Dave Kern on Why His Endless Days on the Factory Floor are Behind Him

ALCOA Interview

August 10, 2000

Dave Kern has worked at Alcoa Packaging Machinery in Denver for fifteen years. The plant makes large industrial machines used to make aluminum cans. Under the terms of the plant's High Performance Work Organization arrangement, Dave and his 165 coworkers use flextime, consensus decision making and other innovative strategies to keep the company productive.

Q: What was it was like when you first started working here?

When I was first hired on, it was owned by a different company, it wasn't Alcoa. It was horrible. It was dark and dingy; they didn't have a lot of lights. We had old equipment that was held together with baling wire, prayers and bubble gum. You had a dark kind of dirty environment -- it was never clean. It was pretty awful. First day I started, about two hours into it, I thought, "I'm never going to last here. This is not my job; I'm gonna have to find something else."

Q: What about the hours?

Hours were incredible. We were a real busy shop. This is back in the dark ages, before Alcoa. They were cranking out a lot of equipment out of this antiquated building. There were accidents; the injury rate was phenomenal. When I first started, you had a one out of two chance of having an injury in the eye. The human resources guy told me that when I hired on and I thought, "Well, this is kind of weird," so I was always real sensitive about safety glasses. Now, just as a comparison, we haven't had an eye injury in a number of years.

Q: How did things change?

We had kind of a renaissance, when Alcoa bought us out. They said, well we've got to find a better way to do this business and remain competitive in the global workplace. We had to involve the front line workers. We had to get people involved in running this organization. And in a spirit of cooperation between the machinist's union and Alcoa, we had an agreement that we signed that said, "Yeah, we will partner on this stuff, we will be successful in this enterprise." Luckily the union was behind it, luckily Alcoa was behind it. We'll sit down, put our heads together, come up with some way to do this--to realize this goal, to accomplish this task and we'll pull it off. So far, we've been successful at it. It's been a grand experiment. The High Performance Work Organization is not necessarily a goal, it's a road that you travel, it's a path. There's no real destination. You've just got to keep going down the path. And that's what we're doing now and so far the results speak for themselves.

We've got a secure work force, we've signed a job security agreement, people aren't getting laid off. In the dark ages, we had a lay-off, hire cycle. You know, you'd be in one week, you'd be gone for a couple months, you'd be back for a couple months and it was just no way to run a family, no way to run a life. It was just horrible. Now we've got stability. We know that we're going to be here, no matter what happens, you know at least the company and the union are going to work together to make sure that we still have jobs. We have some way to make a living, that we've got some way to put food on our table.

Q: What is your typical workday schedule like now?

My typical workday? It varies. There's no such thing as a typical workday. We demonstrate our agility on a daily basis. We're multi-skilled. So, I might start out in one area of the shop, for instance, I was working shipping this morning. I slid in, did a little bit of purchasing and some procurement for the guy in the shop that needed a specialty item to repair a part and then went into a little customer service mode to track down a shipment and do that kind of thing. And then, who knows what's going to happen this afternoon? I actually haven't been here a full 8-hour day this week. Maybe 6, 7 hours a day for most of the week and then tomorrow we've got a heavy build schedule, so I'll probably be here 12 hours tomorrow, to make sure we get the product out the door. It's a first-time shipment. And then, if I have any mop-up to do, I'll come in Saturday or Sunday to get it done.

Q: What about overtime?

We know what our work load is, we know what we have to accomplish, we know about how much time it's going to take to do it, so you know, we set our own overtime. If somebody's swamped, we'll shift resources his way, but if he needs to stay a little bit longer, he can set his overtime schedule. If we need everybody, we'll all work overtime. If we only need a handful of people, we'll just get the people in that we need to work the overtime, so you're not hanging around here when there's nothing to do. And our collective bargaining agreement supports that. We determine our overtime in this department by consensus. It works out real well.

Q: How does consensus work here?

The rules that we have for consensus are that your input has to be heard and listened to, you've had to have an opportunity to speak. Second, it's got to be a decision that you can live with and support and actually get behind. And third, you can't just say no. You've got to offer an alternative, or a different way to look at a problem. So, what we do is, apply those rules to what we do on a day-to-day basis and set our own overtime, set our own start time and then we set our own end time.

And we have to cover our customers. We keep the customers and the shareholders happy -- all of us are stakeholders in this organization.

That's why it's good to teach people how the business runs. What do the books look like? What are the financials? That way you take an interest in how this thing runs. You know how you contribute to the bottom line. You know, getting a cup of coffee. That contributes to factory cost. I don't know if you make a whole lot of decisions on your coffee drinking, but it's something you consider. If you're aware of how you impact the bottom line on all this stuff, you're going to make decisions that are right.

Q: Flextime and making decisions by consensus is not common in blue-collar jobs. What do you think about that?

If it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander. I mean, we're intelligent people. It's hard to believe, but we've got the skills to run our own lives. We file our taxes, which are very complicated, we make investments, we do this kind of thing. It's the same thing that happens on the other side of the wall, too. Alcoa's really receptive to that. People want to do a good job, people want to be productive. Well, you know, give us an opportunity to set our own schedules and we'll make a schedule that actually meets the requirements, with the minimal amount of negative influence on a person's family life and the minimal amount of negative influence on our work life. So, it works out all right. Yeah, give us a shot. Hey, put us in, coach. We'll win.

Q: From how you've been treated in the past and the way you're treated now here, do you think you're a different person?

For me personally, it's really an enriching thing. If you're in a partnership mode, it's easier to work for a positive goal than it is to work for a negative goal. So, my personal life, I feel has been enriched. I've got a lot less pressure on me; I'm a lot happier when I come home. I'm definitely in a better mood.

And I think the training -- there were a couple years when we spent 80 hours a year in training for everybody. Everybody. That's just phenomenal. What you learn at work you can apply in your own personal life. For instance, financial training. You know how to read a balance sheet, you know how to make decisions that affect the bottom line. Well, that's great skills if you're trying to pick a stock. You can actually use that and apply it to your daily life.

And it's great, too, if you've got a kid who's taking a business class. You know, historically a blue-collar guy doesn't know anything about return on invested capital, or day sales outstanding, or anything like that. Well, if you've got a little background on that and your kid's taking a business class, all of a sudden you look really good to a teenager and that's tough to do sometimes.

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