Beating a Path to Saturn's Plant

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Some unlikely groups have looked to Saturn for trade secrets.

Spring Hill, Tenn.

Founded with the simple yet ambitious mission of succeeding in the highly competitive small-car market, the Saturn Corp. has discovered some unlikely groups knocking on its doors in search of trade secrets.

One of the first educators to realize that the car company's model offered applications to schools was the late Albert Shanker, the president of the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers. Shanker first visited Saturn in 1994 with the Work in America Institute, a Scarsdale, N.Y.-based organization that studies labor issues.

Excited by what he saw, he had the AFT launch a mission of 140 members of the union's leadership, staff, and local affiliates--including most of the 39 members of the organization's executive council--to Saturn in May of 1995. The teachers' union has organized several smaller trips since then.

Like most of the groups that come here, the educators were particularly interested in the Saturn partnership, through which union members are involved in all levels of decisionmaking in the company. Staff members and managers also are held accountable for the products' quality.

Tom Mooney, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, accompanied Shanker on the 1995 trip and found ample inspiration for school reforms. Mooney later visited the car company a second time, and twice brought Saturn consultants to Cincinnati.

"We've used it to help people understand what we're trying to do and to justify it both to management and to our own folks," he says. (Mooney points out that he drives a 1991 Saturn with 95,000 miles on the odometer--a car he bought when it was time to replace his Honda).

Drawing on the organization of Saturn's work teams, the CFT this year bargained for--and won--a contract creating teams of teachers at eight of the district's elementary, middle, and high schools. Clusters of three or more teachers share responsibility for planning instruction for a group of students.

The team model will expand to an additional 32 schools in the district in the next two years.

Mooney sees no incongruity in using a model from heavy industry to reform public education. As he points out, it was the mid century rise of such industry that spurred major growth in the kind of labor organizing public school teachers eventually adopted.

The AFT's Eugenia Kemble, who helped arrange the union's first visit to the car company, agrees.

"The way they've decentralized the company with their organization of teams more fully professionalizes the nature of the work," she says.

In Saturn, Kemble says, Shanker saw a successful model for how employees could work in teams that were both given great autonomy and also held accountable by standards applied throughout an entire organization.

Inside the AFT, the Saturn visits inspired the formation of a new 12-member body called the Quality Workplace Committee. Made up of equal numbers of professional staff, support staff, and managers, the group studies ways to improve relationships between management and the 200-some employees at the AFT's Washington headquarters.

"The big thing I found at Saturn was the connection of the individual employees and their product, and how much knowledge they had about it and the pride they had," says Judy Bardacke, the AFT's director of office personnel and a member of the committee. "That came from the way they were trained and supported."

Saturn's influence has spread to many other industries in addition to public education. Each year, hundreds of groups--from government agencies to private employers--beat a path to Spring Hill in search of advice.

So many, in fact, that in 1992 Saturn created a separate company, Saturn Consulting Services, to handle the flood of requests.

In the past five years, Saturn Consulting has grown from a full-time staff of three to 30. Most organizations pay $3,000 to bring up to 30 people for a one-day visit. In addition to a plant tour and a history lesson on Saturn, the consultants brainstorm with visiting organizations for ideas for implementing Saturn's management model in their industries.

"Everything I've told you can work in any organization in the world, because it's based on principles," Jack O'Toole, a former Saturn union leader, told a group from the National Education Association that recently visited the plant.

Other groups that have recently sought the advice of Saturn Consulting include the U.S. Army, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Only one kind of organization is excluded from Saturn Consulting's services, at least without special arrangements: companies that compete directly with General Motors.

Vol. 17, Issue 09, Page 29

Published in Print: October 29, 1997, as Beating a Path to Saturn's Plant
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