“Variability is the enemy of quality.”
I had heard about Kohler when I was in college because it has an amazing artist-in-residence program for ceramic and metal artists, and it was fascinating to see the sinks, tubs, toilets, and fixtures being manufactured—like a Sesame Street episode on steroids!
We weren’t allowed to take our cameras on the tour, and I suspect this rule has less to do with worries of corporate espionage and more to do with safety. It would have been tempting to stop and take pictures so many times on our route through the working plant, and I imagine I might have lost my tour group or got my eyebrows singed by the molten iron if I had been allowed to bring my camera!
All the pictures that I have are of the Design Center and the surrounding landscaping. And that’s okay. As interesting as the factory itself was, the most fascinating part of the tour can’t be captured by a camera because the most interesting part of our visit was the deeply ingrained sexism of our guide.
J was an affable fellow. He was about my father’s age, heading into his late 80s, and he had been a manager at Kohler for decades before he returned to do the tours. He made the joke about corporate brainwashing himself and it seemed clear that he believes in Kohler as a company.
As we made our way among the molds and furnaces, the comments were tolerable to begin with, I suppose, but they were many. When I asked about the diversity of the workforce (I saw a total of two women on the factory floor and just one African American man, the rest were white males), he told me that the work was a bit heavy for most ladies. Since everything involving lifting seemed to be machine-assisted, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by “heavy.” I wondered if the union had anything to do with controlling who gets hired.
By the time we arrived at the foundry, I was full up on asides about women being this way or that way. As we entered, J said that the ladies don’t usually like this part of the tour because of the strong smells in this building. As we exited, J informed us that the fixtures that Kohler produces last a lifetime and that the only reason why the company stays in business is because wives like to make changes around the house. “We love women!” he said gleefully.
But it was the next thing that came out of his mouth that put me over the top. He said that he had married the head woman in the company. Did we know who that was? A few of the other people on the tour hazarded a guess, and then J informed us that the top woman in a company is the CEO’s secretary.
Yes. That’s what he said.
I know that American culture has changed a good deal during J’s lifetime. Women were given the right vote just a few years before he was born, but it wasn’t until he was in his 40s and 50s that a fuller kind of equality began to be achieved. I’m willing to consider the source and cut him some slack, but he laid it on a bit too thick for me to call it even.
Throughout the tour, part of the fun of being inside a working factory was seeing the safety and quality control slogans posted everywhere. I was particularly stuck by this one: “variability is the enemy of quality.” It’s more militaristic than the others, and there’s even a vaguely communist flavor to it. I couldn’t help but wonder if it applied to more than just the factory’s output.