Imagine an auto plant where workers are called craftspersons; where teams of 25 choose their own leader; where everyone knows how to perform three or more jobs and anyone can stop the assembly line over quality issues.
Some would guess Toyota's Georgetown or Nissan's Smyrna plant, known for their product quality, efficiency and highly skilled employees. But they'd be wrong. Think Detroit's Conner Avenue assembly plant. Think Plymouth Prowlers and Dodge Vipers. Surprised?
The eight-year-old Daimler- Chrysler Corp. operation, two years at this facility, has UAW Local 212's blessing.
Fourteen Prowlers and eight Vipers are meticulously built here each day on two separate 720-ft-long lines, using one shift working five days.
Each car is stationary for 30 minutes per work area as the multi-talented workforce uses its collective finesse to assemble the very expensive (Vipers start around $75,000) niche cars. It takes 2.5 days to complete each vehicle.
The qualified workers are handpicked. Job notices are posted in area DC plants and final candidates are selected based on their interview.
"We look for people with good team skills, who are independent thinkers and have problem-solving skills," says plant manager John P. Hinckley, who knows all 200 workers at the plant on a first-name basis.
Employees here, he says, are well educated but not in it for the money, losing about $25,000 annually in overtime earned at UAW-manned high-volume plants. So what's the draw, aside from very cool cars?
It's a nice work environment, Mr. Hinckley says, with weekends and evenings free. A lot of workers are in college pursuing degrees. "We lose 5% to 6%to salary jobs," he says.
The most noticeable aspect of the Conner plant is the quiet. There is no automation. No stamping, no robots, no painting - only final assembly. Just-in-time modularity is common but not perfect due to low volume.
No Viper is made unless it's already sold. The owner's name is attached to the vehicle as it travels the line, a reminder that workers are not turning out widgets but finally polished jewels made to spec - capable of brute power.
Each car is housed inside the plant until it is loaded indoors onto an enclosed car carrier, by which it's delivered to the dealership already prepped and ready to drive. Some 5% to 10% of the customers opt to pick their cars up right at the plant.