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A few weeks ago, the progressive union leaders who helped create the Saturn auto plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, were tossed out of office by union traditionalists who charged that their predecessors were too cozy with management. It was a sad turn of events. In 1994, four years after it opened, I visited the Saturn plant with a group of educators and policymakers. The tour had been organized by Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers who died in 1997. One of the things that struck me as I walked through the facility was that you couldn't tell management from labor. That, in large measure, is why the Saturn experiment was so successful.

General Motors launched Saturn in response to tough competition from Japan: The American car industry was getting its clock cleaned. For years, the quality and productivity of U.S. automaking had been declining-even as car prices were rising. Then along came Japan with top-notch, low-cost cars. With its back to the wall, the American auto industry began to change. For its part, GM created a new, revolutionary car plant, one where workers and management would collaborate and make all decisions together.

Like the auto industry, American public education in the 1980s was in desperate need of a jump-start. Quality was slipping, and costs were climbing. As consumer satisfaction declined, critics called for vouchers and privatization. Always the visionary, Shanker thought U.S. public schools might be able to learn something from the Saturn experience.

He was right. The lessons were clear and stunning:

  • Saturn was not a case of tinkering. The founders set out to build a new culture; they were reinventing American auto-making from scratch.
  • The company had a clearly stated mission embodying a number of specific core values that were being implemented on a daily basis; these goals and values were reflected in the way people thought about work, did their jobs, and related to each other.
  • The heart of the Saturn experiment was the partnership between labor and management; all decisions were made consensually.
  • Saturn had abandoned seniority rules that favor years on the job over ability and qualifications. Production teams recruited, evaluated, and selected their own new members. The company provided training to help the teams do that effectively.
  • The entire Saturn enterprise was undergirded by a profound belief in continuing education. Every Saturn employee-from the CEO and union president to the workers on the line-received a minimum of 92 hours of classroom or on-the-job training; new trade technicians got about 700 hours of training during the first few months on the job. Each employee had an "individual training program," developed with the team leader, that accounted for about 5 percent of the employee's time on the job.
  • To allow for shared decisionmaking, the company insisted on "total open information sharing": no secrets between management and labor.
  • Production teams communicated up and down the assembly line to assure top quality at every step; each work unit considered the next team along the line as its "customer."
  • Employees fixed problems when they were discovered instead of trying to correct flaws later. Any team member could stop the line (at a cost of $20,000 a minute) if in his or her judgment quality was being compromised.
  • Pay was based on a system of "risk and rewards." Each employee was on salary, but goals had to be met for everyone to earn the last fifth of their pay. If they exceeded goals, they'd get bonuses.
  • Saturn was committed to change and innovation.
  • Humane relationships were important: no tracking; no treating people like losers; no lording over others.

What I saw at Saturn--committed people working together to produce the best product possible--had implications far beyond car manufacturing. I can't help but think how different our schools would be if they followed Saturn's example.

Vol. 10, Issue 7, Page 6

Published in Print: April 1, 1999, as Perspective
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