The Value of People

How can some companies not only survive, but thrive when operating in “high cost labor” areas, while others are struggling even as they are busy chasing the lowest possible costs?

I would like to suggest that one key difference is the attitude toward people. On the one hand is the “people as cost” model. This model usually has a couple of built-in assumptions.

  • The number of people required to do a particular task is fixed, often against some kind of earned-hours standard.
  • The cost driver is wages, salaries and benefits.

On the other hand is the (seemingly) rare organization that truly believes that people are their strength, or the well worn out “our greatest asset.”

The assumptions which are required for this belief are:

  1. People’s net productivity can always be improved.
  2. The cost driver is the amount of time wasted coping with all of the small problems that keep things from going perfectly.

The above assumptions, of course, are anchored in a faith-based position that perfection is possible. (see “Chatter as Signal“)

So… what kinds of actions to each of these two models drive?

The first one – people are cost – says to find the cheapest possible labor and hire it. Since factory wages in China are (right now) running about 1/12 or less of those in the USA or Europe, that seems a logical choice. Here’s the rub.

You can outsource the entire job to another company – give the work to the lowest bidder. Now, if you truly believe that the amount of labor is fixed, and that only lower wages can change cost, then this is the obvious choice. You are relying on your superior supply chain management system to ensure you select a supplier that can maintain, and maybe even improve, the quality they deliver, plus hold the line against increases in materials, energy, and their own labor costs. In short, you are looking for a supplier who believes the opposite of what you do. Your ideal supplier knows they can bid aggressively, get your work, and then improve their profit position by applying continuous improvement.

Or you can export the production and set up your own operation in a “low wage area.” You are shifting your core beliefs about people to another culture, and another language. Communication (believe me!!) is a major issue, even if the managers work for you.

AND.. if “labor is cheap” then the solution to problems is to throw people at them. The cost differential you actually get almost NEVER reaches the advantage of a 1:1 substitution. Oh – and you just added 3-4 weeks to your lead / response times.

If, on the other hand, you take the attitude that the most precious resource in your operation is people’s time – no matter what you pay them, and take the attitude that to deliberately waste anyone’s time is to show great disrespect, then I would suggest that even in high-wage areas you can drive levels of improvement in productivity, quality and response to your customers that would be difficult to beat anywhere.

So – before you reflexively outsource or relocate to a “low wage area” please check your attitude about people. What are your expectations, and why is it that you don’t believe your own people are capable of delivering a 10x improvement?

Who are your competitors? What do they do?
What would you do if you had to compete with Toyota? or Komatsu? (to name two that come to mind) They are building product in your back yard, why can’t you?

Afterthought: Some companies end up outsourcing the skills they need to improve their own products and systems. They no longer understand the technology they sell, they no longer know how to make what they sell. I remember a time when I reminded an (arrogant) procurement executive that it was possible to outsource the entire procurement process just as easily. Another team had outsourced all of their direct labor management… they contracted the labor and the first level supervisors into their factory. Where did they really believe this was leading?

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