Self-Managed Work Teams Don't Just Happen

Companies have realized a lot of benefits from implementing manufacturing cells. These manufacturing cells are staffed with personnel who possess sufficient authority and responsibility to complete their tasks with minimal supervision.

Columns From: 3/1/1999 Modern Machine Shop,

Companies have realized a lot of benefits from implementing manufacturing cells. These manufacturing cells are staffed with personnel who possess sufficient authority and responsibility to complete their tasks with minimal supervision. This type of organization structure is referred to as a self-managed work team.

Although self-managed work teams are rarely totally self-managed, team members do take responsibility for a wide variety of functions formerly performed by supervisors, such as work assignment, production scheduling, process improvement, and resolving interpersonal difficulties within the group.

Self-managed work teams can be characterized by features such as multiple skills, common purpose, interdependence, authority and accountability. Some self-managed work teams are assigned greater authority and responsibility, including hiring and firing and decisions about salaries.

Companies that have implemented self-managed work teams have reported very positive results, including increases in productivity, reductions in labor costs and lower maintenance costs.

Even though many companies have achieved results such as these, there are significant challenges associated with the implementation of self-managed work teams. The following paragraphs highlight a few of these challenges.

Self-managed work teams achieving the highest degrees of success received a great deal of training prior to implementation. Training can be expensive and takes employees away from their daily responsibilities. Companies must be sure employees receive the right kind of training and do not get caught up in the cycle of "training just for the sake of training." Many believe that specific "hard skill" training on the various functions performed in the cell is the most beneficial type of training. However, other skills such as goal setting, work scheduling, materials management and other administrative skills may be necessary.

Support for workers sometimes evaporates during busy periods when managers need to meet shipping targets. Operators run the risk of being pulled out of training classes to be sure a major shipment gets out. This is a problem that is not easily solved, as companies have to satisfy customers in the short term while learning to improve in the long run.

Self-managed work teams will not achieve success immediately. This often leads to frustration on the part of managers who may look to self-managed work teams as a "quick fix." Self-managed work teams almost always take more time to implement than people think and this leads to a struggle to maintain enthusiasm.

As with many types of change, things sometimes get worse before they get better. Teams may initially be less productive than the traditional organizational systems they replace, due to the learning curve involved in developing new skills, practicing new behaviors, and accepting new responsibilities.

Management's sense of power and control is threatened with the implementation of self-managed work teams. This is a realistic fear, as the number of management personnel are typically reduced with the introduction of self-managed work teams. If not addressed, this fear can actually lead to managers undermining the teams.

Teams may work well in some areas and not in others. This can be attributed to the "not invented here syndrome." Teams may want to feel their way with certain issues and not be forced to adopt what has been effective in other areas.

Peer pressure is often identified as a means of improving productivity. Unfortunately, many workers do not handle peer pressure well and do not feel comfortable operating under the close scrutiny of co-workers.

Assuring that all members of the team are contributing equally is difficult, especially when team members have different levels of skill and experience in the organization. Even though it is the entire team's results that are most important, resentment can develop if certain members are perceived as not "pulling their weight."

More and more companies will experiment with self-managed work teams due to the benefits that have been reported. However, companies must recognize the cost of implementing effective self-managed work teams is considerable. This cost must be weighed against the benefits to be gained before a company embarks on a "journey" toward self-management.

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