Getting My Hands Dirty
Over the course of my career
here, I have toured dozens of
plants all over the country. I
have seen high-tech facilities,
and some frighteningly low
tech. I have marveled at the
sparklingly clean digital manufacturing wonders, I have been
coated in oil fogs from a hundred decrepit spraying systems.
During these visits, however
interesting they are, there’s always this kind of gap. This
disconnect between me, taking notes as GMs and executives
tell me about all the stuff they’re doing, and the people on
the floor actually doing the stuff. From this perspective they
seem almost mechanical—these highly-trained, experienced
workers doing jobs I can’t imagine with unimaginable skill
just working away in the background doing their thing.
It’s always an uncomfortable arrangement. They smile awkwardly at me staring over their shoulders while I try to guess what
it is they’re doing and how they’re so good at it. And that’s weird
because these are the people I’m writing for; this is the story I’m
trying to find. But I’m removed from them because they are working, and I am working. The two of us never really seemed to meet.
That gap was finally closed for me last month. During my plant
visit to the KEEN PM factory (pg 35), the company did something
weird. Rather than just walking me through the edges as usual,
they actually put me on the line. They had me cram uppers onto
their fixtures, set the outsoles into the molds, even cut flash
from the assembled boots—every major operation in the factory
except for QA, of course. Someone had to check my work.
I walked away from the event absolutely shook. I mean,
I worked plenty of assembly jobs in my teens and through
college. But I never really considered anything but the task
ahead of me. Now, maybe because of my job and the understanding of the process it’s given me, the whole thing
Throughout the whole process, I was keenly aware that
what I was doing was going to end up on somebody’s foot
somewhere. That every uneven misstep I made figuring this
out would directly impact the final quality and ultimately the
reputation of this company.
Understand, of course, I was closely watched and corrected by
the real workers there, so there was no real chance that a mistake
would actually make it through But the potential felt real.
I’m not sure what KEEN’s intention was in this activity, whether it was meant to be a learning experience or just a fun way to
mix up their annual event. But I walked away with a profound
new understanding of the industry.
This is a company that’s trying to make U.S. production
work, trying to prove that real manufacturing and real hands-on assembly operations like this are still viable and profitable
in this country. By putting the work in my hands, in the hands
of a know-nothing writer who is always a few steps removed,
it made that point loud and clear.
Manufacturing isn’t a concept, it isn’t a movement, it isn’t
a political rally cry. It’s a thing that people do. It’s a job, and
a vital one.
And something in that honestly felt good. I made four pairs
of boots while at the factory. I had my hands in this new innovation, this new platform that’s trying to change the way
shoemaking works. I was part of the story, however briefly
and clumsily. And I walked away feeling better about that than
anything I’ve done in quite a while.
FROM THE EDITOR
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