A benchmarking trip made nearly two decades ago to Deere & Co.'s factories in the Quad-Cities helped inspire a new leadership book by former Boeing Co. executive Fred Stahl.
In his book, "Worker Leadership: America's Secret Weapon in the Battle for Industrial Competitiveness," Stahl theorizes that "worker leadership" — giving workers significant involvement and leadership authority — can be a strategy for boosting productivity and, thus, help restore America's industrial power.
Stahl, now an author from Washington, D.C., was a founder of the Lean Aerospace Initiative at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT. It was that research project — launched in the early 1990s by the U.S. Air Force — that led Stahl to the banks of the Mississippi, where he and two dozen aerospace manufacturing managers and experts visited John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline and John Deere Seeding and John Deere Cylinder in Moline, said Dick Kleine, who was the general manager of the three plants at the time.
The U.S. Air Force had hired MIT to coordinate about 14 aircraft manufacturers in a search for the most efficient factories so they could emulate them and reduce aircraft production costs.
Kleine, who retired as Deere's vice president of quality after a 39-year career, recalled how the group visited several times, meeting with him, plant workers and union leadership to study the organization and management of production at the plants. At the time, the factories were going through a significant change in culture by empowering workers, he said. "Part of this was a change in management and part was a change in the union, the workers and the factory."
In all, the Boeing team studied some four dozen factories around the world, including Toyota, known as a lean manufacturing leader. Combining some of those methods with worker empowerment, Stahl developed a new Theory of Worker Productivity into a strategy of "Worker Leadership."
Kleine, who read Stahl's master proof before publication (the book became available Friday), said the Boeing team concluded the Deere factories were the most efficient they had seen around the world, not just due to lean manufacturing methods. "Overall, it does a nice job of showing what power there is in employees who get involved in the operation and who actually take ownership for their part of the operation," Kleine said.
Deere & Co. spokesman Ken Golden said the company did not have any recent involvement with the publication. "As always, we are honored when anyone respects our company's production and management practices enough to highlight them in a book."
According to the book's forward, Stahl's approach was inspired by changes implemented by Kleine. Stahl writes that "workers love these jobs precisely because of the opportunities to be creative and productive." The book also discusses today's global competition, relating a story of a GE factory that recently "reshored" from China to the United States.
The 256-page "Worker Leadership" was published by MIT Press and is available at Amazon's online bookstore for $29.95. For more information, visit www.workerleadership.com.