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Self-Directed Work Teams: A Competitive Advantage
by Ron Williams

At 3-M, employees join together to manage their daily work through self-directed work teams.

Outside of their jobs, employees make important decisions every day. They vote on community issues. They help teach their children new skills. They purchase homes and cars and life insurance. But on the job, how many people are allowed to make important decisions about their work? How many people have input into how they do their own jobs, lead a team, find out what their customers need or make decisions about what will work better for their customers?


What are self-directed work teams?

Minnesota-based 3M is among an increasing number of companies that involve employees in the daily management of their business through work teams. These teams are empowered to take corrective actions to resolve day-to-day problems. They also have direct access to information that allows them to plan, control and improve their operations. In short, employees that comprise work teams manage themselves.

Self-directed work teams represent an approach to organizational design that goes beyond quality circles or ad hoc problem-solving teams. These teams are natural work groups that work together to perform a function or produce a product or service. They not only do the work but also take on the management of that work -- functions formerly performed by supervisors and managers. This allows managers to teach, coach, develop and facilitate rather than simply direct and control.

At 3M, the movement toward self-directed work teams has been driven more by initiative and need than by corporate directive. Many of the initial efforts were in manufacturing facilities where the changing environment demanded employees operate differently in order to be competitive. Plants in Hutchinson, Minnesota; Weatherford, Oklahoma; Cynthiana, Kentucky; and Bristol, Pennsylvania, provide good examples of adaptation to self-directed work teams.

Now, most of 3M's manufacturing facilities, while at different levels of empowerment and different degrees of involvement, employ a team-based approach. In 1994, 3M's new Brockville, Ontario, facility came on-line as the organization's first "greenfield" site. It was designed and built to operate with self-directed work teams. Many work groups in line divisions and staff groups are moving more and more into self-direction. 3M's commercial office supply division, dental products division, finance, logistics and quality management services are becoming increasingly team-based and self-directed.


A breakthrough approach to designing work

Self-directed work teams, also known as self-managing teams, represent a revolutionary approach to the way work is organized and performed.

Instead of organizing work based on the traditional Taylor model -- reducing a process to individual steps -- work becomes restructured around whole processes. There must be interdependence and joint responsibility for outputs if there is to be a self-directed work team. Whereas the traditional system reduces the required skill at every level of work, producing boredom in the bottom-level jobs, the new system integrates the needs of the people with the work to be done, and those closest to the jobs help design the job.

This concept -- designing the work system with the full participation of the people doing the work -- is contributing to productivity breakthroughs for organizations in the 1990s. Companies are redistributing power, authority and responsibility so that the people closest to the customer and the end product or result have decision-making capability.

Business Week recently reported that self-directed work teams are, on average, 30 to 50 percent more productive than their conventional counterparts. The following are some examples of organizations that attribute major productivity results to the advantages of self-directed work teams:

* AT&T -- Increased the quality of its operator service by 12 percent.

* Federal Express -- Cut service errors by 13 percent.

* Johnson & Johnson -- Achieved inventory reductions of $6 million.

* Shenandoah Life Insurance -- Cut staffing needs, saving $200,000 per year, while handling a 33-percent greater volume of work.

* 3M's Hutchinson facility -- Increased production gains by 300 percent.


Advantages of self-directed teams

Why is this concept of self-directed teams growing? A recent survey of more than 500 organizations offers several reasons why senior line managers chose to revolutionize their approach to work. Self-directed work teams have resulted in:

* Improved quality, productivity and service.

* Greater flexibility.

* Reduced operating costs.

* Faster response to technological change.

* Fewer, simpler job classifications.

* Better response to workers' values.

* Increased employee commitment to the organization.

* Ability to attract and retain the best people.


Challenges in developing self-direction

The major challenges organizations face in changing from a traditional environment to a high-involvement environment include developing the teams and fostering a culture of management support. Teams go through several stages of increasing involvement on their way to self-management. This journey can take between two and five years, and is never-ending from a learning and renewal perspective.

Comprehensive training is also critical to developing effective self-directed work teams. The training for these teams must be more comprehensive than for other types of teams. Not only must employees learn to work effectively in teams and develop skills in problem solving and decision making, they also must learn basic management skills so they can manage their own processes. Additionally, people must be cross-trained in every team member's job. Therefore, it is not uncommon for self-directed work teams to spend 20 percent of their time in ongoing training.

Developing and empowering the team

The training strategy that has enabled 3M to develop high involvement in many of its businesses is the train-the-trainer approach. We train people to go back into their departments and provide teams with the knowledge and skills to manage their work process. The intent is to transfer as much of the capability as possible. It's imperative that the business units assume ownership for the process to ensure that it "takes."

The training strategy builds five areas of effectiveness for managing the work process. Teams gain hands-on experience in methods for:

* Developing a customer focus and making customer satisfaction their top priority. All teams exist for an external reason: Their outputs will be used by someone else. By focusing on the customer -- whether internal or external -- the team makes sure that it retains its added value.

* Becoming aligned around a common vision and mission, and developing a clear understanding of roles and operating guidelines. The team needs to understand not only the organization's mission but also how it links to that mission. The team needs to have a good understanding of the roles of individual members within the team as well as its role with the organization.

* Building skills for working together to make decisions, plan work, resolve differences and conduct meetings. Teamwork needs to be developed. The members learn to become interdependent by building trust. They develop a sense of "we" so that they accept joint responsibility.

* Becoming empowered to improve the work to achieve the needed results. The first three areas of effectiveness are really precursors that need to be in place before the empowerment journey can begin. Since empowerment is neither abdication nor anarchy, the parameters need to be set. Then the critical empowerments needed for the team's success must be determined. When 3M first launched its effort, it tried to heap too many empowerments upon the teams too quickly. This not only frustrated the teams but also created failures. The key is to start with fewer critical empowerments and let the team become skillful at those before taking on more.

* Setting goals and solving problems for continuous improvement. The team must consciously strive to improve itself and its processes, outputs and inputs. This means equipping itself with appropriate tools and methodologies and dedicating time to use them. Continuous improvement is a responsibility of the self-directed work team.

Changing the role of leadership

Front-line and middle management can either enable or stifle employee involvement, empowerment and self-directed work teams. Therefore, it is important to elicit management's active support in these efforts. Special support materials as well as training are also available to facilitate the changing role of supervisors and managers.

Employees need assurance about their futures. Are they being eliminated, or are their current positions being eliminated and their roles being redefined? The company must provide honest answers to employees' concerns and fears.

Management also must be involved in the transition. The pragmatic, day-to-day skills in managerial functions that the team will assume currently resides in the supervisors and managers. They need to learn to guide the work group in its transition, development and empowerment. They need to learn when to hold on and when to let go. This requires planning, training, facilitating and team-building skills. Supervisors should also learn to provide ongoing coaching support, linking the team's role with the rest of the organization.

Upper management also has a vital role to play in the implementation of self-directed work teams. Senior managers need to strongly champion and sponsor the teams and the process. This commitment must be constantly visible and ongoing. It also should be reinforced with sufficient resources, including time. Last, management must exhibit patience and tolerance because the transition will take time, and delays and mistakes will occur.


A high-involvement work culture

    By backing self-directed work team efforts with effective training for both employees and management, 3M has developed a high-involvement work culture that contains multiskilled jobs, promotes empowerment, is customer-focused, has moved decision making to the lowest effective level and rewards group performance and continuous improvement. This, in turn, provides 3M with a competitive advantage in the marketplace as well as in employee hiring and retention.

This is not to say that the change to self-directed work teams does not involve pain and challenges -- it does. Nor is it a quick fix; it takes two to five years to develop mature teams and to have the systems in place to support them.

However, 3M has found that increasing employee involvement through self-directed work teams is not only a good thing to do, it is a "business thing" to do. 3M has seen teams make improvements in products, services and processes while increasing customer responsiveness and flexibility. At the same time, these teams have lowered operating costs, increased productivity and decreased cycle times. For 3M, it has been a sound business decision as well as a sound human resources decision.


About the author . . .

Ron Williams is manager of quality management services at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has 22 years of experience in human resources management, training and team process at 3M. During this time, he has served as an internal development specialist to the corporation on team issues, employee involvement and group development. For the past six years, Williams has worked with self-directed work teams within 3M and currently serves as an external consultant, helping client organizations develop effective team processes through quality management services.