Self Directed Work Teams?

I wrote earlier about one of the Lean lessons that was learned when I read Toyota Kata.   I had another interesting epiphany later in the book that I thought I’d share.

This revelation was about the dismantling of the autonomous worker myth in TPS.  There are a lot of resources touting suggestion system data and the concept of the team members on the line making the improvements to their process.  I’ve heard or read variations of this narrative dozens of times and, frankly, never gave it much thought.  Although, I have been around people that were completely taken in by the thought and invested a lot of effort trying to figure out how to make it happen.  I hear people from time to time asking what has to be done to develop self directed work teams that manage themselves, make process improvements and don’t need an ‘indirect’ employee like a lead or a supervisor to be a part of the process.

The thing about this misconception is that it doesn’t make any sense at all.  If you have an area staffed with the correct amount of team members working to takt time, where is the excess labor capacity to make improvements?  Who responds to issues that fall outside of the standardized work?  Who is looking at the bigger picture needs as well as upstream and downstream impacts?  Those are all logical (some might say obvious) questions that I had never asked myself before.  Author Mike Rother points out that there is involvement from the front line workers, but not at the level that some resources may lead you to believe.

I had been involved with and studying Lean for over a decade before I gave this concept any thought at all.  I didn’t blindly accept it, it just wasn’t anything that I invested time or energy in to.  Looking back, that’s kind of unfortunate.  Had I taken a bit of time to understand this point, I could have helped save some of the effort spent working towards this goal and redirected it to where it would be more beneficial.

Posted on February 5, 2012, in Culture, Engagment, Improvement, Leadership, Training and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I agree, there is far too much made of the empowerment of the front line, as if that is the only variable that has made an impact. It even starts with the myth that operators can stop the line. They can for safety, but that’s true in any environment. The team leaders make the final decision about stopping the line.

    There really is no such thing as self-directed work teams. I think the use of the language itself can even be dangerous, setting up expectations of no constraints. Professor Jan Klein at MIT, who I worked with, used the phrase semi-autonomous, which might sound more like a disease than a description, but it is more accurate.

    Successful teams, whether at Toyota or not, operator within processes and rules. These are constraints, and the constraints provide guidance but also open up degrees of freedom to experiment and improve. We should not waste great efforts pursuing unbounded, unconstrained, self-managed teams because that really is not what the ideal state should model.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  2. As the General Manager over several plants, I was fortunate to see evolution to self directed work teams in our facilities. The transition was several years in the making, however, the investment was well worth the effort.

    As you know, developing leaders and transforming the culture in a plant requires resources and time – patience is a virtue. Daily visits to the shop floor, working with employees,and training / introducing concepts at monthly employee meetings are only a few of the many ways we engaged individual team members.

    There were resistors and they were indeed our greatest challenge! The changes were introduced incrementally and others could observe the process and results accordingly. You cant rush success and I believe that is one of the reasons initiatives such as this fail. Timing is everything – the team must be ready, including leadership.

    The most critical element is engagement from top management. As mentioned earlier, I spent a tremendous amount of time across all shifts to understand our processes and more importantly, getting to know our employees as people. I know every employee by name and understand their capabilities and recognize opportunities for further development.

    While it may seem different, we created a seamless enterprise and introduced “ownership” thinking. While it takes time, again its worth the effort. This is not a tough concept to understand but in practice it takes true empowerment.

    Not every hour is spent producing parts. Give the employees the time and resources they need and the job, including improvements, will get done. The transition is slow, but so well worth it in the long run. I might add that we never announced that we were going to have self directed teams – in due time time it was only natural.

    Toyota Kata happens to be one of my highly recommended reads. Great topic, thanks for sharing.

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