“We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” said Kawai, a half century-long company veteran tapped by President Akio Toyoda to promote craftsmanship at Toyota’s plants. “When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything.”
It’s not a Luddite reaction to eschew the new technology in favor of the old, not always. I still do work on my own gas powered lawn equipment. It takes me longer, I’m less skilled generally than a pro, but I learn a lot every time. And part of that learning is helping me diagnose problems or hopefully in the long run get more life out of the equipment I have. In some ways, if we don’t practice those hard won skills we become victims to the status quo. If you delegate tasks to robots because they can do them “better” and for less pay, then what you get is a high tech version of the status quo. A robot will not see the inefficiency in what it’s been tasked with doing. It’s not going to notice the room for improvement. It’s not going to suggest to the line manager, “Hey this bolt needs to be mechanically hardened, it seems like it might sheer off easily”. Same is true for the Engineers and Designers who make the production lines, if they aren’t well versed in the steps or willing to take feedback from the production line, how long before we call an end to innovation? One of the great strengths of Japanese car manufacture after World War 2 was the W. Edwards Demming method of statistical quality control. Part of that is not simply always getting zero defects out of a production line. Some of that is gaining input from the workers as the whole car is put together. If you don’t have a feedback loop, and that’s what this article is pointing to, then you’re going to be making the same car at the same price for a very, very long time. Statistical quality control implies continuous improvement not just in the product but for the experience of the workers too, including safety, and doing a great job, enjoying what you are doing. All those come into play and are lost when as much of the work as is possible is turned over to the robots. Let’s not lose those hard won skills of knowing how to be a machinist, fabricator and assembler. Let’s exercise them, and become better at what we’re downing now, and what we’re doing in the future.