An Article From the Archives:
Numbers can help convince executives that employee involvement is worthwhile, but results don’t tell the whole story. Underlying the data is the entrepreneurial attitude empowered teams have toward their work, their company and themselves. This month’s article is taken from Productivity’s Total Employee Involvement Newsletter, February 1994, please read on.
High-performance teams at the Pillsbury/Green Giant plant in Belvidere, IL have generated impressive results: work – and jobs – are coming into the Belvidere plant while other facilities are shutting their doors; corrective action teams that have cut equipment downtime by 30% and boil-pouch failure loss by 99%; and a work team that has boosted production efficiencies by 10% in each of the last three years.
Says employee development coordinator Nancy Neubert, who began facilitating plantwide deployment of high-performance teams in 1990, “Team members talk about improving their business. Complaints about management decreased dramatically because they make change happen themselves.”
Maintenance mechanic Rob Osborne came to Belvidere from an environment where “management told you how to do everything.” Today he appreciates the autonomy he and his fellow mechanics have. “If something breaks down, we decide what the best solution is in terms of cost and time,” he says. If a serious equipment problem occurs, he meets with maintenance and production people for an impromptu problem-solving meeting.
For truly empowered decision-making to take place, teams need facts. At Belvidere they are readily available. “Every two weeks my team discusses safety, cost and production numbers,” says Rob. “We analyze cost variances and may decide, for example, to rebuild a circuit board rather than buy a new one.”
Although mechanics are entrusted to spend up to several hundred dollars without authorization, they don’t throw money around. “With corporate profit sharing in place and a plant gainsharing program on the way, we make sure we spend money on the right things.” says Rob.
A few years ago, only a couple of engineers and supervisors had input into new equipment purchases and installations. “Now operators and mechanics provide input,” says Rob, noting that it makes sense to tap the ideas of the people destined to inherit new equipment. “People feel a greater sense of ownership if they are in on a project from the beginning.” he observes.
Much of the maintenance team’s success derives from the team leader’s efforts to be a teacher rather than a boss. Says Rob, “I weld most of the time, but he’s teaching me how to work the lathe and milling machine.”
Kim Koelling has worked at Belvidere for 17 years, and the not-so-good-old days are still fresh in her mind. “Management thought for us and told us what to do,” she recalls. “We weren’t encouraged to learn new skills, and supervisors got all the glory because they had all the responsibility.”
What a difference three years and a commitment to empowerment makes. “Now, we have self-respect,” Kim says. “We feel like a part of the company. We can make decisions about quality and cost we could never make before.”
Team autonomy extends beyond Belvidere’s plant walls. Kim and several teammates recently visited their corrugated supplier to discuss quality problems face to face with counterparts there. “When a problem comes up in the future, instead of passing it to quality assurance, we will be able to call the people we met at the supplier and solve it directly with them,” she says.
Kim is grateful for the opportunity to cross-train, an essential ingredient allowing team members to help each other out. Cross-training also smooths out the distinctions imposed by six different pay grades in her area. “When you’re on a team, you’re an equal,” she says. “It’s not the title you have or the wage you make that matters; it’s the things you do.” The things she and her teammates do include labor scheduling and the hiring of 60 new people.
Teammates also occasionally discipline one another. With no time clocks, the team decides if a member’s showing up late or leaving early too often. “If a person is not fulfilling their team responsibility, we can give them a 90-day probation period that includes a plan for improvement,” Kim says.
To assure cross-shift cooperation among frozen-packaging teams, once a month everyone meets for a roundtable session. “There used to be competition between shifts,” Kim recalls. “Now we all come together on a regular basis, so we think of ourselves as one team.”
Kim also serves on the plant’s cross-functional design team, whose goal is to create an environment in which high-performance teams can flourish. The design team eliminated time clocks and is planning a performance based pay system. It also makes sure that communication within the plant community remains open and frequent. “Fear starts when people don’t know what’s going on,” she says.
Self-worth is the biggest difference between then and now, Kim says. “Today, I know I’m an important part of this plant. My team needs me, and I need them.”
Les Bodey, a 15-year veteran machine operator, concurs. “Team members take more pride in their work because they feel like they make a difference,” he says. “People like coming to work because their ideas are heard and acted upon.”
Today, Les and his team leader feel comfortable enough to let each other know if they’re slipping back into the old ways. The team leader recently had reservations about a team decision to temporarily slow down a line that packaged a new product because some customers complained about missing items. Says Les, “It’s a good feeling to know that we can talk openly and have our leader support our decision. We also moved our most experienced people to the end of the line as ‘final inspectors’.” Consequently, the number of customer complaints dropped from about 100 per month to less than 15.
Reflecting on her 15 years at Belvidere, fork-lift operator Cecelia Rice remembers the days when “bosses were the brains, and we were the hands. It made me feel useless, mummified, programmed. Now people are no longer puppets. There’s life in their eyes. They know that they matter.”
Cecelia was relieved when management “started realizing that we were the backbone of this place,” but she remained skeptical at first, having experienced other initiatives that turned out to be little more than “lip service.” Then Cecelia was asked to be on the design team. “I’m not shy about expressing opinions,” she says. “When they asked someone like me to be on that team, I started to believe that this might be for real.”
Cecelia also offers an important tip for involvement-minded organizations struggling with supervisors in transition. “You have to find someone on the team who the team leader can talk to, someone who can coach him and not lose patience,” she says. To achieve high performance, everybody must change. “That change is sometimes difficult for our leaders,” she observes. “Supervisors struggling to become team leaders need to know how important they are. They are more important now because the teams need someone to teach them and help them grow.”