Boosting quality and productivity not impossible

  • Article by: FRED ZIMMERMAN
  • Updated: February 14, 2011 - 10:20 AM

Minnesota leaders can look to history for examples of economic adversaries such as management and labor coming together to solve dire financial challenges.

Much of the current debate on Minnesota's pressing fiscal budget problems often involves the practical imperative to find ways to do things better -- to improve quality and productivity simultaneously. This is difficult, but not impossible.

My purpose here is not to advance one position or another but to reflect on some of the individual character traits of leaders who have been effective in finding solutions to similar problems before.

After all, this is not the world's first need for adjustment. In the past, some of America's best companies such as Ford, Deere, Winnebago have successfully lived through difficult times in which revenue declined by 60, 70, and even 80 percent -- far more than Minnesota's current shortfall. Yet, these companies survived and became better.

My years in industry and as a long time corporate director have allowed me to know many business leaders. At the same time, I have had the privilege of knowing quite a wide variety of labor leaders. Though there are clearly variances in both groups, it has been encouraging to see the good spirit and competent foresight existing among the more highly regarded labor and management leaders. Indeed, there are often more similarities than differences. The similarities would include realistic understanding of the issues, a bias toward getting problems solved and a more appreciative view of the problems on the other side of the table.

A couple of decades ago, several high ranking auto executives and Douglas Fraser, the recently retired president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), spoke to our students at St. Thomas. We were pleased that everyone seemed to know one another -- and their problems.

Fraser was a very dignified speaker -- often sounding much like an Oxford don. On one occasion, he was approached after his speech by an attendee saying, "Sir, you don't sound much like a labor leader. I always thought a labor leader would be a cigar-smoking, fist-pounding person with a loud voice."

Fraser kindly replied: "My good man, you've just described Lee Iacocca," a long time personal friend of Fraser's.

On another occasion, I interviewed a top-ranking executive from General Motors who said in candor, "I think Don Ephlin [then No. 2 person at the UAW] had as much to do with the resurgence of the U.S. auto industry in the late 1980s as anyone in the industry."

Making adjustments

Minnesota has been blessed with some forward-looking union officials of its own. Bob Killeen of the UAW at the St. Paul Ford plant became a state and national leader encouraging union members to enthusiastically back both quality and productivity improvements "so our employers don't go broke." After retiring from Ford, Bob Killeen became co-director of the Minnesota Council on Quality.

Industry provided its own slate of capable executives who knew enough to see a coincidence of interest between management and labor: Donald Peterson, Philip Caldwell, and Lew Veraldi of Ford, Lee Iacocca and Robert Lutz of Chrysler, among others.

American industry survived the troubled early 1980s, and much of it is surviving today, due in part to practical cooperation in reducing the bad practices that did neither side any good.

These lessons should inform efforts to solve Minnesota's current budget dilemma.

We are all in this together. Adjustments need to be made. There will not be anywhere enough money to do everything as we did in the past. Enlightened leaders of labor and industry recognize that reality and they work together to reduce costs and improve quality simultaneously. Otherwise there is no future for anybody. It is very foolish for either side to claim immunity from improvement.

Education provides a good example of where cooperation is desperately needed. In spite of many dedicated teachers, the country's K-12 schools are a national embarrassment. More of the costs need to be directed to the classroom and away from time off and early retirements for employees and to less-effective administration. Yet the dedicated teachers I know would appreciate greater ability to control classroom discipline and the weeding out of teachers who are not serious about their jobs.

At the college level, it is not fair to the students to be increasing tuition at three times the rate of inflation while faculty members and staff spend so much time in unproductive non-essential activities. We have too much time off and we have too many meetings. Here, also, we could weed out some people. The lessons we are teaching in our classes have relevance to our own performance.

Greater efficiency and productivity are needed in other areas; regulation, permitting, economic development, health and human services, and more.

The labor and management leaders who have been memorable in the past would know what to do: understand the issues and work productively together to get the problems solved. I am hopeful this could still happen in Minnesota.

  • Fred Zimmerman is a professor emeritus of engineering and management at the University of St. Thomas and the author of books and articles on how effective industrial resurgence takes place. His e-mail is zimco@visi.com.

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