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Finding best practices in a surprising place

John Seelmeyer

For 12 years, LaVonne Brooks lived on

airplanes as she delivered the gospel of

manufacturing management develop

your workforce, keep close statistical control

of your work to Fortune 500 companies.

Then in the most unlikely place she

found an organization that successfully

put into practice what she was preaching.

High Sierra Industries in Reno is

growing its revenues will rise 25 percent

in the next year as the result of a big

new contract even as it faces challenges

that few other manufacturers

encounter.

Its workforce includes 105 people with

developmental, mental or physical disabilities

that keep them from finding work in

the traditional, competitive labor market.

But to meet its goal of providing

meaningful work and learning for its

employees, the nonprofit organization

needs to be a savvy, efficient manufacturer.

The day training it provides to its

workers costs about $15,000 per person

annually. Government reimburses $8,600

a year. It’s up to High Sierra Industries to

fill the gap.

It does with manufacturing contracts

from outfits such as International Game

Technology, for which High Sierra

Industries employees makes brackets for

fluorescent lighting.

No matter whether the manufacturing

contract comes from IGT (it’s High

Sierra’s biggest customer) or another of

the organization’s customers, the work is

conducted in a way that brings a smile to

Brooks, its chief executive officer and

executive director.

She learned the manufacturing business

at Digital Equipment Corp. before

launching a successful consulting business.

In her work with the nation’s

biggest companies, Brooks presented a

vision in which organizations worked to

develop the skills of their individual

employees.

That’s not just talk at High Sierra.

Specific goals for the development of

each employee are laid out. Progress

toward the goals isn’t monitored merely

in annual performance evaluations; it’s

documented by supervisors every single

day.

The documentation is statistical. How

many days a week did the employee meet

the goal? How many times did he fail?

Production reports produce more documentation

of progress toward goals.

Because High Sierra’s employees are paid

on a piecework basis, production reports

are key to the payroll. But they also measure

productivity and quality.

That requires a high degree of commitment

from the company’s 15 facilitators

the first-line supervisors. Most of

them are responsible for tracking the performance

and development of eight

employees. In some employee groups

where high degrees of supervision are

needed “hand-over-hand” is Brooks’

description of the process the ratio is

one facilitator to two employees.

The facilitators win praise from

Brooks both for their commitment

many work more than one job to support

themselves while they continue working

at High Sierra and for their cost-conscious

management skills.

In return, Brooks and her management

team are open about the organization’s

financial results.

“You can’t win the game if you’d don’t

know what the score is,” she said.

At the same time, the facilitators aren’t

allowed to forget that their ultimate goal

isn’t profits, but instead is development of

workers. Some workers, in fact, eventually

leave High Sierra and find jobs in the

competitive labor market.

“These are real jobs,” Brooks said. “It’s

not like we’re producing products that are

going to a thrift store.”

The organization specializes in highvolume

light production work especially

work that’s labor-intensive. High

Sierra’s employees work in a 25,000-

square-foot building the organization

owns at 555 Reactor Way. (It’s moved

seven times in its 25-year history.)

The management philosophy that

Brooks discovered and enhanced at High

Sierra is paying off.

The organization’s revenues have hovered

at about $4 million a year, but

they’re about to jump by $1 million annually

after it won a contract to provide

groundskeeping at Fallon Naval Air

Station.

The Fallon contract is important, too,

because it will provide summertime work

for about 30 people with disabilities in

the Fallon area who otherwise wouldn’t

have employment. (Unemployment runs

44 percent among people with disabilities

in rural Nevada).

Even with that growth, High Sierra

faces challenges. Like other businesses, its

health-insurance costs have skyrocketed

and the organization now pays twice as

much for health insurance as it pays for

its building each month.

And the slow growth in government

reimbursements means that High Sierra

and similar organizations need to run

faster just to stay even.

Still, Brooks said, “Even in the midst

of a bad economy, you just don’t give up

on your vision.”