Preparing for an Organizational Change to Employee Self-Management: The Managerial Transition
If the transition to self-managed work teams is to be successful, managers need to be trained for their new roles as facilitators. In fact, care and effort during the transition period help prepare everyone involved.
Recent years have brought many challenges for American organizations. Intense international competition, a workforce that now demands more from work than simply a means for making a living, the increasing complexity of technical knowledge and information flows, and other forces have pressured companies to explore innovative work designs. Among the more noteworthy of these organizational innovations is the self-managed work team.
Work designs based on self-managed teams tend to give workers a high degree of autonomy and control over their immediate behavior. Typically, the workers are organized into teams on the basis of relatively complete task functions. They make decisions on a wide range of issues, often including such traditional management prerogatives as who will work on what machine or work operation, how to address interpersonal difficulties within the group, how to resolve quality problems, and so forth.
Estimates of the number of companies that have tried self-managed teams run as high as 300. The Procter & Gamble Company, which began its work in this area in the early 1960s, is perhaps the leader in seriously applying the self-managed team approach in the United States. Other corporations that have used the team approach include Cummins Engine Company, General Motors Corporation, Digital Equipment Corporation, Ford Motor Company, Tektronix, General Electric Company, LTV Steel Company, Caterpillar Inc., IDS, Boeing Company, and many others. These work design innovations have been adopted in many types of organizations, including various manufacturing plants, paper mills, warehouses, and insurance and financial offices.
One dilemma frequently encountered in making an organizational change to self-managed teams arises because of the transition needed in management thinking and philosophy. The decision to adopt a self-managed team approach requires some very significant adjustments for managers within the organization. Passing power and control to lower levels in the organization can be a very uncomfortable process for managers, stemming largely from perceived threats to their own status and power. In addition, managing self-managed workers calls for new perspectives and strategies that often do not seem to come naturally to those involved. Indeed, the transition to employee self-management can be a troubling process for the managers of the self-managed.
This factor, which significantly influences the self-managing process, and which is often overlooked in the research and literature on self-managing teams, will be addressed here in some detail. We will discuss the transition difficulties of managers making such an organizational change and, especially, their struggles with the concept of having their workers manage themselves. In particular, we will feature the transition of the management design team of a professional supplies distribution company as it struggled with the planned change to self-managing teams in a warehouse operation.
AN ORGANIZATION MAKING A CHANGE TO SELF-MANAGED TEAMS
Located in the northeastern United States, the company is a non-union wholesale distributor and retailer of architectural, engineering, and commercial art supplies and furnishings with a current annual sales volume exceeding $50,000,000. It was co-founded in 1964 by the current chairman and president who, together, own 100% of the company. We focused on the organization's warehouse distribution center operation, which is broken into four basic parts: receiving/stocking, order filling, order packing, and shipping. We centered the study on seven managers (the core management team) directly involved with the workforce of approximately 65 people who fill and pack orders: one director of operations, one day and one night manager, and two day and two night order-packing and order-filling supervisors. The director of operations coordinates all aspects of the distribution center's four basic parts. The day/night managers oversee all day-to-day operational details of order filling and order packing. The four supervisors, who report directly to those two managers, handle all minute-to-minute concerns regarding the workforce and production flow. Because of heavy order volume, they themselves often fill and pack orders.
Most of the core management group had been with the company for at least four years -- about five times longer than the average worker--and most had "come up through the ranks" of order filling and order packing. The standard management style had been a traditional autocratic approach with a punitive emphasis. In the past, the organization typically perceived a good manager/leader as one who did whatever it took to get the job done, with a heavy emphasis on exerting tight control over the workforce. This, of course, represented a direct conflict in management philosophy with the new self-management system that was to be adopted, and it required significant unlearning on the part of the managers.
In addition to the need for significant unlearning of past management styles, there were several workforce characteristics that made this an especially interesting organization to study in terms of the transition of management thinking. First, the average age of the employees involved in the change was 19, significantly younger than most other self-managed team applications. A majority of the workers were recent high school graduates or drop-outs.
Coupled with the relatively young age of the …