Self-Directed Work Teams: How Far Is Too Far?

By Allender, Hans D. | Industrial Management, September/October 1993 | Go to article overview

Self-Directed Work Teams: How Far Is Too Far?


Allender, Hans D., Industrial Management


Allured 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 and control their work, taking over traditional management functions. As a team, they meet regularly as conditions demand, 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 typical 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 indoctrinated 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 backbone 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 supervisors and 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. …

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