Careers and Workforce / Process and Operations

The Potential in Autonomous Work Teams

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

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.”

Varied tasks

The kinds of tasks an autonomous or self-directed work team takes on are as varied as the companies they work for. Scott Buchele, founder of consultancy Performance Enterprise (www.performanceenterprise.com), has seen such teams strive for many kinds of goals.

“A great deal of work is around product optimization, waste reduction, product safety and [operational] safety,” Buchele says. “Work usually begins with a specific goal in mind, often starting with a SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats] analysis.”

As the tasks vary, so will the makeup of the team. Some assignments lend themselves to cross-functional teams, or at least teams with members who can represent the interests of adjacent departments. But as the tasks become more specific and technical, the need for specialization grows; liaisons with other departments are better left to managers.

“If it’s a purely operational team, those connections fall on the team’s leadership while the team itself focuses on production,” Brzychcy says. “With food production, your tolerances are very tight, so you want to keep that tight-knit team who are the experts in production.”

That kind of expertise usually comes from proximity. One of the biggest basic advantages of a self-directed work team is that its members are close to the action. It’s often said that no one knows a machine like its operator; autonomous teams are a way to concentrate and capitalize on that knowledge. This makes for faster decisions.

“One of the big advantages is speed. You are much faster when you have a self-directed team, because they will solve anything themselves,” says Andreas Doerken, partner and senior vice president at Argo Consulting (www.argoconsulting.com). “Whatever happens to their area of responsibility, they will immediately solve it themselves, and they know the machines better than anybody.”

Doerken says autonomous work teams have the potential to be especially effective in three important aspects:

  • Quality “If a quality issue arises, they will make the decision themselves whether or not to stop the line because of whatever happens to quality,” Doerken says. That’s what he calls a first-level decision; the second-level one would be the team correcting the issue on its own.
  • Maintenance A self-directed team would do all preventive maintenance itself, instead of depending on central maintenance. “In order for them to do that, the equipment has to be set up in such a way that they can manage it in a simple manner,” Doerken says. That would require making available digital tools like sensors and software to interpret the data they generate.
  • Continuous improvement “A self-directed team establishes a goal of how they’re going to improve operations on their own, and review that every three months, six months, whatever, with upper management. [That is] opposed to traditional [setups], where they continue to improve something that is imposed from a central office, and they participate in it but they don’t manage it,” Doerken says.

The long term

Putting together a team that can take on so many responsibilities is no easy task. Willie Carter, founder and president of Quantum Associates (quantumassocinc.com), says “an autonomous team initiative usually requires three to five years to be fully functional.”

The obvious first challenge is to find the right people. And the first qualifications for those people are experience and knowledgeability about the tasks they’ll face. In some organizations, finding such people may not be so simple.

“There are companies that work a lot with temporary staff that come in and out all the time,” Doerken says. “That is a bit restrictive with autonomous teams, because you need everybody to be well-trained on the machines.”

But expertise is just a starting point. Team members also need the personality to take on responsibility and to support each other.

“It requires a higher degree of self-awareness,” Russell says. “It requires the ability to be reflective, ask questions of each other, develop a collaborative approach within the team — and not everybody is suited to that kind of intense, collaborative, interdependent environment. In other words, not everybody is suited for a self-managed team.”

Some management experts say that self-directed teams need autonomy in their very first task: putting the team together. The team needs to own the selection process instead of relying on HR or other outside agents.

“The team has to play a key role at deciding ‘are you a good fit?’ ” Russell says.

That question sometimes applies after the team is assembled. “In some cases, [self-directed] teams are also are given the responsibility to remove non-performing members from the team,” Carter says.

But it shouldn’t fall into the trap of only choosing people who think the same way, Russell says. “A healthy team will look for diversity, look for divergent perspectives, and still invite people who are aligned with the vision, the values, and the collaborative environment that the team has built upon.”

A lack of diversity can lead to groupthink, which results when the team places too great a priority on supporting each other, says Lynne MacDonald, a fellow of London’s Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development.

“Although a cohesive self-managed team may create a sense of trust and respect between team members, overly cohesive teams can lead to ‘groupthink’: Team members are more likely to conform with team norms than raise issues that may upset other team members,” MacDonald wrote in an article for Chron.com. “This may lead to reduced effort or stifled innovation.”

Groupthink can also lead the team into poor relationships with others in the company, says Jerry Bouma of Toma & Bouma Management Consultants (tomaandbouma.com).

“An autonomous team has the potential to be the best change agent, or it can be the worst,” Bouma says. “If for example, the team has built relationships and respect within the organization, it can be very effective. If, however, it takes an attitude that ‘we know more than you,’ and perpetuate an ‘us versus them’ culture, it will create tensions and prove to be ineffective.”

Another potential pitfall is confusion within the team over tasks.

“For example, people simply may assume roles based on their functions and positions — then quickly begin to notice duplication of efforts,” consultant Beth Yates wrote in a report for Interaction Associates (interactionassociates.com). “This looks like: ‘Wait a minute, Susie and I are both interviewing stakeholders for the marketing rollout — what gives?’ ”

This kind of confusion can happen when tasks are clear but the details of the work process aren’t; it can lead to members assuming that a given task is someone else’s job.

Related to this is more basic uncertainty about roles within the team. A team’s leader might think he has made the roles clear, but members might interpret his message in different ways. “This creates a lack of accountability that leads to critical deliverables falling through the cracks,” Yates writes.

AWT Jerry Bouma

The burden of leadership

This is why, just as autonomous teams have greater than normal responsibility, so do their leaders.

The selection process for leadership can vary. Some are elected by the team; others are designated ahead of time. However it’s done, the leader should have some sort of background, or at least aptitude, in managing people, either through experience or special training.

Leaders of autonomous work teams have to lead by teaching, not doing. Above all, they must, as much as possible, turn problems or challenges into opportunities for the team to learn.

“In autonomous work teams, the manager is a coach — a person who has to develop the team members,” Levenson says. “So in order for an autonomous work team to work well, the manager cannot be jumping in to try to save them. Her job is to be coach and to help them be better, not to go in there and make the decisions for them and do the troubleshooting for them when problems arise.”

By the same token, management should take a somewhat hands-off approach with autonomous teams. The idea is that the team should be able to both set goals and operate without prior feedback or review from above. Of course, some level of engagement by management is inevitable.

“A self-managed team is not an entity in and of itself,” Russell says. “It’s kind of up to the larger organization in the end.” Carter says that a team’s effectiveness should be assessed periodically, every month or at least every quarter.

The basic point of a self-directed team is to use loyalty as a superior substitute for duty, obligation — or fear.

As Russell says, “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.”