Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Bosses Who Don't Boss
"The teams at Goodyear are now telling the boss how to run things. And I must say, I'm not doing a half-bad job because of it. "Empowerment has clearly become the latest in a long litany of vogue practices that have ebbed and flowed over corporations like the changing of the tide. Today it is estimated that virtually all major corporations in North America and Western Europe are using various forms of empowerment somewhere in their organizations. Many even utilize an advanced form of empowerment called self-directed work teams (SDWTs) - now more commonly termed high-performance work systems.
Stanley Gault, chairman of Goodyear
The companies that take this seriously are convinced that employee empowerment is more than just another management fad. Why? Because real empowerment upends traditional organizational structures, policies, and practices and forces operations to question the traditional methods of management that have dominated corporations for the last hundred years. Many experts believe it is potentially as profound a change in contemporary organizations as the first industrial revolution was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Empowerment Is the Second Industrial RevolutionThe first industrial revolution took people off of their family farms and put them into corporations organized into narrow jobs with bosses to supervise their work. Conversely, the second industrial revolution makes companies act more like the family farms did the farm workers now run the day-to-day operation with only minimal supervision. They assume numerous management tasksthemselves and are organized into flexible teams instead of into rigid functional departments with narrow job descriptions.
Support for the empowerment transformation has come from a wide cross section of managers, employees, union executives, and professionals in a number of organizations ranging from steel mills to hospitals, from government offices to coal mines. It is not, of course, universally supported. But even managers like John Welch, chairman of General Electric, preach empowerment. Although highly respected for his ability to get results, Welch was once known as "Neutron Jack" for his autocratic style, manifested in dictates like the one that laid off 100,000 GE employees in the 1980s. Like a corporate neutron bomb, the action left all the buildings intact but eliminated the people. This isn't the profile of someone you might expect to tout the benefits of worker participation. But Jack Welch is now talking about a very different way to wage business warfare. "The idea of liberation and empowerment for our work force," he says, "is not enlightenment-it's a competitive necessity."
SDWTs Pose a Challenge to Traditional ManagementSDWTs pose some very special challenges for managers at every level in an organization. I know they did for me. I worked as a production manager in what was arguably the most advanced high-performance organization in Procter & Gamble. But when I first went to the plant I was uncomfortable and unclear about managing a self-directed work force. It seemed like a contradiction in terms. How do you manage a self-managed team? Did they really need me? Was there any job security for me as a team leader? Was the purpose of these operations to eliminate management?
It soon became clear to me that management did, in fact, have a crucial role to play in the SDWTs. But it was not the role I was used to playing. Before I went to P&G, a brief stint as a manager with another organization had convinced me that traditional practices were the best way to manage. I soon found out, however, that many of the classic management practices I bad mastered in my previous job were entirely inconsistent with SDWT requirements. Many of the supervisory responsibilities I had had in the other organization, for example, were handled here by the team members themselves. And, despite my early skepticism about "turning the prison over to the inmates," it seemed to be producing extraordinary results.
P&G Declares SDWTs a Trade SecretThe soap plant where I worked is located in Lima, Ohio. It was started up in the 1960s as one of the first and most successful SDWT experiments in the U.S. and has continued into the new millennium to be a model organization. It tested the then little-practiced theories of a small group of British, U.S., and Australian social scientists. How well did it work? The results of the experiment were so good that P&G declared them trade secrets with all the same restrictions and security precautions associated with product formulations and marketing plans. Only in the last few years has the understandably tight-lipped company engaged in more open discussion of its SDWT experience.
The P&G Downy Fabric Softener team averaged 99.9 percent within quality limits, held numerous safety records, and could make, pack, and ship cases of product to our California Downy factory less expensively than what it cost the California factory to get it out to their own loading dock. Perhaps even more remarkable than the types of results the Lima plant was getting was the fact that, by the time I had arrived, this SDWT "experiment" had already been operating very successfully for over a dozen years. This clearly was not a momentary flash in the pan. It was turning out sustainable improvements then and has continued to do so for nearly four decades. And my experience convinced me that high-performance work systems required a nontraditional approach to management. What happens when traditional managers don't change? Consider the following:
Jack (not his real name) was a veteran middle-level manager in a major consumer products company. He was well respected and had a very senior position. His facility had recently been gutted and all new equipment had been installed successfully. The technology changeover was also being used as a platform for implementing empowerment. - Although it was surrounded by a 50-year-old facility using traditional management practices, this business unit had been selected as the organization's first attempt to redesign a department into a fully functional high-performance work system. Employee teams would form nearly self-sustainable business units, in which workers would act more like partners than subordinates. Not many months after the equipment was operational, however, the work team part of the project was failing badly. Tempers flared, grievances were filed, and trust was eroding rapidly. Jack had heard in conversations with the supervisors reporting to him that they thought he was to blame for the sluggishness of the empowerment effort. The consultant had given him frank feedback about how his autocratic style was impeding the team effort, along with very specific suggestions about how to change his behavior to be more participative.
Jack had honestly tried. His intentions had been good, his concern for results was unquestionable, and he had taken what he thought were the necessary actions to create the work culture change that his superiors wanted. Within a short period of time, however, he was moved out of his position. To add insult to injury, his new replacement succeeded in getting the self-directed work teams to function properly in a short period of time. The replacement rebuilt employee trust by listening to team members' concerns and making some modifications to the work design process to accommodate them.
Jack's career was ruined when he was branded an "old-style" manager incapable of managing successfully in a facility using empowered work teams. His later assignments were a series of lateral arabesques that eventually took him so far away from corporate center stage that he couldn't even see the spotlight the used to occupy as a key manager. Jack's story is true. And until managers and supervisors can be better prepared for the changes occurring in organizations today, Jack won't be the last needless casualty of the changing workplace.
The Changing Workplace
Thousands of managers and supervisors like Jack hove seen their worlds suddenly turned upside down. Tens of thousands of others will face the same situation in the years to come. Once at the power pinnacle of the work floor or office, these newly named team leaders are now required to support rather than direct employees. They bear a variety of tides such as resource, facilitator, or advisor. Their new job descriptions use words like lead, coach, and train to replace the traditional hierarchical standbys like plan, organize, direct, and control. But for the majority of management this new role brings a host of new and sometimes uncomfortable demands. This is especially true in the organizations using self directed work teams. As their name implies, self-directed work teams require a fundamentally different and seemingly contradictory kind of leadership: bosses who don't boss....