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American Chopper — Management Doesn’t Get It

There’s probably no better show that reflects workplace tensions than Discovery Channel’s American Chopper. How do you deal with skilled workers when you’re the owner?

Orange County Choppers is a success story, in the sense of something that grew over time to a business that included a custom-built “international headquarters” to construct and show bikes.

One attraction of OCC is that it tries to bring more manufacturing capabilities inside the company. This provides greater production control and contrasts with many large companies that today are busily reducing their workforce through rightsizing, downsizing and outsourcing.

Adversarial

Alternatively, what inevitably does not work is the idea that an adversarial relationship with employees is just dandy.

Paul Teutul Sr., the company founder and hands-on boss, is a yeller and a screamer. In episode after episode he’s yelling at someone for such alleged crimes as not getting something done fast enough or not cleaning up.

In fact, a commitment to get things done on time is perfectly understandable. And a clean work area not only contributes to productivity (because tools and parts can be quickly located) but also to shop safety.

The question from a business perspective is this: What’s the best way to get employees on board with management requirements and preferences? How do you deliver the message?

Ownership Perk?

The Paul Senior management style involves a lot of yelling and threats. The yelling is disruptive and the threats are not taken seriously. In essence, a form of performance art that produces, well, that’s not clear.


But such bantering is not among equals. Paul Senior is the company owner. Moreover, he’s a very visible and large presence. You’re not going to see too many mortgage brokers or Wall Street bankers at the workplace with cut-off sleeves and massive arms.

The tone of the OCC workplace includes a lot of physical acts not especially common in most corporate settings — driving a truck into walls, firing a dummy into the air, knocking holes in doors, knocking a car apart, building (and firing) a potato cannon indoors, etc. As David Letterman said in the forward to Senior’s book, “I don’t like the hijinks. It’s just a matter of time until someone loses a foot.”

Alternatively, Paul Junior seems to operate on a collegial basis at his shop, Paul Jr. Designs. There’s banter on the shop floor but it’s plainly in fun. There’s a difference between worker and owner, but also a common set of goals, a shared path. Paul the younger listens respectfully to people in his shop. Even when Junior has incredibly good reason to fire someone the process is done without hostility, perhaps too nicely.

Importance

So why is this stuff important? Several reasons.

First, the American workplace is changing. The balance between worker and employee increasingly tilts toward management. Unemployment is high, people fear losing their jobs and some managers are abusive in ways that would not be possible with a more robust economy.

Second, how do you maximize productivity by yelling at people? It’s fair and appropriate to have goals and expectations, to set out how things should be done — but delivering such messages with a heavy hand is counter-productive.

Third, as a business owner you needlessly set yourself up for conflicts with employees by yelling and being abusive. It’s tough to be a manager, why make it any harder?

Fourth, if business sours how much loyalty can you expect from workers if they’ve felt ill-treated?

Fifth, it simply costs less to keep people happy — think of the expense of finding new workers, the time it takes to get them up and running, the cost of training, etc. Turnover is an expense, and too often a needlessly big one.

American Chopper is one of the few programs on television which shows the workplace on an extended basis. Yes the material is edited, but a lot comes through, including a management style which oozes needless conflict and confrontation. It may be good television, but is a loud management style the best way to maximize productivity or profits?

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