2/15/1997 | 10 MINUTE READ

Be Prepared To Be Involved

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At Eaton Corp.'s South Bend, Indiana, Forge Division plant, success—for both individuals and the business—depends on teamwork. "Be Prepared To Be Involved" is the plant motto. It isn't a suggestion. It is a way of life.


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They make heavy-duty transmission gears at the Eaton Corp. Forge Div. plant in South Bend, Indiana. Day in, day out, workers in the plant are performing some of the toughest jobs to be found anywhere, like lifting a white-hot 43-lb. billet with a set of tongs and working it across two dies in a two-story tall, 2,500-ton National Maxipres, transforming raw stock into a transmission gear blank. The noise is so loud, communication is done by hand signing. Yet the signals must come through loud and clear. Forgers are sometimes popularly depicted as fiercely independent industrial cowboys. Yet the men and women at the South Bend plant know they are vitally dependent on one another—mistakes can have fatal consequences—so they have developed a team culture that is a part of everything they do.

Teaming is key to the success and survival of the South Bend facility.


Guard Dogs.
This is what the forgersmen and women (females account for about 13% of the 96-person workforce)—call themselves at South Bend. It refers to how they watch out for one another. (A cultural motto: "No one ever gives up on a teammate; a team never allows a teammate to give up on himself.")

On a larger scale, however, the Guard Dog image translates into how the workforce—some 40 different teams (workers participate on multiple teams; see sidebar next page)—watches out for the future of the business. For at this facility, the future, including safety and health issues, quality, continuous improvement, plant expansion, new product and process development, customer service and satisfaction, on-time delivery, pay-for-skill programs, performance reviews, hiring and firing—virtually everything—is the responsibility of the functional and cross-functional teams—teams with names like "The Grumpy Old Men" and "Blood, Sweat & Gears."

And none of this would work if it weren't for four operating pillars: Trust. Respect. Communication. Involvement. Sure, these are just words. Nice words, at that. But they are given life through the activities of the people in the plant.


Reading Change Early.
The notion of teams and teamwork is nothing new at Eaton. As early as the 1960s the company recognized that the traditional union/management/worker scenario simply had to change. Strikes (some long and painful), grievances, and adversarial postures were deleterious to productivity, quality, worker morale, and, finally, in a very competitive and volatile market, competitiveness, growth, and success (survival). More time was spent in dispute than in problem-solving.

Eaton took what at the time was seen as a bold (by some, odd) move. It opened a plant in Kearney, NE, where everyone was salaried and there were limited job classifications. And everyone underwent intensive training—continuously—in things called "teams." And Kearney became a model, one which would spread throughout Eaton, worldwide.

The South Bend operation today has simply taken the early model to a new, higher level.


The Toughest Place You'll Ever Love To Get Into
It's said that of all of Eaton sites the hardest place to get a job is at the South Bend Forge plant. This is because of two things: the Guard Dog culture and peer review. Applicants for a forge position must go through some 12 to 14 interviews. Shop floor teams, trained in interview techniques, including all the legal aspects of what can and cannot be asked, sit in on these interviews.

Management positions, when they open (which is rare), are handled in much the same way. Eaton headquarters may make a recommendation (Eaton is a staunch believer in promoting from within). But the decision at South Bend rests entirely with the 96 employees at the plant. Team decisions are not second-guessed. When an interview is in process, the person being considered is not considered as an individual (credentials, such as degrees and previous experience, carry minor, if any, weight). Rather, he or she is viewed and evaluated based on their potential as a teammate. Can they be relied upon? Can they be trusted? Do they communicate? Are they committed to doing more than just a job?

Why do these forgers have a say in these seemingly administrative issues? Because from the teams' perspective there are no merely "administrative" issues. They have a culture, a company, and future to protect. And management has entrusted the teams with responsibility; they have been empowered to play this role. It's an issue of trust, and this trust has never been violated.

Such scrutiny doesn't just end at the employment process. After hire (there is no probationary period), each employee is put through a year's training, including TOPS (Team Oriented Problem Solving) training. Beyond their functional team (forge press, tool and die, maintenance, and such), new employees aren't even eligible for other team participation for the first six months. The reason: the Guard Dogs want the new hire's full attention, on learning to work with their functional team, and especially ingraining critical safety issues.

But there is a price associated with this type of culture. The quit rate at South Bend is about 10%, which is high by Eaton standards and even FIA (Forging Industry Association) standards. Why? There is the work: hot, heavy, dirty, dangerous. But the larger culprit, by the plant's own admission, is the culture. Many hires are good workers who simply want to work. Which is not nearly enough at South Bend.

An example. Minimal team participation (mandated by the teams themselves) is on three teams beyond one's functional team. Many employees are on six or seven teams. One young woman boasts participation in 13 teams. (For each team membership, a team patch is sewn on the uniform sleeve. Some sleeves quite simply have no space left for patches.)

And much of this cross-functional team activity takes place on the members' own time—unpaid. However, there is a team-developed pay-for-skills program: the more teams you participate on, the more skills you can learn, the more pay you can earn.

But many new employees can't make this kind of commitment, this kind of stretching to match and fit the culture—or at least cannot long sustain it. Thus, they leave.


Doing the Right Thing.

No one would admit to not doing the right thing. But actually doing it involves something that's talked up a great deal but practiced far less, and this involves the four pillars of trust, mutual respect, communication and involvement.

At South Bend these are issues that operate on a number of levels:

  • Teams must continuously demonstrate trust and mutual respect. A forge press team is made up of three members, rotating positions every hour, each knowing each others' function perfectly, operating like a single entity. Each person has to have complete faith in the other two.
  • Teams on the floor have to respect and trust that the managerial leadership of the plant is doing the right things for them. They have to believe that the leadership is committed to quality, continuous improvement, to worker safety, team recognition, and to the growth and well-being of the business.
  • Third, the plant leadership has to have the faith and trust that the teams on the floor are indeed functioning, self-directedly, and pushing the envelop on productivity, quality, safety, and problem solving.


Lows & Highs.

Two examples. Back in 1991, heavy truck transmission demand fell off, and there wasn't enough work to keep the South Bend plant (then about 40-45 employees) busy full time. Factory manager Tom Gothard gathered the workforce and prepared to paint a fairly bad-news scenario. A layoff. Last in, first out.

In the back of the group, clustered in the cafeteria that day, a hand slowly rose: "Why not have everyone, equally, take time off, and thus lay no one off?" Which is what happened. The entire workforce (Gothard included) took rotating Fridays off, without pay, so that everyone could continue to work. This arrangement, suggested by a team member for the benefit of all teammates, lasted four months, until the economy righted itself.

The opposite extreme happened a couple of years later. At Eaton South Bend one thing is non-negotiable: Keep your customers, truck transmission plants, running—no matter what. At the time, Eaton had about a 74% share of the heavy truck transmission market, which predictably never rose above 200,000 units a year. The South Bend plant was capitalized for 150,000 units. Suddenly, however, the market demand for heavy truck transmissions shot up to 240,000 units. The challenge then became keep up, or lose market share.

Corporate did its share and quickly invested about $5-million in the Forge Division for capital equipment and personnel. But there was barely time for equipment test and start-up or training. The teams had to bring the new or rebuilt equipment up to full production right away to keep the transmission plants supplied. At one point, due to equipment failure, two members of a forge team, after working an entire shift, loaded a pick-up truck with gear blanks, and drove all night from South Bend to an Iowa transmission plant, so the plant would have blanks for the morning shift. Then they turned around and drove back.

This pace kept up for more than three years—three shifts a day, seven days a week—which over time was bound to break the back of any workforce, no matter how dedicated. Communication and involvement again found a way through. The teams, made up of leadership and shop floor personnel, worked out a plan where front office workers would work weekends, running the forge presses, giving the forge teams the odd weekend off. A clear reflection of "Be Prepared To Be Involved."


Industrial Bravery.

The three-man forge team is called "The Grumpy Old Men." And through an assumption at the start of their shift they made an error that resulted in about 1,200 pieces of scrap. The assumption involved the failure to adequately follow one of their processes. It was not an inexpensive mistake, but it wasn't one that would close the plant. What it meant was that at the end of the day, the plant's output to its customers was jeopardized by some 1,200 blanks.

Even more important, a single team had let the rest of the plant, all the other teammates, down.

What did the team do? Hide it? Bury it? Postpone its discovery? No. Any of these actions would be in direct violation of the first of the four pillars that supported the plant—the pillar of trust.

The Grumpy Old Men came forward to the plant leadership, admitted their error, described its potential impact, and demanded to be allowed to take corrective action so that the problem could never occur again. Good. But not good enough.

The Grumpy Old Men went a step further. They demanded to be allowed to go before the entire workforce, at the start of each of the three shifts, and admit their error, describe how it had happened and exactly what action they were taking to ensure that it never happen again.

Another example: Virtually every time an employee quits, the leadership goes before all employees and explains exactly under what circumstances said employee chose to leave. Nothing is left to speculation.

It's actions like this that keep the South Bend facility virtually rumor-free. There is openness, trust, and communication.

However, there is this caution: Such culture, while resilient, is at heart a delicate thing: a single breach of trust, of respect, of communication, or involvement, can cause distrust to enter and the cultural to atrophy.


Adopt An Executive
In a effort to showcase the Eaton Forge Division's culture and to explain and demonstrate what forging is all about, the Guard Dogs developed a program where visiting executives—whether Eaton personnel from headquarters or other divisions, customers, state and local officials—are "adopted" for part of a day by one of the forge teams. The executives don protective coveralls (everyone in the plant, regardless of function, wears the same blue coveralls), protective glasses, foot gear and ear plugs, a team ball cap, and then tour the plant.

But this is no ordinary plant tour. One is not merely a visitor, an observer. At one point, harrowing, perhaps, for many, the executive, in the heat, dirt and noise, steps up to the looming Maxipres, and after a few moments of watching the operation, actually makes—or attempts to make—gear blanks from white-hot billets.

Afterward, the executive has his or her photo taken with the adoptive team, before the press, and prior to leaving, the executive is given his forged gear blank.

What's the point? Simple. The Guard Dogs of the South Bend Eaton Forge Division feel they have something special, a culture unlike any other in an industry that's punishing, both physically and mentally. Their culture is one where the mind is nurtured and permitted to flourish. And they want to protect that culture by helping make people understand what they do.

That's the point. 

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