grants, many without much English. Some
with solid educations, others with little or
no schooling. Some with positive attitudes
about work, others seemingly drenched in
hostility. The tremendous historical accomplishment of every successful manufacturer
was to take this mixed bag of individuals
and forge them into a productive workforce
capable of achieving great things.
What’s new today, of course, is that
manufacturers have different needs. They
do require technical skills. But they also
need problem solvers. With so many plants
operating lean, they need people who can
work on their own, without much supervision. Henry Ford famously said, “Why is
it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they
come with a brain attached?” Ford’s counterparts today understand very well that
they need the brains as well as the hands.
So how can a modern manufacturer take
all those instant-gratification young work-
ers—along with the more experienced
not-so-young ones, who often have quite
different attitudes—and forge them into a
workforce that can meet today’s challeng-
es? We think the answer is to create a orga-
nization that learns as it goes, that involves
everyone in continuous innovations, and
that never loses sight of the business pur-
pose behind all those innovations. Many
companies these days try hard to engage
employees’ brains as well as their hands.
But what we have in mind is something rarer—a company that helps its workers think
and act like businesspeople.
For proof of concept, you need look no further than Trinity Products, a steel pipe manufacturer and custom fabricator headquartered in O’Fallon, Missouri, a half-hour’s
drive west from St. Louis’s Lambert International Airport. Trinity makes big,
infrastructure-size pipes and structures;
you can see the company’s handiwork in
everything from bridges and power plants
to giant signs and scoreboards. It employs
about 160 people and does close to $100
million in annual revenue. And it’s about as
close as you can get to the kind of learning
organization we’re describing.
The company’s journey began humbly
WHEn WE TALk TO MAnuFAc TurErS ABOu T today’s changing workforce, they generally have frowns on their faces. Young workers these days lack technical skills, even basic math, they complain. And these young workers expect instant answers to their questions—the effect of the Internet, no doubt. They’re always asking “why?” rather than doing as
they’re told. Sometimes they’re opposed to the very idea that a company should make money.
We think a little historical perspective is in order. The people who once lined up at the factory gate or laboriously filled out a plant’s employment application forms have always been
a diverse and ever-changing bunch. Young men and women just off the farm. recent immi-
Bill Fotsch, founder
and president of
has helped nearly
400 companies bring
the economics of the
business alive for their
people. His client list
includes large companies such as Southwest
Airlines, Capital One,
and BHP Billiton as well
as numerous small and
John Case is author of
the classic books Open-Book Management
and The Open-Book
Experience. His articles
on the subject have appeared in Inc., Harvard
Business Review, and
many other publications.
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