Harley-Davidson Shares Work Force Best Practices from its Kansas City, Mo., Operations

July 5, 2009
Innovative ideas abound in a union facility.

Harley-Davidson Motor Co. delivered a presentation at the recent IndustryWeek Best Plants conference titled "Union and Management Partnerships Driving Manufacturing Excellence." Despite the title, the content would have been equally valuable for non-union workplaces.

Delivering the presentation were three employees of the motorcycle company's Kansas City, Mo., operations, which has a unique management structure rarely seen in union facilities. The structure includes a single contract that encompasses the two unions that comprise this facility: the United Steel Workers (USW) and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). It includes a leadership group made up of both salaried and union employees. And it includes no supervisor roles.

The presenters were Tony Wilson, IAM union president, Local Lodge 176; Al Hahn, USW union president, Local 760; and Mike Fisher, production plant manager. A few tidbits from their remarks include:

  • With two exceptions, all union members are free to work at any of the union jobs, without jurisdictional boundaries. The only exceptions to this rule are maintenance electricians, who must be USW workers, and tool and die makers, who are all IAM members. These exceptions impact about a dozen of the 800 union workers at the plant.
  • There are no supervisors, no team leaders and no group leaders. Key to this facility is natural work groups, of which there are 98. This doesn't mean there isn't plenty of leadership, explained Harley-Davidson's Wilson. Indeed, there are process leaders, union stewards, and others who step in if necessary. However, he says, "For the most part -- and it doesn't always work this way -- if your group performs and lives up to the scorecard you have for your group, nobody bothers you." On the other hand, "if your group does not perform and live up to the scorecard measures that are set forth for your group, you get a whole lot of unwanted attention."
  • All groups have a scorecard process by which they are measured. This includes the plant leadership group all the way to the natural work groups.
  • The two union presidents must interview and approve any new salaried hires.
  • The minutes of the weekly plant leadership group meetings are available to the entire workforce for viewing. Other communication efforts include monthly town hall meetings.
  • New-employee training takes eight days to complete, and it does not include hands-on experience or training about how to perform the job. Those efforts come after the eight days.
  • A collaborative product development process involves engineers and union workers in new product design reviews as much as two years in advance of a product introduction. Additionally, factory hourly employees perform design verification product builds, with feedback from the natural work groups captured in after-action reviews. Natural work groups also pilot and approve changes before they are introduced as a process or a part change.
Fisher pointed out that no information is kept secret from the unions, which has been helpful in these tough economic times. When hard decisions need to be made, "we have the same amount of data; we're looking at the same information."

To view a video of the Harley-Davidson presentation, go online to Union and Management Partnerships Driving Manufacturing Excellence.

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