, Heritage writer
The American economy at the end of World War II faced a huge challenge. We’d won the war, but now returning GI’s needed everything from jobs and housing to cars and refrigerators. The postwar demobilization was monumental, with over 10 million servicemen returning to civilian life by 1947. Sensing an opportunity and an obligation, Henry J. Kaiser turned his shipbuilding skills to domestic production.
That included making aluminum.
In March, 1946, the Board of Directors of Permanente Metals – originally formed to produce ships and magnesium – voted to go into the aluminum business. Leases were signed for war surplus plants in eastern Washington State at Mead and Trentwood. Mead was an aluminum reduction plant (where the mineral alumina is refined into metallic aluminum) and Trentwood was a sheet and plate-rolling mill.
The business was very successful. In 1949 the company was renamed Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation and the next year it purchased those two plants as well as others. KACC became the nation’s third largest aluminum producer. But during the 1980s the aluminum market tanked, and by the end of that decade the Kaiser family had divested itself of KACC. The new corporation continues under the Kaiser Aluminum Corporation name.
Just as the Kaiser shipyards encouraged “healthy competition” through sports and wellness programs, so did KACC.
Barry Wills and his future wife Kathy Baird worked at the Trentwood plant. Barry started in 1976, was briefly transferred to the Kaiser Refractories plant in Plymouth Meeting, Penn., and then continued working at Trentwood until 1981. Kathy worked there from 1972 to 1981. They played on Kaiser Aluminum sponsored softball and basketball teams (where they met) as well as participating in the popular “wellness” programs that encouraged healthy activities between 1975 and 1981. They loved it. In a recent interview, Barry recalled some of the highlights:
We played in the Spokane County Parks and Recreation Adult Recreation League. I believe we played at the AA level (AAA was the highest level). Typically, all the players on a AAA team played college ball at some level (NCAA or NAIA, Division II). We had one player that played basketball at a Junior College.
We were very competitive and won most of our games. Some of our opponents were Bob’s Barber Shop, Whitworth Alums, E & J Meats, Kaiser – Mead, and the Freeman Thrills.
Our biggest thrill was an invitation to play in a pre-game [exhibition] at the “Kennel” at Gonzaga University. Gonzaga played Oregon. We were excited to have a full house of Gonzaga fans halfway through our game.
The women’s basketball team enjoyed success in Regional and State tournaments.
This was healthy competition and thriving, one of the hallmarks of Henry J. Kaiser’s many former industries. It remains a hallmark at Kaiser Permanente.
All images courtesy Barry Wills.
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, Heritage writer
One of Henry J. Kaiser’s effective approaches to industrial productivity was his encouragement of nonpunitive competition. He believed that people perform their best when tested against peers, and the evidence suggests that he was right.
While building Grand Coulee Dam on the mighty Columbia River during the Great Depression, Kaiser divided the project into two parts.
Two work teams were pitted against each other to see who could finish first and most efficiently in constructing their part of “the largest block of concrete in North America.”
The workers in the seven Kaiser World War II West Coast shipyards saw competition of all kinds as a standard feature. One account of the time described the jockeying:
“Yards were set to competing with one another, and scoreboards showing competitors pulling away in ship deliveries had the effect on output per man-hour of a shot of Benzedrine.
A graveyard-shift crew bet that it could lay a keel faster than its swing-shift competitor and, to win a kitty of $600, reduced the operation from hours to minutes.
“Welders bet burners pints of blood for the Red Cross that they could do it better. But the chief prize was the right to christen a ship. Proudest launcher was an aged Chinese woman, who christened her ship in Chinese and cherished the same silver tray souvenir accorded such sponsors as Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.” [i]
The Kaiser shipyard newsletters – Fore ‘n’ Aft in Richmond, and Bos’n’s Whistle in the Northwest – actively documented and promoted news of these competitive challenges. The rewards were often in the form of War Bonds, reinforcing the social good and patriotic nature of the goal.
Since Kaiser’s approach to building ships – like products in an assembly line – was new and evolving, there was a legitimate need for innovation and shop-floor creativity. Workers were always coming up with – and rewarded for – more effective and efficient approaches to their jobs. And, as at Grand Coulee Dam, crews and yards competed for top honors and bragging rights.
American ‘athletic industrialism’
One scholar suggests that this was a phenomenon of “athletic industrialism” that fused the two chief domains of competition in America: capitalism and sports.[ii]
“. . . Athletic industrialism did not merely rally workers, exploit them in a grand speed-up, or turn work into a game of outwitting management.
“Rather, athletic industrialism focused workers on the overarching goal of maximum output and offered an array of means to that end: attempts to set shipbuilding-speed records, Maritime Commission programs to laud the most productive shipyards, output contests for welders and other craft workers, campaigns to elicit labor-process improvements from workers.
“More importantly, athletic industrialism fused workers into coherent units while also pitting groups against others in rules-bound competition.”
Striving for excellence in 2014
Today’s health care worksite may not be the war-driven frenzy of the Kaiser shipyards, but it nonetheless relies on worker wisdom to serve Kaiser Permanente members. The Kaiser Permanente Labor Management Partnership’s unit-based teams continue the tradition of healthy competition to achieve results.
Here are but two examples:
An industrial kitchen can be a danger zone, with its sharp knives, wet floors, grease and hot temperatures. It’s a challenge to be safe and efficient, but between July 2010 and June 2011 the Food and Nutrition Department at Southern California’s Panorama City Medical Center dramatically improved its safety record.
The department divided into two teams and sponsored a friendly competition for a pair of movie tickets. This motivated – and liberated – the staff to approach their colleagues who might be performing a task unsafely and suggest an alternative approach.
In 2010 the number of after-visit summaries given to patients at Southern California’s Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center had slipped, resulting in a high number of patient calls and reduced patient satisfaction. The staff set up a friendly competition to see who could have the best improvement in the rate of after-visit summaries printed.
The Urology and General Surgery Department improved its numbers by 45 percent and the General Surgery Department improved by 56 percent. John E. Chew, director of care experience for General Surgery and Urology, remarked: “The best solutions come from the front-line staff. We’ve always known that, but UBTs give it a structure.”
Competing for better health
Kaiser Permanente employees and physicians are also tempted to improve their health through competition. Last year Kaiser Permanente launched the Spring into Summer KP Walk! Challenge.
Participants registered online; if they logged at least 150 minutes of walking through the end of June, they were entered in a weekly random drawing for prizes that included a solar cell phone charger, a gym bag, and a 4-in-1 tote bag.
Teri O’Neal, RN, was inspired to start walking by coworkers and joined the challenge to help keep her motivated on her journey to better health.
“When I first started, after half an hour I was so exhausted that I had to go home and straight to sleep. But I kept at it.”
Now, Teri has completed several triathlons, two marathons, and a Spartan race. “When I completed that first triathlon and I got my medal, I felt so proud. And it’s nice to be able to look back and see how far I’ve come.”
This year’s Spring into Summer challenge is team-based, with the teams in the top three places winning prizes.
The Kaiser experience, from Grand Coulee Dam to today, shows that healthy competition, whether among wartime shipyard workers or today’s health care employees, is truly a “win-win” situation.
Shortlink to this article: http://bit.ly/1pB3h7l
[i] The Truth About Henry Kaiser,” three-part series by Lester Velie in Collier’s, July-August 1946
[ii] “Launching a Thousand Ships: Entrepreneurs, War Workers, and the State in American Shipbuilding, 1940-1945,” unpublished dissertation by Christopher James Tassava, Northwestern University, June 2003.
by Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
Organized sports were a great way to stay fit and let off steam during the frantic construction pace in the World War II shipyards. Here, the Swing Welders duke it out with the Prefabrication workers, from the Kaiser Richmond newsletter Fore ‘n’ Aft April 14, 1944.
Fast forward to the present day “Own Now” campaign. Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors) and Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers) have joined Kaiser Permanente as Total Health Ambassadors to inspire young adults to prioritize their health by leading active lifestyles and securing the coverage they need.
For more on Own Now, see this release.