Self Directed Work Teams – the continuum of other-directed to self-directed models

The concept of Self-Directed Work Teams (SDWT) arose during the late eighties to early nineties in response to performance pressures from world industrial leaders, such as Japan. SDWT are defined as groups of employees who have day to day responsibility for managing themselves and the work they do with a minimum of direct supervision, bringing a product or service to internal or external users. The contrasting model sees a typical hierarchical management style with leadership of some type, with some degree of delegation.

Let me talk first about teams and supervisors, and where you might consider your own business to be along the spectrum of management styles. Conventional teams will happily and relatively productively work on a project of any type. They don’t, however, take ownership for problems or solutions – something which is effectively blocked by the presence of a supervisor within the hierarchy. The direction of the supervisor is always deferred to and individual skills are generally suppressed. To move the structure on from this point, team work training can be provided which can generate superficial success. I say that this is apparent success because it in fact only works within the confines of the supervisor / team divide. It still, understandably, engenders in some employees a mentality of “I park my brains in the locker with my coat”. This is a sad contrast to the real lives of the same people: these are people who run household budgets; manage the day to day running of their families; serve on committees; get to appointments on time, and make decisions based on information provided to them. Yet in the work place these people are subject to being overseen by HR for their time management and holiday planning, and are limited in the degree of autonomy they have. HR and other functions also oversee a number of systems procedures, motivations and deterrents which lose sight of all the capabilities of self management which employees so readily demonstrate through their lives outside work.

Let’s check whether the above is reflective of the set up in your own company. Try these test questions:
1. Do your team members manage their own absence – holiday issues?
2. Are they involved with choosing, and indeed do they have a veto over new members joining the team?
3. Do they set their own improvement targets?
4. Are they involved in the appraisal of the other team members?
5. If the process they work with fails, can they carry our first and second levels of repair?
6. Do the team members have knowledge about the end customer?
7. If they recognise a quality problem, can they stop the process and fix the issue?

If you have answered Yes to all those questions, there’s only one place I deduce you could be working. In my experience the only company in Europe and USA where a production process could be, and was, stopped by the team is Toyota. In all other cases the team could stop the process but only by “calling” someone. Toyota attained this level of empowering over several decades. Their recent over expansion has shown that this culture is not easily transferable. What can be more readily achievable is to eliminate inspection, and empower quality control at source. The more fully functioning the SDWTs are, the further along the road to the Toyotan utopia a company can progress. Most teams move gradually toward self-management along a continuum from “other-directed” to becoming self-directed.

In a second piece, I’ll look at the benefits of SDWT and how they can be nurtured, but also the limitations of the model.

Please do share any comments on this subject.

Anthony Abbott

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