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Image: John Keatley via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Image: John Keatley via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Since I conducted research on manufacturing in the US Midwest in the early aughts, I’ve kept in contact with a few of my informants. One of them, Paul D. Ericksen, has 38 years of experience working in procurement and supply management, primarily in two household-name, multinational manufacturing corporations. Ericksen has been writing a blog on Next Generation Supply Management at IndustryWeek since April 2014, and I’ve been keenly following it.

The Ericksen blog is an object lesson in how wide the gulf is between the everyday problems facing manufacturing managers in the real world and the way academics represent management within mainstream management theory. By mainstream management theory, I have in mind the economistic literature based on assumptions that individuals are rational maximizers and markets are inherently efficient (as opposed to the sociological literature, which emphasizes how cultural institutions and power relations in the real world systematically undermine the maximization of efficiency).

Ericksen worked with many hundreds, perhaps thousands of factories that supplied parts and subassemblies to the Fortune 500 companies he worked for. Based on this experience, he highlights a number of ways in which deeply embedded forms of culture and power, in both the multinational corporate brands (prime contractors) and their suppliers (subcontractors), generate and sustain systematic inefficiencies in their organizations. (For academic studies that document and triangulate such outcomes with the views of other informants, see my colleague Josh Whitford’s book on the decentralization of American manufacturing, as well as my own study of routine inefficiency in factories.)

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