Plant Tour Stresses
Morale Of Workers,
By DOUGLAS WATSON
The John Deere Power Products manufacturing plant is noteworthy in its size -- a big complex of connected buildings that cover 365,000 square feet and a newly opened 65,000-square-foot shipping pad that is covered overhead but open-sided.
The local Deere plant also is impressive in the systematic care and obvious pride its personnel take in the lawn tractors they make.
That pride was evident last week during a morning-long press tour of the plant for The Greeneville Sun and three visiting reporters, shepherded by a group of Deere managers and several representatives from a public relations firm.
Each of the 100 Series lawn tractors manufactured at the sprawling Deere complex along Hal Henard Road features a cardboard display with a color photo of 20 employees who were among the original 60 people hired in 1988 when the original, much smaller Deere plant opened along Hal Henard Road.
The displays, which say the lawn tractors have been "assembled with pride you can feel in Greeneville, Tennessee," are attached to every tractor's steering wheel when it is shipped for sale, no matter where it is going.
Ellen Hopson, the first employee hired to work in the plant, recalled how the Deere plant started here as a "small, satellite factory" with only 52 full-time, and 18 seasonal workers.
Hopson spoke about how the Deere plant has always stressed the importance of giving recognition to employees, who are called associates, and how it fosters a "celebratory environment" where achievements are readily recognized.
The visitors were reminded of such company slogans as "Nothing Runs Like a Deere," "Everything We've Learned Goes Into Everything We Do," and "John Deere -- The Best Known Name In Lawn And Garden Tractors, Gives You The Edge."
When the Deere plant opened here, it adopted many successful Japanese management practices, such as that of having a "team-based" organization in which groups of about 15 associates work together as units, then meet each Wednesday to discuss how to improve procedures.
One of the managers called the plant's organization into work teams "probably the biggest component of our success."
Also noted was the Deere plant's philosophy of "continuous improvement" in which everyone working keeps looking for smarter ways of making better lawn tractors.
The plant also takes pride in the voluntary community involvement of its workers, such as shown last year with their donation of more than 20 tons of food to the local Food Bank.
Also recalled proudly was the event last June when the Deere plant celebrated having achieved 10 million man-hours of work without having suffered one lost-time accident among its personnel.
All Deere associates wear similar uniforms that feature their names printed on their shirts.
One employee noted that there are no reserved parking places for company executives. In that regard, she said, "It's first come, first serve, right down to the plant manager."
The company's 100 Series lawn tractors, which are manufactured only in Greeneville, come in eight models that vary in size. They are priced from $1,499 to $2,749.
Like most other companies, the John Deere plant appears to be feeling the effects of the U.S. recession.
In 2005, some 320,000 lawn tractors were produced at the Greeneville plant. With the U.S. economy flying high that year, approximately 1,200 workers were employed during its peak production period.
Currently, a spokesperson said, the plant employs 537 permanent or core workers, and 250 contingent, or temporary, personnel.
The local plant last summer employed 500 workers during the plant's traditionally slow production period.
Depending on sales volume, it remains to be seen how many lawn tractors the Deere plant will make this year.
Richard Trebisan, a Deere regional marketing manager, acknowledged it is hard to forecast during the current recession what the sales of Deere tractors will be.
He said Deere, like everyone else, is unsure about when the U.S. economy will recover and how the recession could affect its sales.
Trebisan said, "The good thing about this (Greeneville) plant is that it has the capability to flex upward or downward" in terms of its employment.
He was referring to the plant's practice of using hundreds of contingent, or temporary, workers who can be laid off during a slow production season and brought back to work for peak manufacturing periods. Most of the temporary workers hope to be promoted to permanent employment, he said.
Trebisan devoted more than a half-hour describing the many features on Deere lawn tractors.
He explained, for example, why the tractors' plastic engine hoods are better than metal ones would be, and how numerous safety features are included to "protect the operators from themselves."
The tour of the widespread plant, where a maintenance employee was seen using a bicycle to get around the mammoth complex, included a visit to ProCote, Inc., the associated company whose building is physically connected to John Deere's building.
The Pro-Cote operation paints all of the new Deere tractors in the company's familiar green and yellow colors, doing so during 12 stops as parts are carried along by overhead conveyors.
In a typical day the local Deere plant uses some 1.4 million parts, a manager said, with 150 tractor-trailer trucks going in and out of the plant.
New Shipping Pad
Recently added to the rear of the plant is a large, covered, but otherwise open-air, shipping pad from which Deere tractors are placed into trucks -- with 32 tractors fitting into a big trailer -- within only a few days of their manufacture. Thirty-two lawn tractors can fit into a a big trailer.
David Smith, the plant's manager, has said the new shipping pad enables Deere to ship mowers directly to distributors and retailers, with no additional handling or warehousing.
Smith said an internal study determined that warehousing mowers was "a non-value-added step" that increased costs and did not benefit customers.
Behind the big shipping pad is a large parking area for tractors and trailers.
Nearby are about 30 acres of grass. What is the grassy area for, it was asked.
"Test mowing," a manager explained. The Deere plant wants to be sure the lawn tractors it produces cut the grass just right.