Participation Management Poised to Improve Business

Article excerpt

The concept poised to play the starring role in improving American competitiveness had an unlikely origin - the research of social psychologist Kurt Lewin and anthropologist Margaret Mead, working with housewives during World War II to reduce consumption of rationed foods.

Their pioneering experiments in ``group dynamics'' involved, for example, two sets of women who made grocery-purchasing decisions.

- One group was given the facts about rationing and was urged to discuss solutions; they subsequently altered their food purchase patterns.

- The other group, which had received the same information via lecture, exhibited little or no change in behavior.

Mead said that she ad Lewin learned ``you cannot do things to people, but only with them.''

In the World War II experiments, ``participation'' was never conceived as a kinder, gentler approach to management. The pressing aim was to modify the behavior of large numbers of people. The research revealed the inefficiency of trying to induce lasting change through order giving.

Spurred by necessity, these ideas are belatedly beginning to take hold.

Start on the shop floor. I've discussed in this space the power of involvement (psychological ``ownership'') among hourly workers and work teams at the likes of Worthington Industries, Johnsonville Foods, Harley-Davidson, New United Motors Manufacturing Inc. and the Aid Association for Lutherans. In each instance, management has been taken aback by just how far involvement can proceed - and by what stunning results can be achieved in short order.

Next, consider ``ownership'' among managers. Consultant Kiyoshi Suzaki recently reported in the magazine Success on a turnabout at a 2,600-person Borg-Warner operation. Each mid-level manager was named ``president'' of a company bearing her or his name. The next department ``down'' the line became a customer; the one ``up'' the line, a supplier. The ``boss'' is banker.

Wayne Annen, transfer-case division maintenance manager, is president of Annen Maintenance Engineering. He makes regular customer calls on Fred Boyd Co., which is the steel parts manufacturing department. Each manager-president presents an annual business plan to his or her banker, like any small-business person would.

Even senior management suffers from disenfranchisement. In fact, ``ownership'' can have its most dramatic effect near the top.

A recent A.T. Kearney study used long-run financial criteria to pick out the best-managed Fortune 200 firms. Near the top of the brief list of traits distinguishing the standout firms from others: Division manager spending authority among the best averaged about $20 million, 10 times that among same-sized also rans. …