Bleaching the Blue Collar

Flattening management hierarchy cultivates ideas.

I think it’s fair to say one of manufacturing’s legacies is the demographic definition that simply and naively classifies blue and white collar workers. Somewhere along the way, certain traits became attached to the person sporting one or the other collar color.

These stereotypes have blurred significantly in practice because relegating to pigeon-holes wastes potential talent, although some vestiges still remain. Today, the competitive nature of manufacturing has flattened the managerial structure of many shops; a good idea is welcome regardless of its source.

When I first started working in metalworking manufacturing, the company I was with had a shop population of almost 1,000 employees. The management structure was pretty typical for the time (late 1970s)—comprised of blue collar (actually more like black collar, as it was a foundry) foremen, supervisors (white collar and ties) and the superintendent (big time white collar).

Many of these managers were blue collar at one point in their careers, and some I encountered were protective of the shopfloor turf they had been promoted to take care of. I was young and dumb and figured this was the way things were done. However, it didn’t take me long to realize there were flaws in this hieratical system.

Where I worked was a captive division of a much larger company, and like many older enterprises, there was a tendency to keep to the familiar. There was little incentive to shake up the status quo, so many inefficiencies became institutionalized. Young guns, eager to suggest change, were often resented by the more senior employees.

One such incident has stuck with me through all these years. My job in the foundry was part of the time and methods department. I was one of the dreaded guys with the clipboard and stopwatch who set standards for how a task should be done and how long, on average, it should take. Because the worker got a small bonus for performing better than the standard, they didn’t like us very much, fearing we might lower the standard.

My supervisor was one of the people that had earned his management position the hard way. He was a spiffy dresser, according to the fashions of the shop, well-groomed and well-liked by his department and he was a good foundry man. In addition to being responsible for the medium-sized casting department, he had responsibility for the time-study department and me.

Like most large foundries of the day, mine had its own pattern shop. These guys were the top of the blue collar food chain because of the high skills required to build wooden patterns: It was very precise work. Along with my time-study duties, I performed cost estimation on new patterns as they came out of the pattern shop.

At the end of my estimating, I would come up with a list of operations needed to produce the casting. Each step of assembling the flask had a cost associated with it. Then I measured the pattern volumetrically, subtracting the cores, which would be cavities to determine how much iron would be needed. I learned to fudge the weight a little high because a short pour was not good and extra iron could be reheated. It was a rough estimate, but being a captive foundry is close enough. 

This process had been standard procedure many years before I came along: “Tried and true,” as they say.

As I mentioned earlier, I was young and dumb and eager to show how smart I was. Some of the calculations I had to do to figure out the volume and weight of a given casting based on measurement of the pattern were fairly complex and time consuming. It occurred to me that there might be a better to way to get through these calculations faster and still arrive at the correct answer. I tested some patterns using different methods and the results matched. I figured I had something.

I tracked down my supervisor and excitedly told him of my discovery. After I went through my presentation, he looked at me and said, “I know.” I said, “If you knew, why not tell me so I save the company my time?” He replied, “If I tell what I know, you may take my job.” I was crushed, but wiser. I’ve never forgotten that episode through all these years.