Strategies for Continuous Learning in the Workplace: Part I, The Work Team

Tom Peters

“You’d better have lots of facts before you go to give a presentation to top management concerning a sizeable capital/good acquisition. … And on your own, you should check out [several vendors] …” That’s exactly what you’d expect from a seasoned consultant with a Stanford MBA. But I was talking to an hourly worker at Harley-Davidson’s York, Penn., motorcycle-assembly plant.

I also recently visited a 70-year-old, wood-floor General Motors components operation in Bay City, Mich. While chatting with members of the “135 Group” (one of the numerous self-managing teams scattered throughout the plant), I noticed a phone in their work area. As any wanderer through industrial America knows, phones are not usually found on the production line. I asked what it was for. The answer was commonsensical—but also revolutionary.

The phone is a direct line between the Bay City work team and its chief “customer,” a work team at a GM assembly plant in Toledo, Ohio. Despite a continuing budget crunch, team members from Bay City (all in the union) had been encouraged by enlightened local leadership to visit the people who use their products. When members from the two work groups got together, they made an “obvious” decision—obvious if you’re a normal human being, not so obvious if you have been schooled in traditional professional management and pyramidal organization structures.

These workers in Bay City (where average seniority is more than 20 years as a result of prior layoffs) wanted to keep their jobs. To do so, exacting delivery schedules had to be met without fail, and quality had to be above reproach. So, the Bay City team members said to their counterparts, “Let’s install a ‘hot line’ between us. If you have a problem with anything we send you, call us—we’ll fix it with no muss, fuss, or memos.”

And that was that. Phone installed. Problem-solving now takes place on a real-time basis—and a couple of thousand people in Bay City (and a couple of thousand more in Toledo) upped the odds of keeping those jobs.

In the past, when there was a quality problem or a late Bay City shipment, the Toledo worker might or might not report it to the foreman. Often as not, if the foreman was under traditional volume pressure, he would say, “The heck with it, use the defective part.” Otherwise, he’d buck the issue up the line several levels. A time-consuming exchange of memos would ensue up and down the two plants’ hierarchies. Dozens of people would become irate and the problem would not get fixed. In the long run, the employees, the customer, and the American economy would get the short end of the stick.

But no longer. In visits to Harley-Davidson and GM I saw, for the first time, what I now believe to be the limitless power of the well-trained work team, when given the tools and a chance to take full responsibility for its own destiny.

The Harley and GM teams were well-trained in statistics. The Harley teams, for instance, had 40 hours in the classroom on the topic. Virtually every question I asked hourly workers at either location was answered by referring to extensive charts, graphs, and written analyses, followed by discussions about “fishbone [cause-and-effect] diagrams” or “variation around the P-bar [average].”

Most of the measures and charts, which track quality, productivity, scrap, and budgets, were developed by the teams themselves, after they had been given full access to the numbers—all the numbers. “They wouldn’t let us near the numbers five years ago,” said one Bay City hourly worker. “Now, there are more of ‘us’ in the front [accounting] office than ‘them’ [managers and finance staff].” Bay City’s chief accountant concurs with this grim assessment of the past, bluntly acknowledging that “[I was] taught not to trust the workers.”

Harley has retreated from the financial precipice. In only a half-dozen years it has turned back the Honda challenge in big motorbikes. Now it’s routine to hear Harley work-team members, who recently suffered from what one called “that hourly feeling,” talking about making capital-budget presentations to top management, or calling in suppliers to berate them if their quality misses a single beat. A Harley line worker explained the new attitude: “It’s our motorcycles, whether we have a title or not. Whether or not [a vendor’s part] works is our problem …”

Management at the GM and Harley operations have decided that the workers—and their work teams—are capable of doing almost anything. It looks as if they’re right. For example, that 135 Group at Bay City increased productivity in just 15 months—(using ancient and previously abused machines) from 500,000 valves a month to 800,000. Along the way, rejects have plummeted—by 45 percent. This saves a bundle of money and, more important, protects jobs. Customers are better served and overall GM (and American competitiveness is improved.

There is no tougher test of the work-group concept than these two settings—tough Japanese competition in both cases, tough and entrenched unions at both sites, decades of worker abuse (disrespect, failure to train), and aging and poorly maintained (until lately) machinery. If it can work here, and it has, it can work anywhere. “Limitless,” as I said, is the adjective that I’ve come to choose when discussing work-team potential.

Next week: The Johnsonville Foods Saga
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