When his oratorical juices get flowing, Mike Fortune is quite a storyteller. His animated recitation of an incident at a high-school football game both captivated and amused the audience at IndustryWeek's recent America's Best Plants conference in Dallas. But more significantly, his story carried an important message about employee involvement. Mike Fortune is the Total Quality Management coordinator at Tenneco Packaging's containerboard mill in Counce, Tenn., one of the 10 winners in the 1996 Best Plants competition. He is also a former vice president of one of the unions representing the mill's employees. And his personal resume includes a stint as a high school football coach. Winding up his presentation on the second day of the conference, Fortune energetically launched into a yarn about a football game in which his team clashed with a big rival for the league championship. It was a hard-fought defensive battle that went down to the wire. Late in the fourth quarter, trailing 6-0, his team got the ball deep in its own territory and mounted a desperate drive down field--doggedly grinding out the yardage as the final minutes on the clock ticked away. They scored the touchdown with just 10 seconds remaining, to knot the score at 6-all. "Now, with the score tied at 6-6 and just ten seconds left, what do you do?" Fortune asked rhetorically. "That's right--you kick the extra point." But as the coach was preparing to give his ace kicker a final word of advice, he felt someone tug on his shirtsleeve. It was "Bradley," the team's young equipment manager. "Coach," Bradley whispered, "go for two!" Well, not only did that advice go against conventional football wisdom, but young Bradley had never been regarded as a play-calling genius. So the coach ignored him and resumed his huddle with the team's star kicker--upon whose toe the outcome of the game appeared to rest. Then the coach felt another tug at his sleeve. It was Bradley again--and he was almost frantic. "Go for two, Coach," he said. "Go for two!" "Listen," the coach shouted back. "When I want you to think, I'll let you know. . . . Now, go get the kicking tee so we can set up for the extra point." (In Tennessee, the ball is placed on a tee when kickers try for an extra point.) "But, coach," replied Bradley, almost in tears. "I forgot to bring the tee." Naturally, that dramatically changed the complexion of the situation. And Fortune did the only sensible thing. "I called my quarterback over and said, 'Go for two!'" Under the circumstances, Bradley had made the right call. And it taught the coach a lesson he's never forgotten. "Sometimes, the person you think is the least important member of your team is the one you really ought to be listening to." It's a lesson that many winners in IW's Best Plants program--which honors the nation's leading-edge manufacturing facilities--have shared over and over again. They've learned from experience that the best ideas for improving a production process or solving problems often come from the people who are closest to the operation and who have a detailed understanding of the process. That is one reason why management at the Tenneco plant has painstakingly cultivated an environment that encourages employee involvement. When they started in the late 1980s, only about 10% of the workforce bought into the concept--but the ratio has since been reversed. "Now," Mike Fortune points out, "the 90% who weren't involved have become the 90% who are involved." The payoff has been remarkable. When the Counce mill sought ISO 9000 quality certification in 1993, its empowered workforce played a major role. "Our employees took ownership in the quality system. They wrote the work instruction manual, which standardized the best work practices in the plant," Fortune told the Dallas audience. Perhaps even more impressive has been the bottom-line impact. As of Jan. 1 of this year, Tenneco Packaging's employee-involvement initiative is yielding more than $9 million a year in verified annual savings. "Involvement at our plant has helped us in many ways," Fortune stressed. "And it is going to carry us into the future." Just as young Bradley's unsolicited play-calling carried the high-school football team to victory in the championship game. Yes, they went for the two-point conversion--and they made it!