Participatory Management: Lessons from the Leaders

By Simmons, John | Management Review, December 1990 | Go to article overview

Participatory Management: Lessons from the Leaders

Simmons, John, Management Review

Participatory Management: Lessons From The Leaders

Participation is considered by some to be a device that has little to do with the hard facts of business and competition, a panacea that merely makes people feel good on the assumption that then they will work harder. In fact, when it works, a strategy for continuous improvement keeps a company competitive, its people creative and energetic, and its organization innovative, flexible and profitable. Successful strategies are driven by core values--honesty, trust, fairness, cooperation, respect for individual differences, and participation in problem solving and decision making.

In a Chevrolet plant in Fremont, Calif., self-managing teams plan, schedule and work the line. Workers stop the assembly line when they see mistakes; work stations are decorated with statistical analysis charts; and union leadership and management cooperate to get the job done better. There are more subtle signs of the participatory culture as well: The plant manager has no assigned space but parks his car in the back of the lot if he gets in late, just like everyone else; he doesn't wear a coat and tie but dresses in shirt sleeves, just like everyone else.

Most leaders never experienced a system like this as they came up through the ranks. And it is not easy to manage this way, but it is effective. At the Fremont plant, absenteeism dropped from 20 percent under the old management style to about 4 percent today. And new cars are now produced in slightly more than 20 hours, down from about 35 hours under the old management system. The plant is owned by New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., a joint venture of Toyota and General Motors.

It's not easy to manage the transition to a new company culture. Executives who try to make the transition from a command management culture to a participatory one may discover a host of obstacles in their way:

* Lack of a clear and comprehensive strategy for organizational improvement;

* Middle management's fear of losing power and control;

* Everyone's unfamiliarity with consensus decision-making;

* Crises--a sharp decline in market share, the chaos of deregulation, fighting among unions--just the situations in which companies need the better trust and communication that would be a part of a changed system;

* Managers who wrongly think they are applying the principles of participation already;

* Managers who see the improvement process as just another work task--one they cannot squeeze into their schedules; and

* Inertia and resistance to change: A manager shrugs, "if it's not broken, don't fix it."

And there are many more potential roadblocks. Often what stands in the way are rules that managers learned too well as they matured in the business world. How is a manager who has successfully beaten on a union for 20 years going to bring him or herself to initiate a new relationship with the union president, even if he or she believes a partnership will lead to better productivity?

Transforming the company culture is more difficult than launching a new product or establishing a new division, yet it is rarely given the same energy or resources as these tasks. Most executives are unaware of the size of the beast and what they need to do to tame it.


One force can overcome all this: top management. "I have never seen the failure of a continuous improvement effort that was not the fault of the CEO," Robert Tallon, former president of Florida Power and Light, has stated. His company was the first outside of Japan to win the Deming Prize for Quality. To succeed, the chief executive officer must first understand the implications of a management philosophy based on genuine trust, teamwork and honesty. As Xerox's David Kearns has put it, "Most of us who are running major companies may not yet understand how much we will have to do differently to be successful. …

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