The grinding machine whirs away putting a smooth finish o the rough dark lens, and Jim Teats is back where he started. It was at this machine that he began working at Bausch and Lomb Inc.'s eye wear division in Oakland, Md., four years ago.
In the old days the grinding was done in one part of the plant, the shaping in another, the polishing somewhere else, the imprinting yet elsewhere and the heat-hardening in a designated furnace area. Glass lenses in various forms of finish were stacked all over the place.
The plant, which opened in 1971, was organizationally, philosophically, technically and functionally geared to the work practices of the 1950s. The priority was simply to keep capacity up with demand.
Today it is firmly in the 1990s, geared to quality control, customer satisfaction and rapid market response.
The production system has changed from bulk processing to continuous-line manufacturing flow. All the production tasks are performed at small, independent work cells, each turning rough pieces of glass into the finished product -- a polished dark lens for a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses, its quality tested by having a steel ball bearing dropped from a height of 50 inches onto its concave side. There are no piles of half-finished lenses, just boxes of glass blanks at one end of each line, boxes of finished lenses at the other.
The results? The time it takes to produce a finished lens has been reduced from 25 days to 3 1/2 days; output per worker is up 60 percent; and new product lines, which represented 5 percent of the plant's production five years ago, now represent 30 percent, reflecting the plant's ability to respond quickly to fickle fashion.
The plant's payroll has remained stable at around 800, protected by its increasing output and skills from the recession-caused layoffs, and workers' salaries have kept just ahead of inflation despite the hard times.
The taskmaster foreman has been converted into a coach. "The foreman is more concerned about the problem-solving process," says plant manager Butch Sumpter. "They are much more involved in strategic implementation and our vision of where we are going than they are with day-to-day orders."
The workers are empowered. They can look at the company's current order books, so they know what business is coming into the plant. They also have access to the plant's financial performance, posted weekly on the office notice board to provide them the information they need to protect their jobs.
"We get paper all the time telling us what they are doing," Mr. Teats says.
"Everything is posted," Mr. Sumpter says. "No one [except management] would have had [access to] it until about three years ago."
On the plant floor, Jim Teats can now work almost all of the machines. He has become that most valued of workers in the modern factory -- a jack-of-all-trades qualified to turn to any task at hand.
The striking thing is that among all the whirring machines in the massive plant, no bosses are visible. The workers track production levels against targets on large boards at the end of each line. If one operator falls behind, the others help make up the lag. If the team misses its targets one day, it works longer the next to catch up.
"The way we live here is the person that works behind me is my 'customer' and the person who's in front of me, I'm their 'customer.' We depend on each other. We are pretty well supposed to be running it ourselves," says Mr. Teats, a 45-year-old former barber, maintenance worker and auctioneer (such multicareer backgrounds will increasingly greet managers of the future labor force).
"On a normal day the operators run all day long without supervision. We have a [production] number we typically have to meet. That's changing. I would say that within the next year, the number is not going to be real important. What's going to be important is being flexible, being able to go from here to there and take care of whatever needs to be taken care of. I think if we all do that, we won't have a problem meeting the numbers."