed, this “competitive advantage” is shredded by the next newest purchaser of even better, next-generation equipment.

Capital is the lifeblood of any manufacturer; without it, you are on a death spiral. With capital you are just barely staying ahead of the ravenous pack of competitors constantly nipping at your heels.

Continuous improvement in all forms of automation and use of data analytics is necessary to the future of US manufacturing. We hear periodically that American manufacturing is dying; this is not true. Back in 2008, USA Today reported that in the steel industry production volume based on 2008 data was 110 million tons, compared with 90 million tons in 1970; employment in 2008 was 160,000 workers compared with 500,000 in 1970. The real change was to the number of operators and mechanics required to produce this volume. Over 38 years, those numbers shrank by approximately 68 percent. This is the right thing. The competitive global landscape requires such drastic changes. We need to do more with less—in fact, having our workers do less is the answer. Automate transactional tasks, and empower human beings to think, act, and improve.

However, it is delusional to believe that automation will get your company to the Promised Land. The hidden core premise of technological improvements is to “idiot proof” the operations. It is a mindset based on the belief that engineering can fix anything. This strategy is put together by technically gifted people, surrounded by technically competent people, surrounded by technical marvels—the machines we use to make paper and pulp. Foundationally, this strategy assumes that intelligent machines add more value than creative human beings.

I believe that what “idiot-proofing” the operation really does is create idiots. This is a truly lethal self-fulfilling prophecy.

Operators have the potential to be the competitive advantage. They have the capability to be inventive, ingenious, and creative about running the operation. And they are geniuses when it comes to seeing through the “hidden assumptions” smokescreen; they know when they are perceived as idiots. They know when they are seen as the problem. They know when they are sacrificed on the altar of technology. Treat them like blunt, broken tools and you will be rewarded with blunt, broken tool behavior. If you have operators that are waiting for you to tell them what to do, then you are living with the organizational consequences of believing that intelligent machines can outperform creative human beings.

The strategy described here is a tacit admission of an inability to lead people, guide people, and believe in people. It is a belief that you can only minimize the negative impact of the human element. It assumes people cannot be led, disciplined, encouraged, or do more than stay out of the way. It assumes they cannot create value and, more often than not, that they destroy value. It is an overt admission that, as leaders, we have failed to discharge our most basic responsibilities.

Leaders of this type do not hold people accountable. They do not provide direct consequences for poor performance and are even worse at providing incentives that recognize superior performance. They want perfect employees doing what is in the best interest of the business, every day, every shift, every hour, with every decision.

The desire that every employee be perfect is, in fact, a driving force toward automation. The truth is that, by adopting this mindset, we fail as leaders to harness the real strengths that humans have: the ability to challenge, think, adapt, and survive.

What do human beings do extraordinarily well? They strive. They evolve. They compete. Anyone who has been privileged to work in an ownership-based system knows that such a facility can compete successfully using outdated equipment, undercapitalized assets, or almost any other negative imaginable. Why? Because the human beings who work there are constantly adapting, fighting for the specific creative idea that makes them competitive. This is something unique. If you automate to create idiots, that uniqueness goes away.

Right now, companies that understand this are pouring money into two-year operator degree programs at community colleges and universities. Content now includes physics, advanced math, and decision-making. These companies are investing in their human capital while continuing to rapidly automate. Increased operator capability drives innovation. Innovation drives sustainable superior performance.

The true competitive advantage, the surest path to value creation, is creative human beings. People really are your most valuable asset. Instead of paying lip service to this catchphrase, we need to believe it and act on it in a meaningful way. We need to viscerally understand that people are inherently interested in doing their best. Leaders must tap into this resource, not marginalize it or automate around it.

The best factories of the future will be highly automated and will have doggone good operators.

S. Eric Christensen, Ed.D. is a results-oriented organizational effectiveness practitioner with more than 35 years of hands-on experience in designing and implementing sustainable work system/cultural change initiatives. Christensen has coached and mentored leadership from front line supervisors to superintendents to VPs. Contact him at [email protected] or visit