The Potential in Autonomous Work Teams

Autonomous work teams have the potential to increase efficiency by giving employees greater buy-in.

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When you want something done right, manage it yourself.

That’s the boiled-down principle behind autonomous work teams on the plant floor. The thinking is that the right people, with the right skills, attitudes and personalities, can be organized into teams that will be able to plan and decide faster and more accurately than employees working as individuals — all with a minimal level of supervision.

“It’s a much deeper focus than straightforward management theory,” says Ed Brzychcy, president of Blue Cord Management (www.bluecordmgmt.com).

Self-managed teams vary considerably in composition, mission and operation, but they share one basic aspect: a higher than usual degree of responsibility.

“A self-managed team is one that has the capacity and the authority to make all the key decisions about the way it does its work — how it sets its goals, how it holds itself accountable, even defining why the team exists,” says Jeff Russell, principal of Russell Consulting (russellconsultinginc.com).

One of the biggest advantages of such a team is a sense of engagement. When a team feels a greater sense of responsibility, its members have a higher stake in their mission, and their buy-in becomes that much greater.

“You get a high level of engagement by members of the team, because they feel great ownership and responsibility and accountability to the team, and less to a boss, so to speak,” Russell says.

Other advantages include improved quality, productivity, responsiveness and service; greater flexibility; faster response to technological change; better response to coworkers’ values; increased commitment to the organization’s goals, and, ultimately, improved employee satisfaction.

Up from boredom

The autonomous work team is not a new idea. Industrial theorist W. Edwards Deming popularized the concept more than half a century ago, points out Alec Levenson, a senior research scientist at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business (www.marshall.usc.edu).

Deming observed that repetitive assembly-line tasks often entailed boredom and enervation, leading employees not to care about the quality of their work in the long run. Organizing them into self-directed teams gave them more buy-in.

“The real innovation was to say, if you give them not just accountability but also decision-making authority, so they could solve those problems on their own, you get to much quicker decision-making than if you have a manager standing over their shoulder, berating them and just micromanaging them,” Levenson says.

AWT KelloggDeming tried to peddle his ideas to American industry with little success, so he approached Japanese companies in the 1970s. Toyota and others adopted Deming’s ideas, building them into concepts like kaizen, a system of soliciting continuous feedback from workers. The Japanese manufacturers started racking up market gains, and American and other Western firms took notice. Many of them started self-directed teams of their own.

Kellogg has used autonomous work teams in its plants for years, organized as the Kellogg Work System. “Through KWS we drive a zero-loss mindset, build 100 percent engagement of all employees and develop our people,” says Jason Liss, senior director for supply chain and Kellogg Work System lead.

KWS teams are organized around part of a processing or packaging line. “The team can include an operations supervisor, continuous improvement expert and a reliability maintenance expert, who work directly with employees on the lines to round out the team,” Liss says. KWS teams foster a zero-loss mindset and maximize engagement and employee development, he says.

“The benefit of our line-centric teams is clear accountability and ownership for a specific area to drive people safety, food safety and productivity,” Liss says. “The focus is really on developing capability of people against our centers of excellence. This level of empowerment and engagement improves performance metrics for individuals and for the plants overall.”

While autonomous work teams are fairly well established among large manufacturing companies, there well may be smaller food processors who haven’t yet realized their advantages, Levenson says. “When a company is new, there are a lot of things that people, individual leaders, managers and companies in general oftentimes will learn the hard way, because there isn’t necessarily complete knowledge out there.”

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