Tuesday, January 25, 2011

USA economic competitiveness

You can bet good money that Obama will bring up "competitiveness" at the SOTU.  Then he will mouth some silly platitudes about having an elite education system and some soaring rhetoric about leading the way into the 21st century.  Of course, we cannot compete with folks who will work for $0.25 an hour.  The question is, can we compete for the high-end jobs?

Once upon a time not so very long ago, the answer to the "can we compete" question was, of course.  Not anymore.  When we let the financial vandals roam free through the real economy with their smash-and-grab get-rich-quick schemes starting during the Carter administration, we destroyed much of our industrial culture.  Since most of the serious damage was already done by 1990, there are people in their late 30s who have no memory of what the industrial culture can accomplish.  For that, we now must look at other countries.

Veblen taught in his Instinct of Workmanship that the main feature of industrial culture is the pride and satisfaction one gets from doing a good job.  Good industrial management is a system that allows people to do their best work by providing the best tools and working conditions.  Veblen would add that the ideal situation is where people occasionally are encouraged to indulge their Instinct of Idle Curiosity.

Veblen was much admired in Japan both during his life and in the post WW II period.  Therefore, I am not surprised that both of his elements of industrial culture are on display in Lexus' superb new toy, the LFA.  There is absolutely NO reason for this car to exist except to prove to the world that Toyota can set the bar of excellence so high, no one will ever clear it.  And you can have an LFA for only $375,000 (a tiny fraction of what these things will cost to produce.)  But if you are to have a thriving industrial culture, you absolutely must have projects like this.

Lexus puts an elite manufacturing genius in charge of its exclusive LFA production facility.
YOU’D EXPECT THE floors and walls to be spotless at the LFA Works, the unique, closed-off facility at Lexus’ Motomachi Plant in Japan that’s building 500 of the supercars. And they are. You might even have imagined the roof to be as high as it is, bestowing an almost cathedral-like feeling on this most exclusive of Lexus assembly areas.
But what takes you by surprise is the sheer breadth of expertise of the people here. Shigeru Yamanaka, manufacturing manager at the LFA Works, sums it up with characteristic precision: “We are actually a Takumi team.”
Within Lexus, a Takumi—literally, “artisan”—is one of the 10 to 12 top guns of manufacturing. To be a Lexus Takumi, you must reach a virtuoso standard of craftsmanship—the automotive equivalent of a 10th Dan black belt.
Yamanaka, who handpicked the best of the best around Lexus to assemble the LFA, is therefore in charge of the most highly trained manufacturing team anywhere, a sort of special forces of vehicle production.
Yet it’s a role he’s clearly very comfortable with: the 47-year-old is no stranger to turning talented all-stars into a well-drilled team. In addition to his current role as a manufacturing guru, the Osaka-born Yamanaka has been head coach of the Toyota baseball club. Well known in Japan, the club has been a springboard for several successful professional baseball players and is indicative of Yamanaka’s belief in the importance of human talent.
“I put together the Takumi team at the LFA Works with people who were recommended by various manufacturing departments in the company because of their expertise,” he says. “They’ve been handpicked to manufacture 500 examples of the LFA to the highest standards. At a conventional assembly facility, one worker would be assigned typically four or five tasks. At the LFA Works, one person will handle 150 tasks or more.” more
OK, we are seriously going to challenge a culture that builds things using those management techniques?  Whew.

But we must sample the outcome of this attention.  The LFA has a V-10 engine with a 9500 redline.  At 9000 rpm, an explosion takes place 750 times per second.  To make such a thing happen requires that the reciprocating mass be minimized and the fuel and ignition systems keep up with such speeds.  Well, they figured out how to accomplish this physics miracle so this loyal supplier named Yamaha, who built the engine, was asked to tune the sound so no one would miss this wonder.  Yamaha makes a LOT of musical instruments so sound management is old hat for them.

This is the result.  A V-10 makes an interesting sound at 9000 rpm.


  1. "Since most of the serious damage was already done by 1990, there are people in their late 30s who have no memory of what the industrial culture can accomplish."

    My wife and I are in our late 20s. Last night, we were watching a documentary on the local public access channel about the construction of the Panama Canal. At some point, after the documentary had described much of the engineering work being done and the background of the lead engineer (Stevens, from the US railroad industry), I turned to my wife and said "I can't imagine the US doing anything like this today. We just wouldn't be able to do it now, yet we did it over 100 years ago."

    We've lost so much.

  2. Your mention of the Panama Canal project reminds me that during the 60s, I was talking enthusiastically to my grandfather about the space race--which I followed so carefully. He listened for a while to my excitement over the insanely difficult problems that were being solved on a daily basis and said, "If you want to get all excited about our country doing something difficult, you should have around during the building of the Panama Canal. Now that was difficult. And when it was done, we had altered ocean shipping forever. I am not so sure your space race will have such rewards."