On the lilting plains outside Kansas City, Mo., a merry band of
Harley-Davidson employees is doing much more than assembling 180
Sportster motorcycles every day - they're obliterating the Berlin
Wall between management and workers, between white-collar pencil
pushers and blue-collar heavies.
And they're achieving considerable success.
This sprawling plant, where welding sparks spew onto the floor
and enamel paint assaults the nose, is home to America's most
radical experiment in plant-management democracy. Here, hourly
workers decide everything from how to spend their department's
budget to which music to play on the line.
(Aerosmith is a favorite.) Even the wheel-spoke specialists get
computer training to learn spreadsheets and Powerpoint - so they can
give slick presentations about their ideas for building bikes
It's an unheard-of arrangement in American industry. But the
quest for better worker productivity - which economists say will
keep the Energizer economy hopping along - is prompting greater
experimentation in US offices and factories. And to that end, Harley
is setting a new standard for worker-manager harmony, and with
The plant is "way out there at the extreme pole," says Harley
Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California,
Berkeley. It's the only plant in America, he says, "that's cast in
Most workers seem to appreciate the freedom and the
entrepreneurial spirit here. Kevin McPeek is a lanky inventory
manager who slips from station to station, checking to ensure each
one has enough parts. He has leapt up the ranks from hourly employee
to salaried worker in just a few years - something most blue-collar
workers don't do in a lifetime.
"This is the land of opportunity," he says, surveying the
whirring plant. "I do what I want to do here, and I wouldn't want to
do it for anyone else."
Pride in this place is engraved on the workers' hands -
literally, in the form of tattoos. "I'll tell you, nobody at Honda
is tattooing the company's name on their body," boasts union
president Ted Gee.
And what effect does all this have on productivity? Plant manager
Karl Eberle says the facility's "rework rate" - or the number of
parts or sections that are rejected because of poor quality - is
just 5 percent. That compares with 20 percent at Harley's other
finishing plant in York, Pa.
When the Kansas City plant recently ramped up production from 161
bikes a day to 180, only 11 more employees were added (for a total
of 364) - a sign, says Mr. Eberle, of the innovation and
Harley, of course, isn't entirely alone. A 1998 study based on US
Census Bureau data found that firms with employee-empowerment
policies - nonsalaried workers using computers and getting profit-
sharing, regular employee meetings to discuss company problems, and
self-managed worker teams - had productivity rates 11 to 20 percent
higher than those without.
On a broader scale, "boosting worker productivity" is a watchword
of today's economy. The basic theory is this: Ever-more-productive
workers enable companies to pull in profits without raising prices. …