What Does it Take To Be the Employer of Choice?
Navistar practices enlightened self-interest--and it pays off
James D. Sawyer
The way Chuck Sibley tells it, enlightened self-interest lies behind the employment practices and policies at the Navistar Engine Group plants he manages in Huntsville, AL.
“We try to treat everybody from the top to the bottom the same way,” he says. “There is a payback to this. It’s not just about being super-nice people. It’s a business decision. It’s not just a feel-good story.”
Still, it is hard not to feel good after hearing how employees are treated at the manufacturing facilities, Navistar Diesel of Alabama and Navistar Big Bore Diesels LLC. It is also hard not to feel good after hearing about how the policies and practices pay off for the company.
The most notable“people” story coming out of Navistar’s operations in Huntsville involves the Employee to Volunteer plan that Sibley came up with in 2010 to keep workers in the “family” as Navistar Diesel of Alabama was being remodeled in order to integrate I-block engines into what had previously been solely a V-block engine plant (to learn more, please see the article, “Agility in Action”). Production was halted at the facility during the project. The Employee to Volunteer program kept employees on the payroll and off the unemployment line by assigning them to volunteer work in the Huntsville area. Employees thus spent their time refurbishing homes with Habitat for Humanity, building wheelchair ramps with Care Assurance Systems for the Aging and Homebound, and sorting inventory for the Salvation Army.
“We’ve invested a great deal in training these employees and based on their performance we wanted to retain them,” says David LaPalomento, vice president of Global Integration for Navistar’s Engine Group. “This program allowed us to hold onto these employees and kept the workforce together, minimizing the need to recruit and re-train employees” once the plant remodeling was complete.
In a down economy with high unemployment nationwide, the Navistar program made headlines, not just in Huntsville, but across the US. The program earned rave reviews from aid recipients, community groups, Navistar management, and Navistar employees.
“I was obviously thankful that I wasn’t laid off,” says Roxanne Lee, who was part of the program, “but I have discovered a whole new wonderful side of myself by providing clothes to the needy at the Salvation Army store.”
“I think it’s paid off for us huge,” Sibley says.“Everybody was very grateful.”
Sibley wants his employees to be just as eager and grateful to come to work.
“Our view of life is we want everybody to be singing in the shower when they’re getting ready to come to work,” he says. “If you are singing in the shower, your head is in the right place. You are going to watch for things, you are going to pay attention. If you’re mad at the world and things aren’t going good, you won’t be in that frame of mind.
“That good frame of mind is what we try to get people to be in when we talk to them. Every day isn’t perfect, we all work. But we try to tell them, if something is wrong tell us so we can work on it, we can try to help you fix it because we want you to be singing in the shower so your head is in the right place.”
When Sibley says he talks to people, it is not just a figure of speech. As he walks through the plants, employees come up to him with questions, suggestions, or just to say hello and chat for a bit.
“People are very trusting here, they trust us, we trust them,” he explains. “We [plant management] have a very open-door policy. We are here where anybody can see us. They know my home phone number, they know everything about me. If they don’t think Lance [Fulks, business team leader,assembly,] is going to fix a problem, they come find me. If they don’t think I’m going to fix a problem, they come find Lance. It doesn’t matter. Our motto is, ‘Go to who you think will fix the problem.’”
Another motto seems to be “Make sure things don’t turn into problems.” Nothing exemplifies that more than the attitude toward safety.
“We were the first plant,” Sibley says, “to achieve 4 million hours without a lost-time accident, and this is ongoing. Our last lost-time accident was December 1, 2006.
“We do take safety extremely seriously. We do a lot of things about safety; you’ll see it as you walk around. The first thing employees see when they go out on the shop floor every day is a safety display.We play safety bingo to keep it in front of people every day. The hardest thing about safety is keeping peoples’ faces in front of it every minute of everyday. That is the only way to make sure.
“Nothing matters to me more than everybody going home with their fingers and toes the same way they were when they came in this morning. Nothing. We’ll build engines tomorrow, but let’s be absolutely certain that we are safe today, that’s the way we look at it.”
Comprehensive training is also one of the ways lost-time accidents are avoided. Every worker is thoroughly certified on five jobs, and every worker rotates jobs every two hours. The safety payoff in this is that it helps eliminate repetitive-motion injuries.
The certification program also ensures Navistar’s Huntsville workforce is flexible. It extends from the shop floors at the two facilities to the front offices.
“Our management staff handles both plants,” says Sibley.“I’m in charge of both plants. We have about 25 people with shared resources.IT and accounting is a large chunk of it that is shared between the facilities so you don’t duplicate costs.”
With a metropolitan area of better than half a million people, Navistar has a fairly large population to draw workers from. While the local economy has seen a downturn during the last few years, employment has not suffered as much as in many parts of the US. There is competition for workers,particularly the highly trained workers required in modern manufacturing. Part of this is due to the fact that there are a good number of government and military facilities in the area, including the Marshall Space Flight Center,the Redstone Arsenal, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. In addition, the manufacturers in the region include Boeing, Cinram, Toyota, GE, and 3M, among others.
In the face of this competition for workers, Sibley has set a high goal: “We want to be the employer of choice in this area.”
One tool he uses to accomplish that is having “everybody here wear uniform shirts. We do that because we want to have a work atmosphere that is kind of a lab environment, and we want people when they go downtown to be proud of where they work and wear those shirts.”
Sibley also wants employees Navistar can be proud of.
“We have a very rigorous employment-screening process,” he says.“When you apply for a job, you take a written test that is more of an IQ test to see if you are smart enough and how you can do basic functions, and then you take one that is a fit test to see what kind of person you are. Are you a person who would rather work alone? Are you task oriented? Are you considerate of others? Do you work well in a team? Because on an assembly line there are a lot of people close together, so you have to pass that. From there you will also do a physical skills test to make sure you are not like me and fumble-fisted and can’t work well with your hands.”
Next comes an interview, but the interviewers are not all front office people.
“We actually have people from the line as interviewers,” says Sibley. “There will be operators, there will be group leaders, there will be salaried people, managers. You interview with six people, then we take the average score of those six and we select the interviewees who score in the top half as the people that we hire.”
Job applicants come from three pools of candidates, those referred by family members or friends who already work for Navistar, those who have no connection, and those willing to work as temporary employees.
“We hire,” explains Sibley, “one-third temporaries, one-third referrals from family and friends, and we hire a third ‘blind.’ The reason we do that is to make sure that we get a lot of new ideas coming in, and new blood coming in, and we can always keep up with the blended best practices, and what is the best way to do things.”
Navistar is continually looking for the best way to do things at the two plants and is not particular about where those ideas come from, either from inside or outside the organization or from hourly or salaried workers. Responsibility is also shared between hourly and salaried employees.
“We are very much a lean workforce as far as our organization goes,” says Sibley. “If you look at our two facilities here, right now we have 81 salaried people. We do not have salaried supervisors here, however. We run with hourly group leaders on the floor. They will have a zone that they are accountable for and they get paid an additional $1.75 hour. They do time and attendance scheduling, vacations, they do all that themselves, and they also are the substitutes and the trainer to make sure that everyone in their area knows what they are doing.
“The way we view the big picture is that we are all part of one team and we all live or die together. We all have the same goals; we are all heading in the same direction all the time.That is how Navistar started out here in 2002 and it’s been very effective.” ME
This article was first published in SME’s Motorized Vehicle Manufacturing 2011-2012.