Tool for the job: handing over brass hammer a rite of passage.

Author:Seeds, Dennis G.
Position:Larger margin

One summer quite a few years back, I worked on an automotive production line while I was on college break, I learned several jobs on the line working beside a variety of people, and we had some interesting conversations.

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Asian/European competition? Hadn't thought about it then.

Good wages? Schoolteachers were among the assembly line ranks, earning more in the factory than they could in the classroom.

Health care? Wasn't an issue then either.

For eight hours a day, I was putting main bearing caps on V-8 engine blocks to hold the crankshaft.

One of my jobs was to put the cap into position, and tap it home with a brass hammer. I would grab a couple of the U-shaped bearing caps at a time to save time. Fittingly, I was later cross-trained to torque down the bolts that held the bearing caps.

I was quite conscientious about doing this. I told myself my bearing cap had to be aligned perfectly before I tapped it down. It was quite a task at first to synchronize my motions with the production line. Sometimes it took me two stops of the line to finish. But I improved, and got in synch with the line so it only took one stop.

The veteran worker who gave me a quick course on bearing cap installation was a master at it. His cap alignment was perfect, the hammer tapping was smooth and light, and his whole movement flow was slick.

When he was finished with the lesson, he handed over the hammer to me--the next generation, so to speak--with a "Here you go" gesture.

Since that time, the hammer has been handed over to many employees, but much has changed, and the hammer is a little heavier. Asian and European competition has entered the arena, wages are now at the point where new hires make about half what veteran workers earn, and some health care insurance costs have been shifted to a union-run trust fund.

Why this had to be done is well known. North American automakers had to face the competition, wrestle with higher costs, and improve declining sales. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler (the Detroit Three) have been adopting leaner processes, offering buyouts to tens of thousands of workers, and closing plants.

In 2007, the Detroit Three improved so much in the face of lower production that they nearly erased the productivity deficit against their Japanese competitors, according to The...

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