Harley-Davidson Bans Music in Factories

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

February 25, 2013

The company that's synonymous with rock 'n' roll and songs like "Born to be Wild" no longer allows employees to have radios or boom boxes at their work station in the manufacturing plants. No headphones or ear buds, either.

The last of the radios were to be removed from the plants this week, the company said, and there will no longer be piped-in music over the company intercom system.

The reason: "Too many distractions and potential hazards still exist in the workplace that impact our performance every day. We all share responsibility for identifying and eliminating things that do not support continuous improvement," according to the memo obtained by a columnist at the York (Pa.) Daily Record.

"As you are aware, it is imperative that we improve our safety and first-time quality performance," the memo from John Dansby II, vice president of manufacturing, said.

Harley's plant in York is a model of efficiency, where a motorcycle rolls off the assembly line about every 90 seconds.

Massive changes at the plant, and at Harley's factories in Menomonee Falls and Tomahawk, are expected to save the company hundreds of millions of dollars in manufacturing costs.

Harley has developed a system where production can quickly be ramped up or throttled back as needed, and industry analysts have called the changes remarkable at a company where traditional workplace practices hadn't faded easily. But no more music, not even in a plant where employees have biker tattoos and ride their motorcycles to work, radios blaring in the parking lot as they pull into motorcycle-only parking spaces. Harley cherishes its bad-boy image. But in the manufacturing plant, everyone has to be focused on their job, said company spokeswoman Maripat Blankenheim.

"It's difficult to maintain that focus when you have distractions like music," she said.

"You don't walk into the company headquarters and hear radios blasting away, either," she added.

Union responds The York plant was once known as the "angry factory" because people were ticked off about the labor contract and job losses. There was a strike in 2007, and two years later employees grudgingly accepted concessions to save the plant. Taking away the music isn't going to help morale, according to union officials.

"Management is suggesting that quality and productivity would improve as a result of eliminating the music. I would say it could create the opposite effect," said Frank Larkin, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents most of the Harley-Davidson plant workers in York and some at the Wisconsin plants.

Policies at other Wisconsin factories vary widely from "no radios allowed" to liberal acceptance of personal tunes.

Wagner Cos., whose products include hand railings and light fixtures for commercial buildings, allows radios as long as they aren't loud enough to be a safety hazard or annoying to any other employees.

Wagner previously tried to be more restrictive, but some people started wearing ear buds that presented more of a hazard because they couldn't hear what was going on around them, said chairman and CEO Bob Wagner.

Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac allows radios as long as they're not distracting or annoying.

"But you also have to wear ear protection in our plants, so you really couldn't wear headphones," said company spokesman Steve Fleming.

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