RL Wolfe: Implementing Self-Directed Teams (HBS Case 4063)"

RL Wolfe: Implementing Self-Directed Teams (HBS Case 4063)”Order Description
Read HBS case “RL Wolfe: Implementing Self-Directed Teams (HBS Case 4063)” and answer the following three questions:

What are key design features of self-directed teams (SDT) ?

Do you think SDT is successful at the new Corpus Christi plant?

In terms of both human resource management and plant policy, how would you address the identified areas of struggle between the workforce and plant management (see
pay more attention for this case,I need a good score for this assignment. Use some self experience to analysis this case and answer the questions.
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DAVID A. GARVIN
ELIZABETH COLLINS

RL Wolfe: Implementing Self-Directed Teams
On a clear day in May 2007, John Amasi looked down on the city of Corpus Christi, Texas, as his
plane approached the airport. As director of Production and Engineering at RL Wolfe—a $350M
privately held plastic pipe manufacturer headquartered in Houston, Texas—he was looking forward
to visiting the company’s plant in the city.
Four years previously, in 2003, when RL Wolfe had purchased Moon Plastics—a small, familyowned custom plastics manufacturer in Corpus Christi—Amasi had seen an opportunity to
implement self-directed teams (SDTs) at the new plant. He had been interested in SDTs for several
years, since taking a business school executive education course on workforce motivation and team
structures. Amasi had been intrigued by reports of 30% to 40% improvements in productivity and
quality for SDT-run units, when compared with traditional manufacturing facilities, and returns on
investment more than three times the industry average.1
Those reports had come from a variety of industries—food and beverage, consumer goods—but
Amasi felt he saw evidence that he could use the SDT model to drive high productivity in a plastic
pipe manufacturing plant. The Corpus Christi plant, once retooled and back online in 2004, had a
design capacity of 2,250 tons of high-density polyethylene (PE) pipe per year. “High productivity,” in
his view, was 95% or more of design capacity. Wolfe’s two other plastic pipe manufacturing plants
were running at 65%-70% of design capacity.
Amasi’s first step had been to gain the board of directors’ approval to approach the workers’
union and offer a long-sought concession in health care coverage to clear the path for what became
known as “the Corpus Christi experiment.” The new plant would not be unionized, in contrast to
Wolfe’s other two plants. His second step had been to lure 35-year-old Jay Winslow from Wolfe’s top
competitor to become plant manager.
When Amasi and Winslow sat down to design the work system, they both envisioned a flattened
and simplified organizational hierarchy and committed work force with a high level of satisfaction in
their work (see Exhibit 1 for background on the theory of self-directed teams). That commitment and
sense of ownership, they believed, would inspire the workers to continuously improve processes,
1 David A. Garvin, “Understanding Self-Managing Work Systems,” Technology and Operations Review, 1997.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
HBS Professor David A. Garvin and Elizabeth Collins prepared this case solely as a basis for class discussion and not as an endorsement, a source
of primary data, or an illustration of effective or ineffective management. This case, though based on real events, is fictionalized, and any
resemblance to actual persons or entities is coincidental. There are occasional references to actual companies in the narration.
Copyright © 2009 President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685,
write Harvard Business Publishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu. This publication may not be digitized,
photocopied, or otherwise reproduced, posted, or transmitted, without the permission of Harvard Business School.

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thereby increasing productivity and quality. Now Amasi was on his way to tour the plant and talk
with Winslow. He was a frequent visitor at the plant, eager to see firsthand whether SDTs could help
him achieve and sustain high productivity in a plastics manufacturing plant. So far, the plant was
running between 80% and 82% of design capacity annually, but he and Winslow were not satisfied
with that result. He and Winslow planned to use this visit to tour the plant and to address the
barriers that were preventing higher productivity.

Background: Plastic Pipe Manufacturing at the Corpus Christi Plant
The new plant used plastics extrusion to produce high-density polyethylene (PE) pipes primarily
for the natural gas and oil industries. Lightweight, noncorrosive, chemically inert, and available in
long runs, plastic pipe was the preferred method of distributing natural gas and oil in many parts of
the world. PE pipe was easy to handle: a 500-ft length of 1-inch pipe weighed approximately 100
pounds.
To create extruded plastic pipe, raw thermoplastic beads (or resin) were loaded in a hopper and
mixed with additives such as colorants and IV inhibitors. The hopper fed a highly automated
extrusion manufacturing line composed of an extruder for melting and mixing the raw materials, a
die that determined the ultimate shape and diameter of the pipe, a vacuum tank for sizing and
cooling, and cooling tanks.
At the end of the extrusion line, the pipe was moved to a finishing line where identification marks
were added. Stacked lengths and spools of pipe were moved to an inspection area, where the outer
diameter, pipe thickness, and other quality parameters were confirmed. Finally, the pipes were
packaged and prepared for shipment to customers.
Workers also performed quality inspections on raw materials. The plant established its own
procedures for testing incoming resin based on melt index, density, tensile strength, and
environmental stress crack resistance (ESCR). Computerized controls were used both in the raw
materials quality inspections and throughout the extrusion line.
Corpus Christi, a 300,000 square-foot facility, ran four extrusion lines 24 hours a day over three
shifts (7 AM to 3 PM; 3 PM to 11 PM; and 11 PM to 7 AM). The strong hum on the factory floor was
punctuated by the hiss of cooling pipe. Each shift required 27 floor workers, with most of the activity
focused on bringing raw materials to the hoppers, running the lines, and transporting pipe away
from the finishing lines.

Corpus Christi in 2004: Moving Toward a Self-Directed Work Force
Back in 2003, Amasi and Winslow had asked the managers of Wolfe’s Austin, Texas, and
Columbus, Ohio, plants to join them on the Corpus Christi implementation team. The four met in
Corpus Christi for three days of planning meetings addressing job definitions, hiring, team setup and
responsibilities, and the role of the coordinator.

Job Definitions
For Corpus Christi, Amasi and Winslow strongly advocated pushing aside the job distinctions
and roles currently in place at Wolfe’s two unionized plants and creating semi-autonomous work
teams in their place. The Austin and Columbus plant managers provided similar descriptions of the
traditional roles at their plants.

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First, plant contracts with the 62,000-member Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers
International Union and other unions divided workers into two categories—production and
maintenance—with work assignments further determined by job classifications and seniority (see
Exhibit 2 for a partial organization chart for one of the unionized plants). The implementation team
maintained that these traditional divisions would not provide the flexibility and equality that were
necessary to make SDTs a powerful source of continuous improvement ideas. A related issue was
associated with conflicts between maintenance and line operator personnel at the two unionized
plants. No workers on the line, foremen included, were authorized to perform maintenance on
equipment. Maintenance personnel were paid a higher wage than production personnel, and
production personnel were promoted to maintenance positions only after at least one year at the
plant.
Even if a line operator knew how to fix a problem, the extrusion line would halt to wait for a
maintenance worker to fix the problem. Maintenance workers and line operators often disagreed on
the reasons for the breakdown of equipment as well as the best way to troubleshoot the line. Further,
line operators had an often-justified fear they would be blamed for any drop in the line’s productivity
while a fix was being made. To compound the problem, maintenance workers on the Austin plant’s
third shift called in sick at a rate 20% higher than third-shift workers at comparable plants. For the
Columbus plant, the rate was 35% higher than at comparable plants.
The implementation team agreed on two job levels for workers on the factory floor. The first
classification included line operators and materials handlers. The second level, called “technicians,”
would be assigned to the more technically demanding work on the plant floor. The job descriptions
for line operators and technicians were very similar, but technicians were expected to take the lead in
technical problem solving (see Exhibit 3 for a partial organization chart for the Corpus Christi factory
floor).

Hiring
The team recognized that the innovative work system planned for Corpus Christi would require
characteristics that were not traditionally sought in factory floor workers. Winslow was committed to
flexible work assignments at Corpus Christi and wanted, ideally, every worker to learn every job at
the plant. But fully participating in self-directed teams would clearly require both management and
workers to learn a new set of skills. Winslow and the others documented a set of personal
characteristics to use as hiring criteria, including problem solving and a thirst to learn, performance
reliability and adaptability, judgment, organizing skills, and initiative.
Then they set up three exercises, or simulations, to evaluate applicants on these dimensions. In
one unusual exercise, applicants were asked to create a box from a sheet of 8 ½ x 11 paper, train
someone else in the steps used, and then work with a team to create as many boxes as possible in 10
minutes. Applicants were told that the hiring approach was different than they had probably
experienced elsewhere because the plant was setting up its workforce in a different way. These
exercises mystified some applicants but others enjoyed the process, as one former oilfield worker
explained: “I’d never had a job interview like that. They want me to actually think and make choices
on the job. I didn’t understand how it would work but I sure got excited by the idea.”
Winslow and his hiring team interviewed 500 applicants for approximately 90 positions. They
initially offered positions to Moon Plastics workers but eventually hired only 20. “Moon was
unionized,” Winslow had explained to Amasi, “and I did not want teams to fall back into the old
ways of doing things.” Applicants were offered compensation comparable to that at Wolfe’s other
plants. Amasi had wanted to pay a premium of up to $2 per hour, based on job description, to
employees at Corpus Christi, but under pressure from the union he set aside this idea.
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Team Definition
The implementation team debated how to design the SDTs. They asked questions such as, “How
big can a team be and remain productive?” and “Do workers identify themselves with a specific job, a
specific shift, or an area of the floor?” Winslow and the others considered using a shift—all 27 people
working eight hours on the floor together—as a team. After all, it was the shift that produced plastic
pipe. Further, if workers rotated through all the jobs on the floor, they would gain a deeper
understanding of the pipe production process. As a result, they would start to think of the work areas
as interdependent and as equally responsible for the production of a quality product. Ultimately, the
managers on the implementation team decided to set up two teams—extrusion line operators and
material handlers—for each shift. Each team contained 12-15 people (see Exhibit 3).

Boundary of Team Responsibilities
In establishing boundaries for team decision making, the managers at the Wolfe’s two unionized
plants highlighted the gap between most plant workers’ experience and the roles that Amasi and
Winslow wanted them to play. In the other two Wolfe plants, most decisions were made in the office
suites, with little involvement by the workers. What could the Corpus Christi implementation team
reasonably expect in terms of initiative and problem-solving skills from the new hires?
In the beginning, Winslow expected the teams to take over the control of their day-to-day
activities—for example, setting up break time policies, fixing equipment on the line, and ensuring
that the right raw materials were always available for a given extrusion line. Winslow did not set a
hard boundary line for the decisions that teams could take on as they matured—though, in 2004, he
could not imagine that they would set production goals for themselves or participate in strategysetting for the plant as a whole.

Role of the Coordinator
The least traditional role on the Corpus Christi factory floor was that of the coordinator, who was
expected to support and facilitate the teams, but with little formal direction. One coordinator was on
the floor per shift. To help define the coordinator role, Winslow hired an organizational consultant,
who defined four leadership styles and described different circumstances suitable for each style. (See
Exhibit 4 for a description of the leadership styles.)
Acting as a directive leader, a coordinator would provide specific instructions and supervise
workers one on one, similar to the traditional role of a foreman. Acting as a coach, a coordinator
would explain decisions and ask for suggestions but would retain the power to make decisions.
Acting as a supportive leader, the coordinator would involve workers in making decisions and act as
a facilitator. And, finally, as a delegating leader, the coordinator would turn over decisions and
responsibility to the team.
Delegating leadership was the ideal, Winslow said. He asked the implementation team:
What do we mean by a self-directed work force, and how will we know when we get there?
For me, the answer is when our coordinators are true delegators. For example, if an extrusion
line decides to make a change in the water temperature used to cool the extruded pipe, a
coordinator in a delegator role would support their right to experiment with this
improvement, even if he disagreed. Wrong decisions cannot affect workers’ take-home pay—if
it did, everyone would fear innovation. And yet, the team as a whole must take responsibility
for thinking through decisions that affect the bottom line.

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Coordinators were asked to participate in a three-day training when hired. Winslow also acted as
mentor to all the coordinators and met with them as a group once a week.

2007: Tallying Successes and Disappointments
When Amasi reached the Corpus Christi plant that May morning, Winslow was waiting. The two
managers sequestered themselves in a meeting room to explore the successes and disappointments
associated with the same issues they discussed at the plant launch three years before (see Exhibit 5
for a summary of morale, absenteeism, and productivity measures among the three Wolfe plants).

Job Definitions
While initial job rotations on shifts caused disruptions, with workers confused about where they
should go from day to day, this issue was successfully resolved in 2005 by implementing a series of
recommendations from the SDTs and coordinators. Over a 36-week period, each line operator would
perform all of the jobs associated with that role, with equal time in every position. On-the-job training
would be provided, as needed, particularly for some of the new equipment Amasi purchased as part
of the plant retooling. After 36 weeks, the line operators would begin the same rotation on the next
shift. Materials handlers followed the same rotation.
Technicians, on the other hand, were expected to develop deep technical knowledge in two or
three work areas. Therefore, they rotated to a new area once per quarter. “We do have an issue with
our job definitions,” explained Winslow.
Many line operators and materials handlers feel they lack status when compared with
technicians. It appears as if subtle distinctions between roles are creeping back into our culture.
Yesterday, one line operator told me, “The technicians are being used like foremen and they
are not supposed to be. When the coordinator comes by, he asks for the technician. He doesn’t
value our opinions much.”

Hiring
In the past three years, Winslow had discharged seven factory floor employees. Some employees
were fired because they refused to participate in the SDT process, instead sitting silent and impatient
at their team meetings in the factory cafeteria and bolting for the door as soon as possible. Others had
misunderstood the concept of employee empowerment. “Empowerment does not mean autonomy or
total freedom to do what you want,” Winslow explained. “The source of empowerment comes from
the willingness to take on responsibility—responsibility to the team and to the plant as a whole.”
Winslow continued:
Most of our teams have taken ownership of quality improvement and safety issues. Neither
John Amasi nor I am satisfied with the plant’s performing at 80% to 82% of design capacity,
but across the shifts the teams are generating 20 ideas for process improvements per month.
We have an excellent safety record—only one accident in three years compared to two a year at
the Austin plant. Our third shift, though, is not making its production targets. And when the
coordinator or I try to help, the workers claim we are going back on our promises.

Team Definition, Boundary of Team Responsibilities, and Role of the Coordinator
“In 2004,” Winslow continued, “I would say 100% of decisions were made by coordinators in a
directive leadership style. Now, 80% of decisions about the work on the factory floor are made by the

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teams. In many cases, the workers know more now about plastics extrusion than the coordinators do.
As one coordinator said to me last week, ‘Now the workers are the experts, and they are accountable
to each other.’”
Remaining areas of difficulty centered on personnel management and plant policy. Winslow
shared examples with Amasi:

Individual recognition: “We’re successful at group recognition, but individual recognition is
a Pandora’s box. When a coordinator posted a list of outstanding performers, people on the
list didn’t like it and asked for it to be taken down. Also, workers are asking for pay increases
for high performance. But I want to incent teams, not individuals acting on their own—how
do I do that?”

Performance evaluation: “Floor workers tell me that coordinators know their names but little
about the work they do. And yet, no one wants to do peer evaluations, which I have seen as a
goal since 2004. They worry that disagreements between workers will be reflected in negative
comments in people’s permanent files. And peer appraisal raises a host of questions. How
would we use the results?”

Size and composition of the teams: “I think small teams are far more effective than larger
teams, but I’m struggling with how to define smaller teams on the factory floor. Furthermore,
we have fairly high turnover of floor workers—which means membership of the teams
changes frequently. That change makes it difficult for teams to gel, and when a team loses a
true leader, its decision-making ability plummets.”

Overtime, vacations, and policy: ‘Teams want control over the amount of overtime they
work and when they work it. But I believe that production goals, pay, and benefits are out of
bounds for team decisions. Just yesterday a worker complained, ‘We were given the
impression when we came here that the majority rules, but that’s not the way it is.’ The
problem, as one of my coordinators said to me just yesterday, is that the boundary between
management and workforce decisions is constantly shifting and everyone has a different idea
of where the line should be.”

“There is no turning back with self-directed teams,” Amasi said, after listening to Winslow, “It’s
like teaching a bear to dance. Once we started dancing with the bear at Corpus Christi, we gave up
the ability to say when it’s time to stop. We still have a higher productivity, measured as a percentage
of design capacity, than we do at the other Wolfe plants. The big question is, how do we use the SDT
model to drive even better performance?”
Thanking Winslow, Amasi headed back to the airport. He had his work cut out for him. On the
plane ride back to Houston, he planned to start sketching ideas for improving productivity at Corpus
Christi. He and Winslow would build a strategy over the coming months. “And was it possible,”
Amasi mused, “to persuade the unionized workforce at the other Wolfe plants to accept the SDT
model? I do not want this experiment to end.”

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Exhibit 1

Theory of Self-Directed Teams

These ideas characterize self-directed teams and their associated work systems. Different
organizations implement these ideals in different ways.

Joint optimization of social and technical systems—Both social and technical aspects of work
should be designed together so that people, equipment, and tasks become parts of a single
system.

Participative design—Employees must be involved in determining their own job
responsibilities and perhaps in designing the overall processes used in the organization.

Minimal, rather than complete, design—Management defines only the essentials of the work
processes, leaving tasks, roles, methods, and policies broad and open-ended. Employees then
take an active role in refining the design.

Open systems—To inspire continuous improvement and ensure adaptability, direct ties
should be built with customers and suppliers.

Autonomous work groups—Teams are the building blocks of these systems. Teams should
strive to be autonomous and self-governing, though often management assigns teams their
overall goal and sets metrics for the teams to achieve.

Boundary location and control—SDTs require clear decision-making boundaries to function
effectively.

Control variances at the source—Teams should handle unexpected or unprogrammed events
(such as quality problems) themselves, thereby increasing their level of autonomy and
responsibility for the quality of their own work.

Enriched jobs—Workers enjoy enriched jobs, partly due to learning diverse skills through job
rotation and partly due to increased involvement in problem solving and activities typically
reserved for management.

Shared power, information, and rewards—Power, information, and rewards should be
“where the action is—at the lowest level of the organization.” Information should be widely
dispersed and easily accessible.

Egalitarian and humanitarian values—Equality and equity are core values of SDTs, leading
to flat organizations, few levels, and blurred lines between management and the workforce.
Trust is a key value as well, resulting in less oversight of workers.

Source: David Garvin, Understanding Self-Managing Work Systems (Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 96-041), 1997.
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Exhibit 2

Partial Organization Chart for Unionized RL Wolfe Plant (2004)
Plant manager

Foreman

Foreman

Production
operators

Downstream
technicians

Maintenance
workers

Line operators

Loaders

Raw materials
handlers

Finished materials
handlers

Each eight-hour shift (7am-3pm, 3pm to 11 pm, 11pm to 7 am) required the following workers:
Role
Engineer (foreman)

# per shift
2

Production operators

4

Line operators
Downstream technicians

8
4

Loaders
Finished-materials handlers

2
2

Maintenance
Raw-materials handlers

2
3

Responsibilities
Run the floor and address any production issues for the shift.
Ensure that all equipment or inventory issues are addressed. One
foreman was in charge of production and the other in charge of
maintenance.
Monitor equipment to ensure it is running correctly and
producing the correct product.
Perform the daily activities associated with a production line.
Package, label, and visually inspect all products produced by
their assigned line.
Load and unload all deliveries made and received.
Safely handle and transfer finished goods from the production
floor to the stocking yard.
Fix problems on the extrusion lines during the shift.
Receive shipments of raw materials; perform QA tests on raw
materials; ensure that each line has the necessary raw materials at
the beginning of (and throughout) the shift.

Total: 27

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Exhibit 3

Corpus Christi Shifts Using Self-Directed Teams
Plant manager

Coordinator

Materials team, consisting of materials
handlers and technicians

Line operation team, consisting of line
operators and technicians

Each eight-hour shift required the following workers:
Team 1: Extrusion
line operators

Role
Technicians

# per shift
6

Line operators

8

Responsibilities
Master the technical aspects of the extrusion
process to provide necessary engineering oversight.
Handle maintenance.
Perform the daily activities associated with a
production line.

Team
total: 14
Team 2: Materials
handlers
Technicians
Materials handlers

2
11

Master the technical aspects of materials testing.
Perform all the tasks performed by the downstream
technicians, loaders, finished materials handlers,
and raw materials handlers.

Team
total: 13

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Exhibit 4

Stages of Team Evolution and Associated Leadership Role

LEADERSHIP
STYLE

EMPLOYEE
DEVELOPMENT

LEADERSHIP
ROLE

TASK
SITUATION

HIGH DIRECTIVE
LOW SUPPORTIVE
ENTHUSIASTIC
BEGINNER

FOREMAN

HIGH COMMITMENT
LOW COMPTETENCE

“I’LL DECIDE.”

SPECIFIC
DIRECTION

DIRECTING

HIGH DIRECTIVE
HIGH SUPPORTIVE
DISILLUSIONED
LEARNER

LOW DIRECTIVE
HIGH SUPPORTIVE

SUPPORTING

REGRESSION

PROGRESSION

COACHING

SUPERVISOR

LOW COMMITMENT
SOME COMPETENCE

EMERGING
CONTRIBUTOR

“LET’S TALK,
I’LL DECIDE.”
LISTENS TO
IDEAS

FACILITATOR

MODERATE
COMMITMENT
HIGH COMPETENCE

“LET’S TALK,
YOU DECIDE.”
SHARES
DECISION
MAKING

LOW DIRECTIVE
LOW SUPPORTIVE
PEAK
PERFORMER

COORDINATOR

HIGH COMMITMENT
HIGH COMPETENCE

“YOU DECIDE.”

ACCEPTS
DECISION

DELEGATING

SELF-DIRECTED WORKFORCE

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Exhibit 5

Morale, Absenteeism, and Productivity Across Wolfe Plants, 2007

Morale
Corpus
Christi, TX

Selected worker quotes:

“Things seem less boring and rigid here than
in my last job.”

“Why should we take on all this extra work
with the teams? I don’t see us getting paid for
it.”

“I wasn’t born yesterday. You really think
the boss would let us make decisions that
really count around here?”

“I actually enjoy going to work. More than I
can say about other jobs I’ve had.”

Absenteeism rate
(average workdays
absent across
workforce)
When compared with
similarly sized plastics
manufacturing plants:

Selected
Productivity
Measures
• 82% of design
capacity (2,250
tons/yr)

1st shift: 10% below
2nd shift: 5% below
3rd shift: equivalent

Turnover: 5% annually
Active participation on teams (as estimated by
coordinators): 60%
Austin, TX

Selected worker quotes:

When compared with
similarly sized plastics
manufacturing plants:

“In this economy, I’m just happy to have a
job. Any job.”

“It’s us against them—management. They
won’t pay us a penny more than they can get
away with.”

1st shift: 10% above

“My father works in this factory, and my
brother does, too.”

3rd shift: 20% above

• 70% of design
capacity (3,300
tons/yr)

nd
2 shift: equivalent

Turnover: 9% annually
Columbus,
OH

Selected worker quotes:

“I check out during meetings. Most of what I
hear is a lot of hot air about how we are
supposed to work harder and how tough the
economy is.”

“I don’t know why I need to call in a
maintenance worker to fix something on my
line. They are slow, they act entitled. Forget it
if you need one and he’s on a cigarette break.
Often they don’t bring the tools they need.”

“I like being on the third shift. Usually lots of
people call in sick, so the work slows down
while the bosses figure things out. That’s ok
with me.”

When compared with
similarly sized plastics
manufacturing plants:

• 65% of design
capacity (3,650
tons/yr)

1st shift: equivalent
2nd shift: 15% above
3rd shift: 35% above

Turnover: 12% annually

 

 

 
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