Nailing Jelly to a Tree:
Approaches to Self-Directed Work Teams

David Chaudron, PhD

There is much talk these days about implementing self-managed or self-directed teams. Properly implemented, self-directed work teams can substantially increase quality and productivity (30-40% in most cases, over 200% in better implementations).

What is a self-directed work team? You can define it as a process and an outcome.

As a process, self-directed work teams become increasingly able to perform functions that in the past were done by others outside the group. All teams, whether they have an authoritarian manager, a participative manager, a coach or none of the above that move towards greater empowerment you can consider a self-directed work team. 

As an outcome, it is a team that without a management-appointed supervisor that substantially controls the creation (manufacturing or service), scheduling, design, quality control, procurement, and employee hiring/firing/performance feedback of a process that has a specific product or service. The company supports the team by its organizational structure, information system, compensation policy and management. There are three approaches: the opportunistic approach, the partial implementation approach and the structural (re-engineering) approach.

Opportunistic Approach

This approach has the highest risk of failure. Let's say that a particular supervisor retires, and the company can't find an immediate replacement. Management says, "Hey! Let's make a self-directed work team!", tells the team about their decision, and then walks away. When this happens, team members have told me they feel abandoned, alone, and confused. They do not receive the training, emotional support, or organizational restructuring needed to implement management's directives.

Partial Implementation Approach

Some companies partially implement the concept. They may take an existing manufacturing team, given them some training, transfer whatever little control the supervisor has to the team, and change their supervisor to a facilitator. However, because the team doesn't have any more control than before of events outside the team (design, scheduling, procurement, hiring, etc.), and do not have the structural supports in place (compensation, organizational structure, performance appraisal, etc.) their life is probably limited and in the long-term will have only modest increases in productivity and quality. When the person that championed their cause leaves or gets promoted, the effort may collapse within a year. A number of aerospace companies have used this approach.

As Part of Re-engineering

The re-engineering (socio-technical) approach has the best chance for long-term success. Using this idea, management and their consultant decide on the broad outline of the plan that moves the company towards self-direction. They then form a design team from a cross-section of employees, whose purpose is to develop a detailed plan for implementation, change, and communication. The design team also focuses on changing any structural barriers, such as the organization chart, management style, compensation system and the performance appraisal system so that these systems closely align with the concept of self-directed teamwork. Such changes involve 1) moving from a functional (manufacturing, engineering, sales and service) organizational structure to a product- or customer-based structure; 2) moving away from individually-based performance appraisal to a team-based reward system, such as profit or grain sharing; 3) providing greater disclosure of day-to-day financial and production data; and 4) allowing employee input into strategic planning. The company then implements self-direction in a systematic way. Such an effort can take time, but it can yield dramatic results. Companies that have used this approach include Proctor and Gamble, Rohm and Haas, Avery, Eastman Chemical and Digital Equipment Corporation.