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Managing in the High-Commitment Workplace
As a brand new production manager at Procter & Gamble Company's high-commitment plant in Lima, Ohio, I was surprised to discover that my work team thought I had done something wrong. "Isn't this what I'm supposed to do?" I wondered, after I had told them to resolve a problem they were having with one of their teammates on their own. I had been reluctant to try to fix something that I thought was the responsibility of what we proudly called a "semi-autonomous team," the basic work unit of the "concept" that differentiated us from the more classifically managed plants at P&G. However, the team helped convince me that I should have solved that particular problem without their involvement.
Not long afterwards, thinking that I now understood the right, "take-charge" way to do things at Lima, I was again chided by my team. This time, however, it was for being too authoritarian when I had mandated a particular method of equipment repair. I was confused. One moment they wanted me to take charge; the next moment they wanted me not to. Just what was the role of management in these high-involvement plants?
High-performance high-commitment workplaces pose special challenges for those who manage them. Supervisors and managers newly introduced to these organizations often face the following kinds of dilemmas: dilemmas: . Carlos, a rookie supervisor in a progressive manufacturing plant in the Midwest, was confused and frustrated by a recent workshop he had attended. The workshop, which was called "The Role of Team Leaders," made him feel that there was a right and wrong style of management for high-commitment work cultures. The style described by the instructors as "right" felt unnatural and awkward for Carlos. Was he supposed to act as if he were somebody else? He wondered if his decision to come to the plant had been a mistake. . Mary was a mid-level manager for division of an electronics company that was changing to work systems based on a high level of employee commitment and participation. She saw the teams struggling with important transition issues that she had strong opinions about; nevertheless, she wondered if she should say something to them at the risk of "taking over" and destroying their emerging sense of involvement. . The programmers Bob supervised at the insurance company had gone through a major organizational change to become a "self-directing" team. When he asked for clarification about his changing role, however, people would usually tell him what not to do, making such statements as "don't control" or "don't direct people anymore." On other occasions, he would be told to "lead instead of manage" or to "be a coach instead of a boss." He felt so concerned about doing the wrong thing that he was tempted to abdicate all his responsibilities, even though he felt that the team was unprepared to handle them on their own.
WHAT IS THE MANAGER'S ROLE?
How should people like Carlos, Mary, and Bob resolve their dilemmas? What is the role of the manager in a high-performance, high-commitment workplace, and why is it important?
Many companies are creating these kinds of workplaces. Whether they are called sociotechnical systems, high-involvement workplaces, or any of the multitude of names referring to organizations based on a high level of employee participation, companies such as Procter & Gamble; Cummins Engine Company, Inc.; Tektronix, Inc.; Digital Equipment Corporation; and a host of others are demonstrating significant business improvement as a result of the application of these high-commitment technologies. All other things being equal, these organizations simply outperform their traditional counterparts.
At a conference on the ecology of work held in Washington, D.C. in June 1987, Charles Eberle, a former vice-president of Procter & Gamble, mentioned the magnitude of this difference in performance: "At P&G," he said, "there are well over two decades of comparisons of results--side by side--between enlightened work systems and those I call traditional. It is absolutely clear that the new work systems work much better--for example, with 30% to 50% lower manufacturing costs. Not only are the tangible, measurable, bottom-line indicators such as cost, quality, customer service, and reliability better--so are the harder-to-measure attributes such as quickness, decisiveness, toughness, and just plain resourcefulness. The people in these organizations are far more self-reliant and less dependent upon heirarchy and control systems than are people in the traditional organization."
These kinds of results have generated interest in high-performance, high-commitment organizations. As a result of this interest, a growing number of progressive companies are now asking managers and supervisors to fundamentally shift their responsibilities. Instead of getting compliance from their employees, managers are now expected to elicit their commitment. However, although these organizations acknowledge the critical importance of supervisors and managers to the success of this type of workplace, little has been done to help them succeed in these emerging roles.
A DIFFICULT ROLE TO DESCRIBE
It took me a while to figure out how to really manage at the Lima plant, and I had some difficulty in explaining what I was learning to the frequent P&G visitors who toured the plant to observe our technician system. For example, during the visits it was usually the technicians (our name for all nonexempt employees) who gave presentations about major projects they were managing, goals they had set and accomplished, teammates they had hired, equipment they had purchased, or cost savings measures they had implemented. In the traditional plants those were things, the visitors noted, that would be said and done by staff professionals, managers, or supervisors, but not by "workers."
"If the technicians do all that," they would ask, "then what do you do?"
I would usually give the standard response that "we act more like coaches or teachers than like work directors." After all, I knew the litany as well as the next manager. "Don't preach to, boss at, withhold information from, direct, or artificially limit technicians; do teach, coach, inform, facilitate, and develop them." But while that seemed to be an accurate explanation of my work, it was somehow an insufficient description of what was really involved in managing at Lima.
Other managers have been similarly frustrated when they attempted to describe the role of the manager in a commitment-based system. This frustration may come in part from a lack of clarity about the evolutionary (and therefore nonstatic) nature of this role; it is hard to describe what is apparently a moving target. But another important part of the difficulty is that we talk too often about the participative manager's role as something we do instead of something that we are. We focus on management behaviors or styles without discussing the things that managers care about, like their personal values and vision or a set of core beliefs that influences their actions. The resulting picture is incomplete-not wrong, but not entirely right either. It is like trying to explain why a glove moves without discussing the hand inside it.
In fact, describing the management role in this way can be downright confusing. The plain truth is that the specific actions of good managers in these organizations often appear inconsistent with and sometimes even contradictory to what observers might consider "correct" participative behaviors. For example, a popular …