How to Build a Strange Workforce
- Aug 17, 2007
Do you want to build a great organization? Then you need to build a strange workforce. Does the word "strange" next to your workforce bother you? Strange means "out of the ordinary; unusual or striking; differing from the normal."1 Maybe having a strange workforce sounds a little risky to you—being different from normal doesn't sound comfortable and doesn't sound like you'd fit in. But when it comes to winning customers and beating down competition, you don't want to fit in. Success will not come from being like your competition. You need your organization to be out of the ordinary, unusual, and striking. If your workforce is how you beat the competition, then you can't build a great organization unless you build a strange workforce.
When customers interact with great organizations, they notice something different about their products, prices, or services that makes them say "Wow!" and tell other people about their experience. What do you think makes an organization's products, services, or prices noticeably different to customers? If your workforce creates or delivers the thing that your customers want, and your workforce is just about the same as your competitors', what exactly will customers notice about you? Nothing. What will make them excited about your organization? Nothing. Let's face it: You need your workforce to impress customers deeply and profoundly if you want to build a great organization.
Welcome to the concept of the strange workforce. A strange workforce is what makes customers notice your organization and want to give you their money. This book will help you build a strange workforce that creates something customers notice and makes them say, "I want that."
General Electric has a facility that builds airplane engines in Durham, North Carolina. The mechanics who assemble the engines are strange compared to the mechanics at other airplane engine facilities.
Durham Engine Facility mechanics are personally obsessed with on-time delivery, no defects, and no accidents. They work in teams that are in charge of their own schedules, budgets, and overtime and routinely rearrange their work schedules to hit delivery targets. They are willing and able to purchase new tools and invent new assembly processes that save time, reduce physical strain, and make defects less likely.
The mechanics rotate themselves into leadership roles responsible for attending business meetings where they report and learn financial, regulatory, and safety information and where they develop company policy (such as a reduction-in-force process). They report the information from these meetings back to their teams, which meet together for one hour every day.
All of the mechanics report directly to the plant manager; there is no middle management. The teams of mechanics personally perform the hiring, performance management, and discipline of their coworkers—if a mechanic is causing an engine to get behind schedule, he will hear about it from a peer in short order. Then if the one-on-one feedback doesn't change his behavior, the entire team gets involved to remedy the problem.
An intact team of Durham Engine Facility mechanics builds an airplane engine from scratch. They start by reading the blueprint and planning out the assembly procedure, and they end by reviewing the results of the engine test after it is shipped. This means that as a group of mechanics, the team needs to acquire the tools and parts, track material shortages, develop and modify schedules to meet ship date, plan shifts and overtime, ensure quality of parts and engine build, conduct the final inspection, ship to the test site, and conduct post-test fault review. Every mechanic on each team rotates into each of these roles and is able to assemble each part of each engine. Teams attach their business cards on their engines with pride as they go out the door.
Are these engine mechanics strange? Well, compare them to typical airplane mechanics. Mechanics in typical assembly plants are fairly narrow in the scope of their tasks, contribute skilled manual labor, and are judged based on their ability to perform one task very efficiently. Honestly, normal mechanics might not enjoy working at the Durham Engine Facility. An ordinary assembly person does not fit into a flexible clan of mechanics who obsess about ship dates and budgets, spend upwards of 12 hours hiring a single new mechanic to the team, discipline coworkers about slack behavior, attend management meetings to learn and teach better ways to do things, and communicate it back to their coworkers so that they can build product cheaper, better, and faster. Typical mechanics like to work fairly independently of others and do not feel comfortable building consensus, making business decisions as a group, or resolving daily interpersonal conflicts. Durham Engine Facility mechanics are a strange tribe.
What kind of business results does this strange, obsessed workforce create? In five years, this workforce reduced the cost of producing a CF6 engine by 10% each year, resulting in a 30% cost improvement on a twenty-year-old product.2 This workforce reduced the average number of defects 75%, from four per engine to one per engine. They did not miss one on-time shipment in 38 months and 500 engines. They were close to producing twice the engines with the same number of employees. Do you think that Boeing, their largest customer, noticed 75% fewer defects and immaculate on-time delivery? Let's just say that the Durham Engine Facility did not lay off one person and remained profitable during the airline downturn from 2001 to 2003. Let's just say that if you are a producer of airplane engines, you are going to have a hard time beating the Durham Engine Facility. But it's not magic—it's just a strange workforce.