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David Zatz

Quality Insider

Empowerment Makes The Team

One for all

Published: Monday, February 13, 2006 - 22:00

Chrysler is stepping up their use of team-based manufacturing, moving away from the “Fordist” approach that’s been continually embraced and rejected by global automakers. Their approach brings up memories of the many other companies that have gone to teams, including some that were successful and some that ended up reverting. While dividing work into teams is always an attractive idea, many organizations miss the key success factors. People like to work in teams, but quality and productivity gains may be left on the table.

In other organizations, team-based work is dismissed because it’s too “soft.” After all, what feels good to workers must be bad for the company. That might sometimes be true, but—puritan beliefs aside—sometimes good medicine happens to taste good. The social aspects make work more enjoyable, while the ability to swap jobs frequently and to put short, repetitive tasks together into more complex tasks is easier on the body and less boring.

A considerable amount of research has gone into team-based work, and a number of ground rules have come out. We now know that teams tend to have an effect on performance through setting standards of how much work people do and how they do it. Teams with high standards and appropriate norms on how to work—teams that value innovation, quality, creativity, communication and hard work—tend to have higher performance than people working separately. Other teams can have norms of restricting work, lower quality or intolerance for any deviation, which lowers quality and productivity. Like any other recurring management fad, teams aren’t as simple as some would hope and they go far beyond norms and standards.

At Chrysler, working in teams is an extension of a late-1980s move to push power to the shop floor, which brought greater quality and efficiency. In the Canadian minivan plant, the transition was powered by workers seeking to raise quality. The plant manager, to his credit, allowed the change to happen. Teams saved millions in warranty work and scrap reduction and, given how Americans currently see buying a Toyota as the best way to improve automotive quality, probably helped slow the company’s market-share decline. The introductions of the LH large cars (Intrepid, Concorde, Vision), the Neon, the Cirrus/Stratus, and the Ram 1500 were all relatively free of assembly-based failures, and, at least at the factory level, the program worked well. What’s more, it greatly increased morale—many workers referred to it as a golden time. Unfortunately, the core ingredients—pushing power downwards, listening more to people at all levels and getting more communication between departments—were largely lost on the outside world, which discounted the great gains in assembly because of gaffes by suppliers and cost-cutters.

While the move to empower line workers was delayed by a number of factors, not least of which was the takeover by Daimler-Benz, it’s back on. Indeed, it may be adopted by Mercedes, albeit without fanfare, because although Mercedes tends to have lower scores on quality surveys than Chrysler, the corporate people (probably with good reason) feel any association won’t be good for Mercedes.

Some aspects of past changes, generally associated with Bob Lutz (now at General Motors Co.), have been re-implemented: line employees are being brought into the design of processes and workstations, for example.

The current form of the move to continually improve production is team-based manufacturing, but the key isn’t so much organizing into teams as actually empowering those teams. The leaders of the teams are UAW members, and, while they weren’t (as in more far-reaching companies) elected by groups of employees, they’re chosen from those groups. The requirements are that employees have at least three months of experience, attend meetings, meet safety and performance standards, and that they pass a written test. Supervisors and managers help the teams rather than crack the whip.
Spokesman Ed Saenz said that they had been hiring intelligent, creative people for many years, but once they entered the company gates, they were asked to stop thinking. Now, Chrylser is set on putting their minds to work on quality and productivity (instead of leaving that solely to the “Quality SWAT teams,” an approach not welcomed by many employees).

The problem-solving tools are fairly simple: daily five-minute meetings, a dry-erase board to list and prioritize problems, authority to get things done, and training. Supervisors and teams are trained at the same time to keep them in step and to make sure supervisors support the new way of working.

Team leaders can call in machinists and other craftsmen to make changes or repairs without supervisor approval and they can contact vendors. Indeed, according to Fred Goedtel, vice president of transmission, casting, and machining manufacturing, vendors often react more quickly if they’re called in by line employees. Problems that once would have taken much paperwork and weeks of time to fix are now handled in a day or two.

Goedtel described a number of cases where defects were reduced to zero or production moved from 140 to 192 jobs per hour, or where engineering issues were eliminated by clever changes. He noted that, left on their own, people would work on continuously solving problems. In particular, they work on small, nagging issues that don’t get the attention of plant management, but which can lose customers, bleed money, reduce productivity, and eventually become the big problems that managers eventually have to focus on.

Another aspect of the team approach doesn’t necessarily require teams: Have people check their own quality, rather than having a special quality-control person do it. The ideal is to have a Toyota-style, quality-built-in system by preventing problems from happening and to have self-correcting systems. Teams members are rotated to repair departments, where they see the outcomes of their work and learn what to avoid. This has had a rapid and substantial effect on internal repairs, saving money and—perhaps most important for a company whose reputation for quality isn’t where it should be—stopping problems from reaching customers.

Goedtel said, “When everyone knows what’s important downstream, they take care of it upstream.” Their actions could be as simple as taking more care and changing their work habits slightly, or as complex as initiating a new problem-solving process. It could be argued that just the presence of this system has a positive effect, because when people know someone else is checking and fixing their work, they can leave things for the “quality guy” to spot, and when people rotate to the quality check or repairs post, “repairs disappear and dry up because people see how to stop them internally and try to control their own zone to have no defects.”

Teams can solve even engineering problems. “Gaskets memory” refers to gaskets that want to bend out of place because of an initial bend to install. The solution was to bend the gasket the other way first, so the team updated the job instructions and added that process to their quality audit.

For teams to truly be empowered, managers have to grant authority and not punish people for using their power. Chrysler has taken provided simultaneous training, executive support and communication to show the reasons for the program and the benefits of using it. The primary indication that a team isn’t being supported properly is problems that haven’t been addressed or resolved on the problem boards. Managers can be reached to talk to, train or coach.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) and Nate Gooden in particular, support the effort. Chrysler Group’s new CEO, Tom LaSorda, hails from manufacturing and is a big supporter of the initiative, along with a large number of other senior managers. This has been a critical factor because unflagging, sincere support is required.

The UAW supported the effort, and according to the coordinator of the UAW’s National Training Center, John Stallings, all locals have signed on. There’s a lot in it for the union, not least of which is the continued existence of North American Chrysler assembly plants.

A large number of plants have already been converted, and others are awaiting the necessay two months of downtime. As new models are introduced, they’ll be converted as well. Some examples include Indiana Transmission and the Jeep Liberty plant,both of which used existing employees and were located close to older plants, as well as the Caliber/Compass plant that made the Neon and Fury. The vehicles with the highest quality ratings (including the PT Cruiser, which has beaten the Honda Civic in quality surveys) come from the team-based plants.

Empowered teams have tended to fail in many companies for a variety of reasons, including not involving supervisors and managers, not pushing enough power down and, unfortunately, leadership changes. Empowerment is key and people aren’t generally raised to believe that pushing power down can reduce costs. Too many people believe that medicine is only effective if it’s bitter. In this case, the pill is sweet, and it may save the patient from losing more market share, as well as help Chrysler and Dodge to bring back their reputation—forgotten by many—as quality leaders.


About The Author

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David Zatz

David Zatz has been working in organizational research and change for 25 years, and has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. He currently works with Toolpack Consulting, LLC and is an adjuct faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University.