A Mexican Maquiladora in the 80’s

2012 July 2012 Kirby Vickery Living in Mexico

By Kirby Vickery from the July 2012 Edition

A few years ago I found myself being hired on as the Quality Assurance Manager of what looked like a small electronics manufacturing firm in New England. Actually, they were looking for a product inspector and function tester when I answered too many questions correctly and ended up in a salaried position.

This company had no idea how a Quality department should act and how it should be set up in that aspect this was a small company. But, they had manufacturing in another part of the state, in Scotland, and in Mexico. So, possibly, ‘small’ was not the operative word. I had worked in quality control positions before and set out to make this one shine for the betterment of the entire company. I wrote the first set of ‘fabrication standards,’ ‘inspection and electronic test standards’, and ‘general assembly procedures’ with a set of directions for safety certifications.

Just when things started to slow down a little the owner sent me to Tijuana, Mexico, to familiarize myself with that operation. My daughters lived in San Diego so I wasn’t about to turn him down.

My learning experience started even before the airplane landed with a historical study of the company’s efforts in Mexican Production. What was set up was a Maquiladora. In Spanish, that meant “assembly plant” but we called it a “Twin Plant Operation.” There was a world of difference between the owners and managers and the workers in these plants. The management style was right out of the nineteen fifties. Although I was wined and dined and given the cook’s tour while I met all the important people on both sides of the border, I came back and gave my report of complete plant failure in three months and no one believed me. Four months later two things happened. The first was that what had been forecasted was transpiring and the second was to pack my bags as I just traded hats to become the new production manager for the company in Mexico.

I discovered, being the new-guy-who-was-not- in-charge, was that there was an entire world evolving around this ‘Gringo’ assembly thing that was far more complex than would meet the eye. The folks that could be trusted were the workers and the assembly line people. But, their language and style had to be learned first and then then supervisor could settle into one of two approaches to Mexican Management. The first was a fifty’s “do as I tell you to do or else” methodology or the second would be something new to these workers. It’s a little more difficult but with much better long term relationships, employment times, and a lot easier on the heart with a lot less anxiety.

The production requirements were set on the high side and we had to figure a way to meet them. Manage by exception seemed to me as the best way to get started with full time training as we branched into different product. What we had for assemblers’ was not from any local source, and they were not full men and women either. They were 17, 18, and 19 years old. We had a few from Sonora, One or two from La Paz. Most came from states further south: Sinaloa, Jalisco, Tabasco, or Zacatecas.

They had all come up to the Northern Frontier to make enough money to send home to help out. They all lived in shacks without water, electricity, or power of any sort with the possible of an electric light bulb run on homemade circuitry ‘borrowing’ someone else’s power. Most were from large families. They worked well together as they all were in the same boat and everybody followed the same rules:

1. In a team, work not to race each other as you would in the United States, but at the pace of the slowest worker so as to not make anyone ashamed in front of the ‘El Gringo.’

2. Always look down when he comes around. If you look up he’s going to make you smile and this is the only place that that happens.

3. Always tell him that the job can be done and that you will do it even though you may be fully aware that it can’t be done in the time span he wants it done, don’t mention the fact that you may not have the foggiest idea how to do it. (You can always ask your ‘lead’ when ‘El Gringo’ isn’t watching.) And remember, tell him what he wants to hear and to hell with the truth.

4. In this plant always tell ‘El Gringo’ good morning because if you don’t he’ll growl at you, than ask you if anything is wrong. Try holding a straight face through all of that.

5. In this plant you don’t have to quit if you have to get your younger sister or brother to school.

6. This guy loves tamales and will give you $.50 for each you bring in and tell him your mother or grandmother makes them.

7. Stay late on Friday afternoons after work. He gives lessons in English even though he doesn’t speak any Spanish. We don’t learn very much but we do have a good time.

8. This guy doesn’t get angry so don’t push it and do the best you can. Your turn will come to be taken to lunch.

To me they were kids. But, they were good kids with ideals, manners, and respect. After I earned their respect they always gave their all in any project put before them. We were one of the first plants to earn the new ISO certification in the city. We had one of the lowest turnover rates and the Maquila provided them with a Christmas gift-giving party every year, that no one on the other side of the border had ever seen. I would stack them against any assembly line in the world and they would come up winners every time.


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