Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Radical Road That Harley Took ; Harley-Davidson Leads the Field in Worker- Management Democracy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Radical Road That Harley Took ; Harley-Davidson Leads the Field in Worker- Management Democracy

Article excerpt

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 better.

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 revved-up results.

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 that mold."

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 productivity increases.

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. …

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