Blog: Self managed teams - Empowerment or elimination?

Learning & Development

Self managed teams - Empowerment or elimination?

The self-managed team model discussed in the article aims in a factory scenario to eliminate the supervisor
Self managed teams - Empowerment or elimination?

Labyrinthine labour laws, labour disputes, production losses and industrial unrest…are just some of the challenges manufacturers face with their shop floor staff.

A recent article in The Times of India reported an innovative – though already existing – model that companies are implementing to tackling these challenges: Self Managed Teams (SMTs).

A simplistic definition of a SMT would be “a group of people who have day-to-day responsibility for managing themselves and the work they do”. The SMT model discussed in the article aims to eliminate the supervisor in a factory scenario. Some of the deliverables of this role would filter down to individual workers.

On a typical day, production related instructions relating to product mix, timing, etc would be delivered directly to the team member who would plan her/his day and get on with the tasks. With one less moving part in the process – the supervisor! In the background, the support teams would be on stand-by to provide help and clarifications, when required, and an alert maintenance team would handle any equipment failures.

Offices in HR would get busier to meet the competency expectations of this model. The talent attraction team would now have to look for people with higher scores in areas that demonstrate social, communication and interpersonal abilities. Yet be self-motivated enough to be able to work alone.

Training programmes would need to include stronger flavours of leadership and management, otherwise saved for the supervisor’s curriculum. Higher education assistance and career progression would have to be fine tuned to ensure employee stickiness and retention of good performers.

Internal communication around daily production schedules would have to be stepped up to eliminate the ambiguity of interpretation. Communication would have to be carefully targeted and delivered with precision to the appropriate employee sets. Almost like a computer download! Employees would also have to be periodically reminded – individually and collectively – about health and safety, equipment care, adherence to quality standards and compliance with policy.

Performance metrics would have to be precise and numeric. These would have to be measured real time by an unbiased technology solution that also identifies gaps and lapses for immediate redressing. The above in place and the employee is saved from the frustrating eccentricities of a human being – especially one having a bad hair day!

There are indeed success stories in the market, as the aforementioned article states, to suggest that the model is viable – and works. But then, is the role of the supervisor an optional accessory that can be eliminated so easily? More to the point, do shop floor staff have the maturity to manage themselves?

In defence of the supervisor

A supervisor is usually someone who has worked successfully on the shop floor. Having demonstrated loyalty to the organisation, has meritoriously moved up the org chart and is generally respected by the team. Some supervisors tend to have a higher educational qualification as well.

Supervisors have ownership of their team, the production schedule, workload distribution and the team’s overall performance. Being immediately available, as the first point of contact, the supervisor quickly answers queries and resolves doubts of the shop floor staff while work continues. In many cases, the supervisor is the also first-level performance appraiser.

Many ‘firsts’ are attributed to the role of the supervisor! On the softer side, the supervisor brings in a much needed human element to the otherwise mechanical existence of the shop floor staff. For shop floor workers, supervisors are seen as teachers, mentors and motivators, besides the boss.

A note for detractors: True, everyone has bad hair days – we’re human! But who says technology is perfect – even Six Sigma allows for an error margin!

Factory managers, usually management staff, see supervisors as representatives of the shop floor employee population. A smaller, more manageable group, they provide an understanding of the health of the production unit – the why. Insights far deeper than any MIS – the what – generated by a preprogrammed electronic device.

Above all, a supervisor plays the role of a constant security guard for the plant’s expensive machinery. Left in the hands of a pre-adult high-school pass-out, there is a very real challenge of human error that can cause serious and expensive damage to both the worker and the equipment rigourous, and ongoing, technical training notwithstanding.

The inherent belief that people are essentially good, capable, responsible and loyal prevents me from dwelling on the subject of mischief – other than the mention that it is indeed a very real threat.

Traditionalists would ask: Are we forgetting the ‘human’ in Human Resources by replacing an entire employee segment in the organisation chart? Are we still hiding behind the standard, over-flogged, reasons of ‘cost saves’? Or, is there another deeper, more future-oriented reason for starting to implement SMTs at the shop floor?

Vision of the near future – the elimination of the factory worker altogether! With exponential developments in technology, more and more processes would removed from less than perfect human hands. Mechanical tasks would be down-sourced to, well, mechanicals!

We have seen this happen very successfully in the automotive sector where many processes have already replaced human beings – quite successfully – and are delivering significantly higher levels of quality and financial benefits.

Robots: The ultimate in Self-Managed Teams. With pre-determined abilities, pre-defined capacities – specific to the task – and with no expectations other than periodic maintenance and a good supply of electricity!

So is implementing SMTs on the shop floor today, a precursor to robots replacement of humans in future? Science fiction of today – solutions of tomorrow! For mechanical, repetitive tasks, why not? The question is valid even today – with due respect to employee and Union groups.

Think about it. What an ideal picture! Clock-work precision in the assembly line, consistent quality, higher production, no fatigue and above all no labour problems! If this indeed is the direction, then the role of the Industrial Relations person would also get impacted. As would roles of the factory manager, those in the planning team and many others in the upstream production organisation structure.

One of the elements considered when sizing a role – and subsequently pricing it – is who reports into to the role. So if tomorrow’s factory Manager has a bunch of robots to control, would that reduce the size of the role? The Factory Manager position would have fewer People responsibilities!

Maybe this where the real cost savings are coming from!

Also from the depreciation on the machines vis a vis the constant demand for hikes in wages, benefits, working conditions, etc. that people make…

In conclusion, let me clarify that the intention is not to create the impression that humans are going to be replaced by machines. That day is still a long way off. My aim is to present a balanced opinion on SMT’s in today’s industry.

Are SMT’s the way to go on the shop floor? Should they be restricted to more mature, more senior employee groups only? Can detractors and Union supporters rest assured that there will always be humans on the factory floor?

A suggestion is to test the SMT model in a smaller, more controlled environments to refine, processes, technology, etc. in a manner that (a) good quality models are determined (b) employees see the writing on the wall early enough and work towards self improvement for jobs higher up in the organisation structure.

Meanwhile, seek SMT opportunities higher up the organisation chart – in Work Units where people are older, wiser, more mature – and more expensive!

Topics: Learning & Development

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