GE Appliance has a 70-year history of manufacturing the workhorse machines of the American household in Louisville. But the company might as well be opening its vast manufacturing complex today, for all the new workers it has hired over the last several years as new Chinese ownership has expanded sales and share of GE dishwashers, refrigerators and laundry equipment in the U.S. market.
The company has created 4,000 jobs in the last seven years as owner Haier has invested $2 billion in manufacturing, Bill Good, vice president of the supply chain, told the Chief Executive Smart Manufacturing Summit in Louisville recently. GE Appliance management has had to create fresh approaches to meet those rising labor needs at a time of essentially full employment in Kentucky and across the country.
“How do you change the paradigms that have prevented you from making progress in those spaces in the past?” Good said GE executives asked themselves. “As a century-old company, we had a lot of paradigms. [But] we had to make the work fit the person, not the person fit the work.”
Overall, Good said, GE Appliance works on “the employee value proposition. [Workers] all think, ‘What do I get paid, what are they asking me to do, what environment am I in, what’s the culture like, how much freedom do I have in my job?’ So if you’re not working every piece of this equation, you don’t have a chance.
“Employees don’t just chase the money. It’s not enough — not for this generation. They want to do something different. As manufacturers, we can make the new American dream a reality.
That new strategic approach strategic has included creation of a program called My Work Choice which allows employees to sign up for at least eight hours of available shifts each week and ties them to a particular department so they’re not having to learn too many jobs. More than 1,500 people now work in the program, and their retention and absenteeism performance is better than for full-timers.
“The reality is that most assembly lines have 18 to 20 seconds of takt time; we’re not building rockets,” Good said. GE streamlined benefits packages to fit part-timers and began offering college-tuition reimbursement, “and we were quickly overwhelmed by stay-at-home parents who just wanted a couple days of work” each week.
GE Appliance also has opened the company’s traditional recruitment funnel to “under-indexed” groups including part-timers, women, single parents, students, retirees and political refugees. Retirees, for instance, “have tremendous experience and want to retire but have something to do a couple of days a week,” Good said.
GE also has worked with Catholic charities in Louisville to tap into a large local population of Afghani political refugees, integrating them into the workforce with language-translation programs and focusing, Good said, on “standardized work they can follow.”
To combat absenteeism, in Louisville GE Appliance tried a new approach. “Unreliable transportation is the No. 1 reason for absenteeism,” Good said. “So we partnered with Lyft and gave people a $100 transportation credit that people can use in $5 increments to go back and forth to work through Lyft. That can be the difference in their being able to keep a job. Now we have more than 2,000 people signed up for the Lyft program, and on any given day more than 200 riders.”
The company also has been working with local schools to beef up its pipeline of skilled tradespeople, especially females. “If you have [one] women in your skilled-trades group” in a plant, “you’re lucky,” Good said. “We as parents have told all our kids to go to college. So this is a gap in manufacturing. Very few people are getting their two-year skilled-trades journeyman card. We have to break that paradigm.”
But that’s not all. Good said that GE Appliance also is focusing on product design to gain efficiencies in the manufacturing process. “When there are flaws and fluctuation in specs, it creates turbulence in the factory and you’re constantly chasing getting costs out of the back end of the process,” he told the Chief Executive summit. “So we want to have the best product architecture in the industry. That means [addressing] how many physical parts are there, what is the material proficiency, what is the robustness of design-to-quality. We’ve worked heavily on that the last 10 years.”
Digitization has helped as well, including the creation of a “digital thread” throughout the design, supply and manufacturing process. “Ideally, we want to have complete visibility and a digital thread from when the supplier makes a component to all the way when our appliance is installed in your home. GE has always been known for Bit Data, but it’s not all been usable to solve problems on the manufacturing floor. So now we’r eable to harness that data in a more usable format.
“And we’ve gone from a follower in digitization to a leader.”