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Levi's Employee Participation Drives Production

December 1, 1992
Related Topics: General Excellence, Featured Article
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Work on the production line at Levi Strauss & Co. isn't what it used to be. Workers who make such garments as Levi's™ and Dockers™ at Levi's 27 U.S. manufacturing plants, now participate in a team process called Alternative Manufacturing System (AMS), which ties their compensation and incentives to team goals rather than individual goals. Also new is a flexible-hours program, called Time Off With Pay (TOPP), a company-wide benefit that allows employees to set their own schedules.

These changes are part of Levi's goal to align every policy and work process with the company's mission and aspiration statements, which call for employees to become partners in the process through empowerment. Under the old manufacturing system (called progressive bundling), employees worked on a small section of a garment, such as sewing pockets or inserting rivets, but weren't aware of what happened to the garment once their work was done.

Instead of lines of sewing machine operators, workers now work in a horseshoe configuration, allowing everyone to see how other team members are doing, and whether the work is piling up in any one spot. If it is, employees decide how to manage the problem.

"The old system didn't encourage employee participation or input," says Linda Johnson, HR manager at Levi's Blue Ridge, Georgia plant, where they manufacture men's zipper-fly Levi's. The Blue Ridge facility, which employs 450 workers, began converting to the team process in August 1991 and completed the conversion in April 1992, making it the first Levi's facility to do so. All U.S. plants will convert by the end of 1992.

In preparation for the conversion at Blue Ridge, a team—which included management, supervisors and sewing machine operators—broke into five subgroups to design how the new system would work at their facility. Johnson chaired the training subgroup, which designed an education series to help employees learn how to work within the new system. The training consisted of: personality communication, teamwork, problem identification, communication, brainstorming and conflict resolution.

Managers, now called team leaders, serve as coaches and facilitators, rather than as traditional command-and-control supervisors, and train their own teams, usually having 35 people each. The employees will receive 80 to 150 training hours before converting to AMS, including programs to broaden their understanding of production, budgeting, work flow and product mix.

Carolyn Searcy, a sewing machine operator, has worked at the Blue Ridge plant for six years. Searcy's team is made up of 36 people and was the second team to convert to the new manufacturing process. Her main job is banding, which is sewing on waistbands. Searcy says that the personality training was most helpful, because her new team contains some people with whom she hadn't worked before.

Searcy says that she likes the new system, although it has been challenging. "With the old system, you clocked in, sat down at your machine, and did your job," she explains. "Now, we have to work and solve problems as a team, or the work doesn't get done, and nobody goes home. That's the best part, we really know what's going on now, whereas we didn't before."

The flex-time option has been in place at the plant for two years. The facility is open 20 hours a day and teams can choose their own schedules within those hours. "All we ask is that the team reach a consensus," explains Johnson. "They seem to be working well with that."

The old system was more difficult, says Searcy, who has a young daughter. "We were pressured to be here," she says. Now, workers can take time off to go to the doctor and make up the time later. "If you do have to leave, you feel an obligation to get back quickly, so that someone else doesn't have to do your job," says Searcy.

The new system reflects Levi's aspirations statement. "It encourages employees to be involved, to be accountable, to be open and honest. It also removes the barriers between management and the employee," says Johnson.

Is the new system more difficult to manage? "It's hard to let go," Johnson says. "It's like pushing your children out of the nest. You don't want to see them fail." They haven't failed. Since the pilot programs were implemented, the plants have had lower inventories, shorter lead times, better quality, a decrease in absenteeism and turnover, and fewer injuries. "I've seen lots of growth in our workers, but it hasn't been easy. You can't just walk in one day and say 'OK, now we're a team,'" she says. "It's an evolutionary process. Not that workers didn't have knowledge before, but now they know how to share it."

Personnel Journel, December 1992, Vol. 71, No. 12, p. 37.

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