A beacon project is focusing on people with physical limitations who work in production: the STARK demographics project. Up to 300 employees work hand in hand at 70 stations – creating value and earning respect.
Everything is running like clockwork for Thomas Kohn today. He is standing at the end of the preassembly line for cockpits in Hall 35 of Volkswagen’s plant in Wolfsburg and inspecting the connectors that his colleagues have installed in the previous steps. More than 1,200 dashboards were and are preassembled each day in Hall 35. Kohn makes it look easy – the way that he moves himself and the cockpit on the parts-carrying unit. And he is smiling as he works. Things have not always been this good.
“Two slipped discs have done a number on me,” Thomas Kohn says. “But I feel right at home in the STARK Project. I am having fun at work again. That is also because we really work closely together in Hall 35 and help each other out all the time.” Kohn has been working here for more than a year now. He is now showing the ropes to new employees with the help of master craftsmen and passing on the lessons that he has learned himself.
“STARK” is a German word that means “strong.” It is also an acronym that is composed of five German words that reflect the essence of the project itself. “The project follows five principles: stabilization, training, growth, respect and core value creation,” says Sebastian Schmickartz, the head of the demographics project and the cockpit preassembly hall. “The foundation of this unique project at Volkswagen is the ‘demographics project,’ an operational agreement that was approved in the spring of 2018. Under the agreement, an area that addressed the special needs that employees with physical limitations have in terms of the workplace organization and health promotion was created in Hall 35 in order to integrate these individuals back into the core processes of automaking.”
“The project follows five principles: stabilization, training, growth, respect and core value creation.”
This is all made possible by state-of-the-art production technologies, ergonomically designed work stations, intensive and personal support from master craftsmen, the human resources department, the Works Council and ergo-assistants as well as by a holistic training concept in production created especially for this area. Special work models designed with individual employees’ needs in mind have also been developed: rotations at individual work stations as well as two and three-member groups that share one job in a three-shift operation as part of a carefully coordinated effort.
One other key to the project’s success is clear communications that are conducted throughout all levels in a relationship among equals. Every individual is encouraged to actively contribute to his or her own progress and thus to the project as a whole. “I do not ask what employees cannot do. I want to know what they can do. They can then systematically pitch in,” Sebastian Schmickartz says. “We have transparent and simple processes. Everything is quite clear. Employees know why they are here.”
When you enter Hall 35, the training area immediately catches your eye – it is something that you might find in a professional rehabilitation facility. It is packed with equipment that is used to exercise particular groups of muscles. It also has an area where common movements – things like tightening a screw without looking and moving boxes – can be practiced. Individualized training is performed here. This is something that characterizes the STARK Project – along with changes in work stations and the intensive commitment to employee qualifications.
“Our training concept helps colleagues in production build up their strength, remain flexible and avoid bad posture,” ergo-assistant Robert Schrader says in explaining his job. The sports scientist works with two colleagues to support the production workers. Every employee trains here for 30 minutes at least once a week. Schrader says, “Every small success makes me happy: things like when someone gets up after a training session and says he feels better or is not in as much pain. We certainly are not miracle workers. But people will generally feel better if they follow our recommendations.”
The combination of programs and support is what makes the STARK Project unique in the Group. “This training area gives our employees an opportunity to do targeted training exercises at work as a way of improving and stabilizing their performance,” Sebastian Schmickartz says. “In the process, we are laying an important foundation from which employees with physical limitations can gain a new perspective.”
STARK is one aspect of the Volkswagen brand’s production strategy called TRANSFORM.TOGETHER, a plan that is designed to boost productivity by 30 percent by 2025. Of course, you cannot achieve this without a “team of the future,” which is another aspect of the TRANSFORM.TOGETHER strategy. “Our employees are the most important asset we have,” says Dr. Andreas Tostmann, the member of the Board of Management responsible for production. “This is why it is so important within the context of our TRANSFORM.TOGETHER strategy that we create conditions in production that will enable us to use all employees in a manner that produces respect. In the process, we value the work of our team and make an important contribution to the achievement of our company goals.”
Julia Korte is also a member of this team at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg. “The STARK Project represents an opportunity to me,” Korte says. “An opportunity to get back into shape. Like many other colleagues – people who may be returning from a long illness or an absence – I can also show here what I can do.” She has been working in the STARK Project for nine months. “I can get used to work and find my rhythm once again – by doing an ‘easier’ job.
The STARK demographics project makes one clear point: The way that people work together at Volkswagen is a decision made by people and not numbers or statistics. Even in times when every business-related decision has to be explained to the company’s stakeholders. The impact of business-related decisions tends to appear in extreme situations when things are not running smoothly.
“Fate has it in for some employees. It is exactly this point that decides whether we at Volkswagen stand together as a team. At the Wolfsburg plant, we are committed to making the world’s best cars. We can do so only if we have one another’s back.”
Volkswagen creates jobs for people with physical limitations around the world. In Wolfsburg, thanks to the STARK demographics project, 158 employees already have been integrated into the value chain and 18 employees have been able to return to their original departments. Volkswagen plans to introduce the model to other production areas and locations beginning next year.
The initial successes produced by the STARK Project have also inspired Sebastian Schmickartz and many colleagues to explore this theme even more closely. “We are thinking about how we could help employees in production who use wheelchairs or have poor eyesight,” Schmickartz says. “This is a real challenge, one that we will not shy away from and will take responsibility for.”