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Self-directed work teams: how far is too far?

Alurred by the ringing sound of the buzz word "self-directed work teams," some organizations are throwing themselves into the new trend. Managers eager to obtain the alleged benefits that this management arrangement brings to the corporation, engage in the fierce activity-oriented program. Most of these businesses want to escalate from a traditional well-established hierarchy, where the boss-subordinate relationship has been forever culturally defined, to an extremely flexible one in which management functions are dispersed across a self-managed team. The intentions are good, and that is a promising direction for organizations to follow, but the real probabilities to succeed in this endeavor are diminished by a long overdue commitment to employee participation, by excessive emphasis on training, and by a lack of result-centered actions.

According to promoters, a common definition describes a self-directed work team as a group of employees responsible for a whole product, process or service. The composition of the group varies depending on what they do, but usually 7 to 12 employees round up to a good team size. Team members plan to control their work, taking over traditional management functions. As a team, they meet regularly as conditions demans, maybe once per week, to set goals, schedule work, solve problems, analyze-evaluate performance within the group, hire new team members or fire-relocate teammates. The intensity and extension of these activities depends on the maturity and skills of the team. Still, the team's ultimate purpose aims to develop the necessary craft to effectively do all these functions. In summary, self-directed work teams are groups of people empowered to take care of a specific portion of the business and, to do this, team members, through considerable training and daily actions, develop the following characteristics:

* Members possess a variety of technical skills of the industry.

* Members are accountable for production, quality, cost and schedules, hiring, firing, equipment maintenance, production control, coordinating with other teams, evaluating, etc.

* Members show, after intensive training, a great deal of abilities in communication, problem-solving techniques, interpersonal skills, decision-making, etc.

* All members are bound by a complete commitment to constant improvements of product and personal skills.

* Overall, every team member is in-doctrinated with a profound customer service mentality. They are producers, but they see the process with the eyes of the customer.

Companies committed to the process hope to gain productivity, streamlining, flexibility, quality, commitment and customer satisfaction. As outlined in the definition, this organizational wonder assembles an array of skills that profiles highly trained, motivated and self-conscientious super-employees.

Three factors work against the suggested implementation path offered by the self-managed teams advocates.

Excessive, unnecessary, costly training

The program calls for an intensive training of workers, not only on technical skills, but in administrative and interpersonal skills as well. This massive training, the backbome of the program, aims to convert regular workers into well-rounded employees. In principle, there is nothing wrong with training. But, the program requires so much schooling that the main direction of the business could deviate from its course.

Unwrapping the selling package of self-directed teams, the implementor discovers the so called "cascade" effect. Born to mitigate the strain that extreme training originates, the cascade effect consists of each management level providing training for the level just below it. Accordingly, executives conduct training for managers, managers for sypervisors an supervisors for line employees. In picturing the term "cascade," the first thing coming to mind is a succession of waterfalls with no, or minimum, losses of water. When this simile extends to the inquisitive human mind, the cascade effect, as it applies to the dissemination of knowledge from one human to another, does not mirror the waterfall.

In a recent presentation, I did an almost-standard classroom experiment that proves the deterioration of information when a message spreads from mouth to mouth. I divided a group of 24 managers into two groups, A and B, of 12 persons each. Then I asked group B to leave the room and group A to stay to witness the following events. I called one individual from the outside group and read simple business related news. The statement compressed comments of an employee that overheard in the elevator the chief executive of the company saying that he was not satisfied with someone's work and he will fire the employee soon. Moreover, department X was in trouble and so and so. After reading the note to the first employee in front of group A, the second employee from group B is called in, and the first employee tells the second the news. Then the second briefs the third, who passes the news to the forth, and the next to the next, until the last employee of group B is detailed, In one experiment the last person to hear the message was just told that "the elevator was on fire." Do this eye opening exercise using names and places your group is familiar with. Also, reversing the groups and changing the news will confirm the prices inacuracy and allow everybody to enjoy the experience. You will be amazed how easy the quality of the information decays when told by different sources in a cascade effect.

If with the simple statement of the experiment, the cascade effect distorts the information, imagine what will happen to a complex concept? Not only the elevator will be on fire, but the whole organization as well. In addition to the missing information, managers do not necessarsily have expertise in technical presentations or the command required to keep an audience interested in a dry subject. This is especially true for the supervisory level.

Notwithstanding the well-polished expertise of the professional trainer, the illusion of cost reduction because the organization is training with its own resources becomes just that, a fallacy. If a busy manager allocates his (her) time to first learning the program, second preparing a presentation and third giving the presentation to other managers, the real day-to-day problems will go unsolved. Can your organization afford that cost? Managers should be doing what they are best at, doing their jobs and improving products, services and systems, not dedicating their valuable efforts to the time consuming cascade training exercise.

Implementation of teams is slow

Practitioners, using the recommended implementation path to self-directed teams, agree that a group of employees will take from two to five years to become a mature self-directed team. In that time, a company in distress dedicating resources to non-productive activities could be easily out of business.

Reading from the definition, the self-managed team plans an unfriendly takeover of the classical mid-management functions with an aim at making obsolete the mid-managers themselves. This takeover will lead to mid-management resistance that will translate to delayed actions. Because after implementation, team members will be accountable for production, quality, cost, schedule, discipline, etc., they indeed do need broad and extensive training. That's why the experts say it will take so long to see the teams working. Furthermore, they anticipate a state of confusion due to team adaptation trying to play a new role with a fading authority figure.

Because of the slowness of the approach, another indisputable fact against the program's implementation is that in the United States the workforce moves constantly. Take, for example, a company with moderated employee turnaround. The training investment in twelve people hoping for a return five years later, could easily vaporize simply because after five years the original team could no longer be there. This fact forces the company into endless and expansive training and retraining programs without an immediate payback from the investment.

The program is not result-centered

Assuming that these companies invest only three years and minimum dollars in training their teams, and assuming nobody moves out of the organization in that period, the result of the program, besides better educated employees, will be the elimination of the traditional mid-manager that used to direct the group. Although an apparently commendable result, this elimination only reflects the physical abolishment of the manager. It does not represent the elimination of the necessary management functions. The functions that were the domain of the manger are now spread among several people that are dedicating time to these non-productive activities at the expense of productive time.

Revisiting the definition of self-directed teams, observe the overwhelming concentration of the program on activity-centered actions. In fact, the whole program revolves on shifting activities from mid-management to employees, which neither group receives well. Mid-managers will hinder the effort because they do not want to loose their grip on power, or more importantly, their jobs. It is very difficult to ask these managers to work for something that they see as self-destruction, something not clearly defined that dismembers their job description. The employees see the effort as a way to give them more work and responsibility in the name of empowerment. However, in the middle of all this shuffle, what about the results?

Do not forget that the main function of the company is to produce goods and services that are valuable to their customers. These teams being overwhelmed with so many new responsibilities barely will be able to do an effective quality job. Concentrating on efforts that will result in tangible improvements of products, services and systems are the only ones that can justify (if justifiable) an investment of five years of training with no clearly productive outcome. The user of the product does not care if the product was done by a self-directed team or by a tryannic management system. They are about product quality, dependabilty and cost. As Dr. Deming, says "the consumer is the most important part of the production line," and the process that leads to the formation of self-directed teams looks upon customers as if they were only in the distant background.

Organizations in distress cannot afford extensive investment in training and education without an immediate payback through better performance and quality improvements. For a traditional business in constant state of competition to engage in the long and winding road of self-directed work teams could lead to a painful and dangerous expenditure of resources. Survival in today's market conditions compels companies to work constantly in the improvement of their products. On the other hand, mechanisms for releasing the potential in the employee's mind are necessary to achieve the desired prosperity outcome. These companies need to reach a balance. However, making the jump from a traditional hierarchial organization to one where self-directed teams rule could result in an excruciating journey to the gallows.

Employee participation alternative

I am not against abundant training. A company's healthy growth strongly correlates to the training of its employees. But, this training has to unequivocally focus on problem solving and improvements. Enterprises need a workable alternative so that training, enhancing and empowering employees calls attention to bottom line results, namely, quality, productivity and customer satisfaction for magnified profits. Businesses, for endurance, require concentation on result-centered programs rather than activity-centered ones.

No result-centered employee participation process has been as succesful (at least in Japan) as the quality circles. This process concentrates on problem solving for the improvement of products, services and systems. It channels the potential of employee thinking to solutions that intensify employee and customer satisfaction.

Consequently, what is quality circle? A somewhat formal definition declares that a quality circle is a small group of people doing similar work, meeting regularly to identify, analyze and solve work-related problems. The ultimate goal of the group rests in improving quality, productivity and working conditions. Each circle usually has five to twelve employees from a natural working section in which everyone's work relates in some way. Strictly voluntary membership and goals that eventually accommodate the interest of employees and the organization bond a successful quality circle processs.

In contrast with the definition of self-directed teams, the definition of quality circles immediately works out the result orientation of its purpose "to solve problems to increase quality and productivity." Training becomes a means to solve a particular problem, a means to bridge the gap with knowledge to deliver the improvement. Quality circles as a result-centered process should not be construed as an avenue for expending abundant dollars in generic training that does not contribute to direct solutions. Except for basic group techniques, elemental problem solving methodology and guidelines for smoother people interaction, teaching complex techniques should be subordinated to merely the problems at hand.

For example, about two years ago I had a consulting engagement with a small manufacturer that provides electrical switches for the automotive industry. They wanted to teach their workers principles of statistics, control charts, sampling plans, etc. I asked management what their problems were so I could select and teach the proper techniques to solve it. The answer was that they did not have any problems but they wanted to increase the already low educational level of the workforce. Because the assignment was within my scope, I went to my business of teaching the sophisticated techniques with thirty eager-to-learn employees. They were wonderful people indeed, and I enjoyed the light of discovery coming to their eyes while I was unveiling the secrets of statistical thinking. By the end of the tenth training session, they demonstrated an extensive understanding of the subject, and they were able to convert any scrambled data into a meaningful trend indicative of the proper action.

In a follow up visit for six months later, I asked if they had applied any of the learned techniques to their factory. Many of them, almost crying in shame, told me that after looking for a process where to apply the techniques, nowhere were the techniques applicable. Also, I noted that from the original 30 employees in the training sessions, only 19 were still working for the company. I bet that by now the few remaining employees have forgotten all about the statistic techniques.

What a different approch it would be, if after defining the problem, the group would arrive at the conclusion that to solve the problem specific training was necessary. In this case, the theoretical study would have a natural empirical outlet with an immediate improvement visible in the product, service or sytstem. The practical reinforcement would make the technique unforgettable, and the company would benefit from the investment in training.

Implementation of self-directed teams overstresses aimless training and a blind faith that training will solve future problems. If we do not take care of today' s problems, we might not have a future at all. Only training directed toward the solution of pragmatical problems will bring us a rewarding future.

Conceivably, the transfer of decisionmaking to low ranking employees could be advantageous for some industries, or maybe, socioeconomic conditions could favor the formation of teams. Whatever the reason, the benefits of self-directed teams seem too much ahead of this time, and to embark on such a program without a result-centered mind could prove suicidal. Employee empowerment comes in many forms and quality circles, and it overpowers the approach to self-directed teams because of its orientation toward problem solving. And that is what we need, to solve problems not to create more.

The existing culture of the organization offers another important aspect to wrestle with for the success of employee empowerment. Without the proper culture, neither quality circles nor self-directed teams will be able to survive. Nonetheless, quality circles as a problem-solving tool promote a more symbiotic interaction between management and employees. It certainly fits better than the antagonistic employees versus managers of the self-managed team approach.

Perhaps the natural evolution of quality circles will lead to self-directed teams, but, as evolution dictates, the group has to pay their dues in one stage to go to the next one. First, the group should work on specific problems. Then, if pertinent and only after success and self-esteem engendered by this success, the team should move on toward higher group organization or self-direction. The move toward self-direction has to be justified by product improvement and not because it feels right or it is the new management trend. Training focused on product improvement provides results for a continued, self-financed group training cycle. This cycle, training-for-profits followed by profits-for-training, epitomizes the only approach that companies in financial distress can afford.

Wanting to implement self-directed teamwork without a good experience, such as working quality c circles, resembles a professional baseball player wanting to go into the major leagues without passing by the minors. It is possible, but highly improbable, and in the case of an organization, very expensive.

For further reading

Allender, Hans D., "Total Quality Management: A Primer on a New Management Paradigm," The Quality Observer, Feb. 1992.

Allender, Hans D., "Using Quality Circles to Develop an Action Plan Required for Leading Organizations," Industrial Management, September/October 1992.

Aguayo, R., Dr. Deming, the American who taught the Japanese about Quality, Carol Publishing Group.

Walton, Mary, The Deming Management Method, The Putnam Publishing Group.

Nadler, G. and Hibino, S., Breakthrough Thinking, Prima Publishing and Communications.

Imai, M., Kaisen, McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.

Sink, Scott and Tuttle, Thomas, Planning and Measurement in Your Organization of the Future, Industrial Engineering and Management Press.

Ouchi, W., Theory Z, Addison-Wesley Co.

Orsburn, Jack D., et al, Self-Directed Work Teams, The New American Challenge, Business One Irwing.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
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Author:Allender, Hans D.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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