Join Date: Feb 2001
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US:Ford, UAW retooling work rules
Ford, UAW retooling work rules
Changes at Dearborn plant may serve as model for more efficient factories in the future.
Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News
What Ford wants
A look at the goals Ford has established for its North American plants:
Good working relationship between plant managers and local union leaders
Productivity, quality, efficiency benchmarks that compare favorably to foreign, domestic competitors
A plantwide culture of competitiveness that strives for continuous improvement
Prevailing attitude of cooperation rather than confrontation
A team-oriented approach to production, manufacturing that encourages problem-solving
DEARBORN -- Ford Motor Co. is sending a message to its remaining North American factories: Be competitive or beware.
Ford already has announced plans to idle seven factories and plans to shutter seven more plants over the next six years.
As it weighs the future closures, the automaker is making it clear it expects its plants and their union work forces to embrace a "change or die" mentality, abandon management-labor hostility and become fully competitive with Japanese plants in the United States.
"When it comes to future investments, the stark reality is that we have options," said Joe Hinrichs, Ford's vice president of North American vehicle operations. "We need to make sure that we're making those investments in facilities that we're confident are going to remain competitive for the long term.
"When we talk about a plant's competitiveness, we're talking about that plant community's survival."
By way of example, Hinrichs points to the quiet revolution that is under way at the Dearborn Tool & Die Plant. There, in the heart of the Henry Ford's historic Rouge complex, labor and management are redefining the rules of the game -- not at the negotiating table, but on the factory floor.
The plant's 500 workers have been reorganized into teams, each responsible for a particular part of production. Some blue-collar workers have taken on added responsibilities as team leaders, and all are being challenged to help find ways to make the plant more efficient. A few are even taking over duties previously assigned to salaried employees.
Similar programs have been successful at other Michigan factories. Workers at DaimlerChrysler AG's Trenton Engine plant, for example, recently approved Japanese-style work rules to pave the way for a proposed engine plant.
What may seem like common sense is actually a revolution for American auto workers, who historically have declined to turn a screw if it wasn't part of their specific job classification.
What makes the changes at the Dearborn plant even more unusual is that they have been achieved without renegotiating the local labor pacts. The United Auto Workers and management at the Dearborn plant worked together to protect its future.
"The UAW realizes that it has to be less adversarial with the company," said Jeff Laver, plant chairman for Local 600, which represents the plant's workers. "I feel that we're leading the way."
Laver said it was not an easy sell to UAW members, many of whom viewed things like team meetings as a waste of time.
"It was a culture change," he said. "The major thing was getting the employees to see that die production is a world commodity. We had to get the guys out of thinking that the dies are going to come here no matter what because we're Ford."
Machinist gets new job
That was a message Mike Shensky heard loud and clear.
A machine operator with 12 years at the factory, Shensky was elected team captain two weeks ago. Now, he oversees a group of 14 hourly and salaried employees. His team already has come up with a list of things they think they can do better and are working on ways to address them.
"I'm protecting my livelihood," Shensky said. "I want to see this company succeed."
Shensky is also learning to be a numeric control programmer -- a job that used to be reserved for salaried employees. He is excited about the opportunity to advance his career. Shensky's boss is happy that his factory floor experience is being coded into the machines that run the plant.
Other employees are helping decide which machines to buy.
"Management picked those machines," says Plant Manager Terry Henning, pointing to a row of idled milling machines. "They're terrible machines. This time, we enlisted the experts -- the operators."
Don Witchelhouse is one of the workers tapped to help Ford decide how to spend $2 million. He was made a team leader after spotting inefficiencies in his area.
While Witchelhouse was initially skeptical about the changes, he said he likes having a say in how things are done now that he sees his input is taken seriously.
"I like to take pride in what I do," Witchelhouse said. "I want to see things work."
Neither Witchelhouse nor Shensky receive extra pay for their added responsibilities. They say it is not about that.
"It's about me wanting to keep my job for the next 18 years," Witchelhouse said.
Nor are the workers the only ones who have had to embrace the changes under way at the Dearborn plant. Henning and the other managers had to rethink the way they approach their jobs, too.
"It's no longer 'Tell me what to do and I'll do it,' " Henning said. "Now, I'm not going to tell you what to do. You tell me what you need to do, and it's my job to give you the time, the resources and the materials to make it happen."
Making the transition came easy for Henning, who started out as a die maker himself. He knew how much knowledge was being wasted on the factory floor.
"We have to be harvesting all the talent that is in our plant," he said. "That's where the Japanese have overtaken us."
Much of what is new at Dearborn Tool & Die is just business as usual for Japanese automakers. Concepts like team-based manufacturing and continuous improvement are the pillars of their production philosophy.
Labor agreements that sought to preserve workers' hard-won privileges have historically prevented American automakers from following suit.
Industry setting precedents
That is starting to change, says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. Cole called the changes at the Dearborn plant an example of "unprecedented labor-management cooperation," but said precedents are also being broken at GM and Chrysler.
"It just recognizes the mutual dependence between labor and management," he said. "People are working together because of the mutual fear of death."
Ford's Hinrichs wants to see changes like those at Dearborn Tool & Die spread to the automaker's other factories.
"We are having conversations (with local union leaders) and we're putting forth initiatives at almost all our facilities in North America along the same lines," he said. "There's more that we can do with our current agreements, I think, than people realize -- if we have the right kind of environment, the right kind of working relationship."
But do these changes really affect productivity? According to Harbour Consulting, they do.
"Any steps that increase the flexibility -- not only through organizing teams, but also broadening the base of workers' skills -- is going to contribute to productivity," said Harbour spokesman Greg Gardner. "We see significant progress on that at Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler. The key is to make that commitment to flexibility consistent throughout their systems."
Hinrichs acknowledged that some of his plants are further along than others. He is tracking how each Ford factory is doing compared to the competition, benchmarking each facility in terms of safety, quality, productivity and costs. He wants Ford's plants to match or beat the competition.
"I know we can do it," Hinrichs said. "At this point, it's a matter of how quickly."
However, he said that may require even more fundamental changes -- changes beyond what is possible even with the loosest reading of the contracts.
Cole agreed. He said skilled trades workers still get paid a lot more under UAW contracts than their counterparts at nonunion factories. UAW benefits are also richer.
"That's the kind of thing you have to deal with at the bargaining table," Cole said, though he added that the changes at Dearborn Tool & Die show the discussion between Ford and the UAW is well under way. "What we're really seeing here is the negotiations for the '07 contract."
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My next Ford.....