The Nature of Productivity: Lessons learned from the 20th Century Motor Company

The following three videos should be listened to completely—for they contain the secrets to manufacturing success within them.  To understand the effects of positive GDP forecasts, or the growth of a manufacturing sector in a country—the following clips read from the pages of Atlas Shrugged contain the hidden knowledge that is required to comprehend the cause and reasons for any kind of productive growth or decline.  In the fictional 20th Century Motor Company as described in the classic 50+ year novel—an entire company is driven to ruin for some mysterious reason.  That reason would later be confirmed cryptically by the entire  real-life city of Detroit, General Motors, and hundreds of thousands of smaller companies who like the factory in the novel that were once thriving places of industry but soon found their doors closed and overtaken by plant life from abandonment, followed the same path.  The philosophy of productivity for good or bad is contained within these three videos.  Once understood all the books written about modern finance, management, or lean manufacturing techniques will become obsolete as the truth contained is undeniable.  No matter what one’s opinion of Ayn Rand might be—whether or not they agree or disagree with her politics of small government, pure capitalism, and  value based society represented by money—her understanding of economics and business in general is among the greatest minds over the last three hundred years.  Let me explain why.

As a young man I saw on a much smaller scale the same type of things talked about in the 20th Century Motor Company as narrated by a former employee in the presented videos.  One place that I worked at nearly right out of high school while attending college night school was a metal stamping factory full of tough guys born and raised nearly exclusively in unionized households where their parents worked for General Motors or large local paper companies which had gone out of business.  They had deep in their internal workings the same beliefs as the narrator describing the 20th Century Motors situation and I immediately came into direct conflict with them.  Lucky for me, my background included hard-working parents, two sets of grandparents who owned professional farms and my first work experiences where around members of the Chicago Chinese mob.  So I had the opportunity from a very young age without reading Atlas Shrugged to learn about what values money represented about people and learned about the nature of good and evil as related.  My job at the stamping factory was a clash of two worlds, one where a majority of the people thought just like the narrator in the Atlas Shrugged excerpts, and I.  At this factory there was a piece per hour rate that was established by management of 400 parts on average.  The presses had lines of workers who each operated a part of the process in making compressor housings for air conditioners, the first press would press out a rough shape from a sheet of metal, the second would trim the excess away, the third usually involved several workers who had to do a number of punch operations to make connection holes.  Each had a unique challenge to physical labor that had to be done quickly to even think of getting close to 400 parts per hour.

I learned without much time expiring to do well over that 400 part per hour rate and soon found that management put me on the lead at the start of the line to set the pace for everyone else.  Employees downstream on the line when they realized I was pushing to do more than 400 per hour would slow down and let the parts build up on the conveyors leading to their presses.  But having parts backed up would often stress them out forcing them to do more than they wanted anyway so productivity increased and the management was happy.  This of course led to many conflicts and parking lot fights.  However, with my background–some rough characters from my youthful enterprises, and my natural hobby with bullwhips as my primary exercise item, I never had to worry about handling myself against rough-neck employees and their labor union backgrounds.  Through conflict I earned their respect and even though they resented being pushed, came to like me well enough to not resist my wishes.

I never bought into the line of thought that believed workers should only produce 400 parts per hour if they could do more because it seemed wrong to regulate productive enterprise.  I learned quickly that no matter how hard I worked, a majority of the workers would gladly ride my coat tails without putting forth any effort, and if I wanted to produce excess—which to me felt natural, I had to learn to fix the line myself when maintenance issues arose, or other problems presented themselves.  Often I felt that I carried the manufacturing capacity of the place on my back alone by pushing the culture toward productivity. Eventually I would leave that job and they immediately went through a period of struggle.  The next company I went to had very similar manufacturing challenges but instead of metal, it was injection plastic.  Again, it was the same story, a part per hour rate, my desire to exceed it, and a company full of employees who wanted to fight me over it to protect their “rights” against “management.”  In this place I talked the management into letting me work double shifts every day of the week—(16) hours a day, and on the weekends I’d back off only working (8) hour days.  I worked (7) days a week averaging around 96 hours of work per week.  Many in management thought I would keel over but they wanted my efforts which essentially was outpacing around (7) of their hourly workers and I was doing it on 2nd and 3rd shifts which were hard to staff.  This was a big place and my average output alone outpaced much of the totals from their entire first shift because of the amount of time I spent in their building working.

I knew people were mooching off me both in my private life and professional by the droves and my response was to see how much I could carry.  I performed like that for nearly 2 years straight then left there to work at Cincinnati Milacron.  There I ran into extreme levels of the kind of behavior talked about in the 20th Century Motor Company.  There, I was doing a very individually based job which prevented my direct impact on the productive culture.  The jobs perished as a result—not just mine, but everyone’s.  The site where I used to work is now a shopping center.  The large campus of manufacturing at “The Mill” is now gone, and my job with it.  My next place of business to work was a unionized shop doing manufacture for distribution centers.  There I had many conflicts with the employees some of which have been discussed in detail, but I routinely produced 150% efficiencies over the manufacturing rate per day, as opposed to the normal rate of 40% to 60% that the union employees fresh off a strike were producing.  That company like Milacron soon was sold off from a company that was drowning in losses—so I lost that job too along with many others employed there.  The way that the employees were throttling the piece rate was that many of the manufactured units had a 4 to 5 hour time, and most of the union workers would milk out that time to produce one unit per day on an eight-hour shift.  I was routinely producing two which pushed my rate well over 100% on average.  In that shop a forklift had to bring supplies to build with, so I learned that when I was out of material not to trust the forklift operator sitting on his unionized butt to help me achieve my goals, I would grab a forklift on my own and get my own stuff.  Of course this enraged people—but I did it anyway the entire time I worked there.

The long story made short is that there is excessive truth contained in the video clips presented.  The evil talked about is an evil that I have fought without really knowing the definition for years.  I only knew at the time that I wanted to fight that evil, I didn’t understand why until much later.  When I had figured it out, I then read Atlas Shrugged to have that confirmation thought, but that has been within the last decade.  I figured out what made the 20 Century Motor Company fail by experience instead of being told by a book.  I am proud to look back on my life now never yielding to the pressures of the masses to restrict my outputs and thus prevented becoming myself a contributor to that evil described.  I never produced at such levels to get a pat on the back from management, or even to make more money—even though those things did come to me, I did them because there was something inherently right about it.  The culture I grew up with aside from my family, the mob, and the money laundering from a job I had before the metal stamping place (not conducted by me, but discovered), had signed up for the same evil that destroyed the fictional 20th Century Motor Company.  I luckily had learned the value of money from people who naturally possessed great value, and even learned a lot from a criminal class who clearly understood the benefits of capitalism.  Their crimes were against politics, not the morality of money—and this is something I learned very early in my life which was a real gift.  By the time my wife begged me to take up honest hard-working jobs that were clean of criminals, hit men, and money laundering, I had already met the worst that any factory thug could present, and I knew how to deal with them.  In this way I was never beaten down for doing too much, and never stopped from being productive.  And I was able to confirm the validity of Ayn Rand’s work through more than theory.  I saw it firsthand.  The difference between myself and Ayn Rand is that she developed her philosophy around removing her input through a strike—her John Galt quit the world and took the productive with him.  I on the other hand felt the challenge to carry everything on my back the way Hank Reardon did, but without ever breaking.  My life would have been easier if I had done things the way Ayn Rand suggested, but I chose to fight it instead, and I’m glad to this day that I did.  But whatever the position, she was right and the narrator who is speaking her words is spot on.  The thing that is killing our world of productivity is the evil described in these videos.  It is not a fiction; the evil is as real as the sun, stars and moon and cannot be trivialized no matter how much a collective mass of people wishes. Productivity is good when boundaries are pushed beyond their expectations because it is there that creativity resides.  And it is specifically in creativity that production springs forth.  If creativity is embraced, a company flourishes.  If it is stifled even in small ways, the way of the 20th Century Motor Company will spring forth and slowly destroy everything that the company stood for.  Profit isn’t evil; it is the natural by-product of excess achieved through effort, creativity, and honor.  I didn’t work those two years of straight 96 hour work weeks to arrive at any other conclusion—and I didn’t do it for the graces of management.  I did it because it was the right thing to do at the right time because the creativity which put the product before me to make needed that effort to deliver it to a market in need.  And because it was delivered, the owners were paid, and in turn I was rewarded for my efforts—and that is how it is supposed to be.

Rich Hoffman