In 1993, Robert Henderson became responsible for opening a factory to build the most powerful commercial jet engine in history: the GE90. It was the first commercial engine that GE had designed from scratch in more than two decades. Developing it took four years and cost more than $1.5 billion.
Henderson and a small group of his managers decided to build the engine at an empty GE plant in Durham, North Carolina. And, while Henderson isn't one to throw around the word "radical," he decided to have the assembly work done in the most radical fashion possible. So radical was it, in fact, that some things made even Henderson uncomfortable. "My outlook was 'Let's push the envelope as far as we can at the start, because it's the only chance we'll get to do that,'" says Henderson, now 56, who had started a factory from scratch once before for GE. "What you establish is what gets perpetuated. Starting a culture is so much easier than changing a culture."
Six years after opening, the GE/Durham aircraft-engine plant is a totally self-managing facility. Workers manage everything from process-improvement and work schedules to overtime budgets. How did such a place come to be? How did Henderson and his colleagues shatter the command-and-control system that has governed factory work for more than a century?
Those involved with GE/Durham agree that after Henderson's vision, the most important factor was the absence of an existing plant. "Durham was a 'green-field' site, a fresh start," says Paula Sims, who managed the plant from 1995 until this past summer. "Because it was green-field, the business practices could be very different."
Before opening GE/Durham, Henderson's team visited other factories, looking for ideas and techniques that involved giving people on the factory floor authority and independence. Frank Woolard, now 56, a manager of technical-support operations, suggested an unusual idea — requiring every GE/Durham technician to have an FAA mechanic's license. "He said, 'Let's put that down as a starting point,' " says Henderson. "That would mean we'd start with a better caliber of employee, and we wouldn't have to spend time in fundamental training." Jack Fish, 42, the plant's founding manager, says that Henderson "didn't want to see supervisors, he didn't want to see forklifts running all over the place, he didn't even want it to look traditional. There's clutter in most plants, racks of parts and so on. He didn't want that."
Beyond a highly skilled workforce, a minimum of bureaucracy, and self-managing teams, the other principles for GE/Durham fell into place quickly. Each engine would be built by a single group of people, and that group would "own" the engine — from initial assembly to the moment it's put on the truck. Today, GE/Durham team members take such pride in the engines they make that they routinely take brooms in hand to sweep out the beds of the 18-wheelers that transport those engines — just to make sure that no damage occurs in transit.
The assembly process eliminated or outsourced all nonessential tasks. Parts arrive in Durham in kits that are ready-made for building specific modules, or else they are packaged into kits by contract workers at the plant. Equipment maintenance and the cleaning of areas like bathrooms are contracted out; team members keep their own areas clean. "We didn't want people doing anything that wasn't involved with the skills they had," says Henderson.
The result, says Henderson, who is still a senior manager for GE Aircraft Engines, is a workplace that astonishes even him. "I was just constantly amazed by what was accomplished there," he says. "I had a vision, but I never imagined that all the details would be filled in as they have been. I used to tell Paula [Sims], 'You've taken this to a point beyond where anybody could be as good as you are.' "
The system at GE/Durham — where there are 170-plus employees, all reporting to a single plant manager — can't apply to all settings. Jack Fish, who now manages a 4,000-person facility for GE's locomotive- manufacturing division, says, "Durham is truly special. What they're doing there works only with a certain size of business. You couldn't do that with a 2,000-person facility. You'd run out of runway with that kind of structure."
Henderson says that the central lesson of GE/Durham has nothing to do with people not having a boss, or with people setting their own overtime hours: "We tend not to ask enough of people. People can do more than we give them credit for. We insist on maintaining tight control, and we don't need to."
A version of this article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.