When Everyone Has a Feel for Things

Tom Peters

The job of testing and repairing valves used to be sent out, took several days and cost hundreds of dollars. Now a homemade machine at the plant—designed by a machine operator—takes just minutes to do the same thing, at the cost of a few dimes.

Do-it-yourself projects like this are hardly the norm at run-of-the-mill steel plant. But Worthington Steel in Columbus, Ohio is not a run-of-the-mill steel factory. It is the jewel in $900 million-Worthington Industries' crown. The 5,800-person firm is adding jobs and is more profitable than IBM on many measures.

During a recent visit, I paused at a 36-inch steel slitting machine whose console was designed by its operator. In fact, a dozen modifications—to enhance control over quality or to improve efficiency—were made by current or prior operators, without help from any designated engineers-experts. The story of constant enhancement was recounted at every stop I made.

An operator's assistant is as often as not a salesperson doing a standard, six-month stint in the plant. The operator plays salesman, too. Visits to customers' plants, like Huffy Bicycle or General Motors, are routine for him. The object: to understand, firsthand, how the clutch plate or sprocket he helps produce is ultimately used—and to inject himself into the Worthington sales loop, in which everyone is expected to come up with ideas for new and extended business.

The operator offers to stop and grab a cup of coffee and chat. "So when's coffee break?" I ask. "Whenever I want to take it," he matter-of-factly replied, hitting the off switch and making me wonder if I really was in a steel plant.

En route, we stop at the computer room. He calls up the status of an order on an IBM computer. Then he turns to the state-of-the-art Fairchild-Schlumberger process control computer to determine the metallurgical parameters of a piece of steel being processed—casually mentioning that another Worthington operator worked for months to program this computer.

On the way back from coffee, I examined the three-stand cold-rolling mill, one of the industry's most advanced pieces of equipment. It's a study in contrasts—controlled by an advanced computer, but powered by three 1943 vintage U.S. Navy submarine engines that Worthington people scrounged up. The characteristic move, avoiding a gold-plated alternative, saved tens of thousands of dollars.

The self-help ethic pops up at every turn. If an operator needs a part to make a repair, he'll walk into the open, on-site parts room and take it, without having to sign a single form. This practical supply system was conceived of and designed by a fellow line-worker, of course. Likewise, there are no inspectors—line workers are fully accountable for the quality of their work, aided by stellar training and state-of-the-art measurement equipment. Quality that's five times the industry average is the outcome.

Accountability is a word you hear again and again. The company keeps the bureaucracy to a minimum. You won't find a single organization chart, and there simply are no barriers to communication across functions. The resultant flexibility is a key to the company's singularly impressive record for responsiveness to customer needs.

The plant manager who is guiding my visit has no formal metallurgical training, but I would swear he has an advanced degree. In fact, he began as a part-timer while he was an undergraduate business major at Ohio State. After graduation, he turned down an IBM offer to go "permanent" here. He acquired his expertise on the job, redesigning and modifying machines.

Soon we pass a team welding together the halves of pressurized cylinders for gas barbecues. Their pace reminds me of a Miami Dolphins' two-minute drill, even though this is the off-season, following the summer's frenzy.

Partly, their hustle, the apparent peer pressure and an absentee rate that's a fifth the industry average stem from Worthington's profit-sharing plan, which on average adds 40 percent to paychecks. Last year, a typical operator pocketed a $3,000 bonus every 90 days. To get into the bonus pool, you must be designated a permanent worker—for which you are eligible after about 90 days. You then must be voted "in" by a council of your non-supervisor peers. These councils are reputedly tough evaluators; after all, almost half their paychecks depend on the productivity of coworkers. The permanent designation is especially critical given the firm's no layoff policy, which has held good for permanent employees since steel operations began in 1955.

I'm not a Pollyanna about this. Working at Worthington is no picnic. The plants are hot and noisy. The pace is brisk. But the operators project a winner's sense of pride, security, comradery, and personal growth. They wonder openly about the decimation around them. For instance, one employee I chatted with could not fathom one aspect of the bankruptcy of $8.2 billion steelmaker LTV. It was beyond his comprehension how the guy who runs LTV had the gall to take home a half-million-dollar paycheck—plus a whopping bonus—for running the joint into the ground. There's no honor, nor bonus, for losing money at Worthington.

(c) 1986 TPG Communications.

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