It used to be that the workers of Honeywell’s multi-racial workforce at its plant in Scarborough had little contact with each other. This lack of communication did not present much of a problem when work was organized on a traditional basis. The jobs were routine and uncomplicated, and the workers knew what to do without having to bother much with their colleagues. But all that has changed in the last few years. Now the company regards its employees not only as so many hired hands but as people whose interest, sense of responsibility, and ability to learn is vital to the success of the company.
The change in management coincided with the new business climate in which greater demands are placed on companies and their employees. The Honeywell plant, employing some 450 workers, used to produce 15 kinds of heating, cooling, and ventilation controls, mostly for the Canadian market. But in the mid-eighties, its product line was reduced to three items intended for the global market.
In the face of keen international competition and an economic slowdown, management knew that it needed to tap into the potential of its employees. The key was training and education. This presented a large challenge in view of the high average age of the employees and the fact that for half the workers English was their second language. But when given the opportunity, the employees responded with enthusiasm and began taking courses in English, mathematics, computers,
communications, and other topics, made available right at the company’s premises. Now employees who quit work at four o’clock can begin their schooling at 4:15.
Eleni Itsou and Caterine Lo, both in their 40s, graduated from the Honeywell courses in English as a second language and computers. Not only has it enabled them to upgrade their working skills, but it has also given them a new confidence. Lo, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in 1975, could hardly speak the language, so she just kept quiet. Itsou, an immigrant from Greece in 1986, also used to sit back quietly but now has learned to speak her mind, not only on the job but also in her community.
Work as partnership
Plant manger John MacMillan explained that instead of trying to select the right people for particular jobs, the company chose to work with its existing workforce and build a new sense of community among them. Management was surprised with the response of the employees. The first English class with 30 spaces had 130 people sign up. Other offered courses were met with similar enthusiasm. Sixty signed up for a communications class which taught a new way of working in teams by developing listening skills, coping with stress, and learning group problem solving abilities.
The workteam approach to production has given the employees a new sense of worth while improving quality and productivity (up by 40 percent). Lloyd Miller, the local union president (Canadian Auto Workers), pointed out that there has been a tremendous change in attitude. Whereas a decade ago management was the enemy, now the workers realize that they and management are working together to make a high quality product and thus preserve jobs. Miller is convinced that if the Scarborough plant had not undergone the changes of the last few years, it would have been closed.
Levon Hasserjian, Honeywell’s director of manufacturing, points out that technology, products, markets, and distribution are important elements of competitiveness. “But at the end of the day, what will differentiate you is the performance, the skills, the knowledge of your people.” He is convinced that the $300,000 annual investment in company-paid classes for its workforce is a wise investment.
The workers and managers of Honeywell have discovered that there are dividends to be reaped when they change from adversaries to partners. Real improvement in the workplace begins with an atmosphere of respect and trust, opportunities for learning new skills, and handing responsibility to the workers. (See Bruce Little, “A Factory Learns to Survive,” The Globe and Mail, May 18, 1993.)