Finding best practices in a surprising place
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
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
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
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
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
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
In return, Brooks and her management
team are open about the organization’s
“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
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.”
The cancelation of the 2020 event “severely affected operating revenue,” according to the Great Reno Balloon Race.