Taking the Mystery out of Self-Directed Work Teams

By Felts, Cathy | Industrial Management, March/April 1995 | Go to article overview

Taking the Mystery out of Self-Directed Work Teams


Felts, Cathy, Industrial Management


Traditional organizational structures are often ponderous and slow. Companies are ill-equipped to operate effectively with today's information technology or at the speed required for responsiveness to customer, market, and competitive trends because many organizations are top heavy. To remain competitive in the increasingly fierce international marketplace, companies need to empower employees throughout the entire organization. A significant portion of U.S. businesses are experimenting with semi-autonomous or self-directed work teams. The empowerment process forces business decisions and responsibility for the daily operation of the company into the lowest levels of an organization. The company's vision and values should be defined, and the organizational management structure should be flattened. Self-directed teams are small groups of employees who have responsibility for managing themselves and their work.

To survive, companies will have to focus on total quality, speed to market, and cost containment. Today's workers demand greater participation, flexibility, and autonomy. The organizations that have positioned themselves for success are those that focus on empowering their work forces.

Teams have existed for hundreds of years throughout many countries and cultures. Teams are more flexible than larger organizational groupings because they can be more quickly assembled, deployed, refocused, and disbanded usually in ways that enhance rather than disrupt more permanent structures and processes. Teams can play an essential part in first creating and then sustaining high-performance organizations. Most models of the "organization of the future" networked, clustered, non hierarchical, horizontal are premised on teams surpassing individuals as the primary performance unit in the company.

In America as manufacturing systems increased production capabilities, organizations naturally divided into functions and job specialties, managers made all the decisions, and supervisors became better at controlling work flow. The workers focused on doing what they were told because input from employees was thought to slow the process. Besides, managers had no time to listen to or consider workers' ideas because there were efficiencies to maintain. Factories: were large machines, and the employees were the assembled parts of those machines.

In a culture based on independence, an ironic thing happened. Many workers were forced to surrender their independence and the freedom they had enjoyed as members of small, family owned firms. As industry grew it began to operate on a model that was large-scale, high-volume, and machine-paced. Power was closely held by a few leaders, and workers gave up control and ownership of their work in the move toward a mechanical way of getting things done.

Although centralizing power ma sense at the time, the regrettable result was a loss of worker empowerment. For nearly a century, millions of American workers performed tasks with little sense of ownership, participation, control or pride.

In the early 1960s, American management began a long journey toward greater employee involvement. The first step was the Quality of Worklife movement, where managers asked employees for ideas that would make their job easier and more pleasant. In the late 1970s, employee involvement groups called quality circles began to be utilized. The application of self-direction didn't really begin in the U.S. until the mid 1960s, through the efforts of pioneers like Procter & Gamble Co. and the Gaines dog food plant in Topeka, Kas. The concept began to spread slowly during the 1970s. It wasn't until the mid 1980s that self-directed teams became the new industrial phenomenon.

Many companies initially get interested in self-managed teams as a way to reduce the number of supervisors, and that's short-sighted thinking. The high cost of flexibility in traditional U.S. manufacturing plants is the problem to be solved. …

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