Whatever happened to self managed work teams?

11 December 2017

Back in 1995, not long after setting up my first consultancy business, I was introduced to a very impressive young MD from Premier Foods called Nigel Conquest who had taken the reins at a tea factory in the east side of Edinburgh. We were introduced because I had previously done some research on Self Managed Work Teams (SMWT) and Nigel had a vision of creating a modern factory built on the concept of self management. We were both convinced that SMWTs were the future of manufacturing and were excited to consider an opportunity to be in the vanguard of the SMWT revolution in the UK. We even had a video by the great Tom Peters which provided four examples of how SMWTs work in such illustrious businesses as Harley Davidson, and wisdom from Tom himself stating that SMWTs would be the norm in the 21st century.

SMWTs run their own lines. They do not need supervisors or line managers. They do their own scheduling, organise the team activities, co-ordinate with other teams and manage their own performance against targets and objectives. They can also manage their own absence, recruitment, holidays, training and even how any bonus is shared amongst themselves. SMWT is based on the principle that people in our business are smart, reliable, competent and committed to our success.

The programme we implemented in the tea factory was very successful. We removed all supervisors, trained and developed everyone in the concept of self management, carried out leadership development to change mindsets and behaviours and created a cadre of team leaders committed to the success of our revolution. Productivity soared, absence fell, improvements and innovations were evidenced across every part of the factory. Morale was high, senior managers found a new lease of life and there was no going back to the ancient regime. As Wordworth said of a previous revolution, 'bliss was it in that dawn to be alive'. Like all young revolutionaries we believed we had changed history.

With his success in Edinburgh, Nigel was subsequently promoted to a senior role in a much larger factory in the Midlands. Robespierre called for his Saint Just and off I set to spread the revolutionary gospel. What we found was the forces of reaction were ready for us and, try though we might, all attempts at regime change were thwarted. It soon became clear we had met our Waterloo and the reactionaries re-established the status quo. Similar attempts to introduce the concept into an electronics company and a drinks company enjoyed early success but eventually buckled in the face of management resistance.

Since those heady days, SMWTs appear to have disappeared off the radar of organisational change. Its name reappears in the odd academic article but evidence of its implementation in companies is very, very rare. Supervisors and line managers still hold the power of decision making in most factories. Teams still have little influence over innovation and improvements in their own areas. People who have worked for 25 years in a job apparently still need someone, who is paid more, to supervise them to ensure they are carrying out their job correctly. The same person who has done the job for 25 years isn't asked how it could be changed or improved. People who run a house, manage a mortgage, kids and a car aren't given information on the costs and margins affecting their own areas as 'they wouldn't understand'. In a marketplace dominated by innovation few businesses ask the people who work there for their ideas. In an era of cost cutting business still believe they need a layer of management whose primary role is to make sure the layer below are doing what they have been doing every day for the last 25 years and to stop them coming up with any ideas for change.

Are there any revolutionary rumblings for SMWTs? Not many. Managers and supervisors still hold the power across most of our organisations and don't look like they will let go any day soon. Many businesses still work in hierarchies and make little attempt at engaging their people in the running of the business, improvement or innovation. Front line and middle management are still regarded as a pre-requisite for success and control. There are still some of us ageing revolutionaries who still believe there is a better way to run organisations that is built on engagement, trust and the collective ideas and thinking of the whole workforce and not just the guys at the top or middle. It’s the belief that people who vote, raise children and manage their own finances can manage their own operations at work and contribute with both head and hands to the success of the organisation.

For more information, contact Andy Kelly (consulting@aab.uk) of the AAB Consulting Associate Network, or your usual AAB contact.

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