Strategies for Continuous Learning in the Workplace Part II, The Johnsonville Foods Saga

Tom Peters

Sausage factories have been the butt of jokes for years—e.g., there are two places you don’t want to visit, a Chinese restaurant’s kitchen and a sausage factory. And sausage making, as a result, hardly ranks with software engineering or lawyering on the scale of respected jobs.

But if you visited Johnsonville Foods, headquartered in Sheboygan, Wisc., you just might change your mind.

For instance, listening to President Ralph Stayer will make you wonder if you made a wrong turn, leading you to the Dean’s office at a theological seminary. “People want to be great,” proclaims Stayer. He wants everyone to be “the instrument of their own destiny.” “Watching people grow is my number-one joy.” “It is unconscionable for [workers] not to have the chance to use their full talents.”

Well, that’s pretty heady stuff. But a lot of top bosses, who’ve read one too many recent management books, utter similarly odd-sounding phrases these days. So let’s listen where it counts—down on the Johnsonville production line.

Whoops, wrong turn again. This time we seem to have stumbled into an Army recruiting office, because I distinctly heard a sausage worker say that the company “wants us to be all that we can be.” He also talked about top management’s ungentle insistence that everyone become an avid reader—BusinessWeek, information technology journals, management textbooks, biographies, or novels, for that matter—in order to spur personal growth and the constant study of new ideas. Next door, his boss, the plant manager (called a “coordinator” here, where there are no formal titles), ranted endlessly about “helping people do everything on their own.”

And he does mean everything. The typical Johnsonville work team: (1) does its own recruiting, hiring, evaluation, and firing; (2) regularly acquires new skills and conducts its own training; (3) formulates and tracks its own budget; (4) makes capital-investment proposals as needed (after doing the supporting analysis, making appropriate visits to vendors, etc.); (5) handles all quality control, inspection, and subsequent troubleshooting and problem solving; (6) suggests and then develops prototypes of possible new products or packaging; (7) works on the improvement of everything, all the time; and (8) develops its own quantitative standards for productivity, quality improvement.

And those self-set standards are tough, according to Stayer. “[Outsiders] think it’s a real nice thing and it’s all fuzzy and warm,” he asserts. “It’s anything but that. It’s far more difficult at Johnsonville than any other place. It takes a person who really wants to excel, because nothing else is accepted.”

Despite the impressive list above, it’s the overarching attitude about continuous learning that really stands out. For instance, Stayer has granted no general raises since 1982. All raises are based on merit, and most are tied directly to additional education and demonstrated new skills. It’s an extra 25 cents or 50 cents an hour if you take on leadership of the team’s budgeting effort, an extra 25 cents or 50 cents if you work on a so-called Pride Team (tackling a special improvement project), 25 or 50 cents if you take an outside course to become a trainer and then take over leadership of your team’s training activities, and so on.

Continuous learning, with the sky the limit, is almost a religion at Johnsonville. All workers take a sophisticated course in economics, for instance. But, more important, they are encouraged, with company support, to study anything, job related or not. As one employee (or “member,” to use the Johnsonville jargon) explained it to me, “Look, anything you learn means you’re using your head more. You’re engaged. And if you’re more engaged, then the chances are you’ll make better sausage.” Move over, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Everyone’s aspirations are sky high. While I was sitting in on the morning quality-assessment meeting (consisting of a half dozen workers with especially good palettes), one woman described her ambition to become an expert trainer, helping out across the entire company. Said another sausage worker, “I plan on retiring here. I have a goal. I want to be a statistical-process-control coordinator … to go to all of our plants and work with people on projects, saving money, developing new programs, helping the company keep growing.”

Many people, from Xerox’s widely respected chairman, David Kearns, to TRW policy analyst Pat Choate and Harvard political economist Robert Reich, have said that continuous worker-skill enhancement—that is, lifelong learning—is the chief route to permanently increasing American competitiveness, in high- and low-tech industries alike. And several firms such as Xerox have impressive lifelong learning programs. Some of the best are clearly described in Training in Technology: Toward Continuous Learning, a report from the Work in America Institute (Scarsdale, NY).

But no one has taken the idea further than Johnsonville, where, on any given day, you will find 500 people busily at work “being all that they can be.” By the way, though the results are private, some estimate that the firm has grown almost 20-fold, to more than $100 million, since adopting its new approach to the work force a half dozen years ago.

Next week: The classroom at Thayer High School

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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