Chapter 6 Make Work Whole Again Flexibility Self control Teams Load-bearing managers
Make Work Whole Again
Excerpt from Rethinking the Corporation
By Robert M. Tomasko
How can a job be reinforced? Concrete is reinforced by adding well placed steel bars as it is being mixed. Are there are several kinds of "steel" worth adding to jobs as they are being designed? Yes: there are three functional equivalents to steel bars worth considering building-in to most positions: depth, flex and self control.
Kodak has moved in this direction in its division that manufactures precision components. For many years Daniel Cardinale, an assembly worker there, did little but operate his punch press machine. Now, in addition to his production responsibilities he is expected to coach less senior employees in statistical process control, meet frequently with representatives from the companies that supply the raw materials he works with, and help select new employees. He repairs his machine when it breaks, monitors his own productivity, and is expected to contribute to the success of a just-in-time inventory program - not be just a cog in its wheel. Beefing up jobs along these lines have had a clear economic payoff for Kodak: Cardinale's work group produces almost three times the amount of work they did when jobs were more narrowly designed.
IBM has created more depth in its Austin, Texas assembly line job's by training many blue collar workers to measure the speed and accuracy of their production processes and to test the quality of the products they produce. The result was a significant increase in the productivity of the engineering professionals who formerly did this work - in addition to their product and process design responsibilities. The leverage provided by the retrained assembly workers allowed the engineers to also acquire more depth in the work for which they added the greatest value.
This principle of leveraging senior talent with that of juniors is badly under exploited in most companies, even though its payback can be great. When studies are made of where the time of expensive technical talent or key sales producers goes, significant portions - frequently 50-75% - of their time is frequently discovered being spent on activities that they do not personally need to do, and that detracts from providing their greatest value to their employers. Over time this leads to a pattern of overstaffing with senior talent and underutilizing those in more junior ranks. This is especially apparent when comparing the content of American engineers' jobs with that of their Japanese counterparts. According to one Arthur D. Little study, the typical Japanese engineer's workday includes two to three times as many hours devoted to doing actual engineering.
The economic importance of leveraging skills - adding depth to more junior jobs - is underscored by a study of staffing levels and financial performance in 292 major companies conducted by former Xerox executive, Paul Strassmann. He found the businesses with the highest profitability tended to be those with the most clerks or support staff per knowledge worker. This finding calls into question the knee-jerk reaction many companies have when cost cutting to begin by first eliminating these positions.
Obtaining leverage through technology enabled Saab-Scania, Sweden's second automaker, to avoid some of the diseconomies that plagued Volvo. In Trollhattan, a town only a few miles from Volvo's innovative Uddevalla plant, Saab built a large factory heavily staffed with fully functioning robots.
Rather than following Volvo's tack of humanizing the car assembly job, Saab found ways to take humans out of the process - at least out of the direct part assembly job. The doer job at Trollhattan is to run the robots, repair them when needed, and make decisions about replacing them after so many breakdowns. By reconceptualizing a higher order role for workers, Saab added depth to these highly trained technician positions, rather than attempting to reverse the flow of industrialization.
Many jobs, including those in service industries, can provide economic benefits if they are reinforced. The successful reengineering of the insurance application approval process at Mutual Benefit Life heavily depended on creation of a new customer service job that did tasks formerly handled by nineteen employees scattered across the company. Recently the Coca-Cola Company surveyed the chief executives of the largest U.S. food retailers. They were asked to think about ways that the jobs of customer contact employees in supermarkets - primarily stock clerks and cashiers - could be changed to contribute to increased store revenues. More than three quarters of these number's driven executives felt that they would get significant sales increases if they:
- provided clerks with information about the products the store sold, especially regarding nutritional value and methods of preparation;
- gave these employees basic training in suggestive or consultative selling; and
- taught them ways to obtain and remember customer's names (retailing research found that calling a customer by name does a great deal to ensure repeat visits to the store).
All three of these job-reinforcements significantly reposition the store clerk's role. No longer just a cog in a company's food distribution chain, clerks are now expected to use more of their latent talent to advance the company's broader merchandising mission.
This quality of depth has been successfully added to a job when each worker can see the beginning and end of the major tasks on which most time is spent. The shelf stocker's job does not end - or payoff for the retailer - when the goods are placed on the shelf. They have to end up in the customer's hand. The position is strengthened by adding both new skills and broader access to information. Jobs reinforced this way allow for a modern equivalent of the career progression from apprentice to master - something not possible if most of a person's effort goes toward just fastening a bolt, entering some data on a computer terminal, or watching for a light to go on on a machine's control panel.
The women's fashion chain, The Limited, has prospered in a time of bankruptcy-inducing sales declines for many retailers by following a strategy of focus and flexibility. A large shopping mall may have several of their stores - The Limited, Limited Express, Victoria's Secret, Cacique, etc. Each will have a very distinct look and merchandising mix from the customer's view point, but have the stockrooms at the back of the stores interconnected with passageways and stairs to allow sales attendants to move from store to store as customer traffic dictates. This arrangement also allows for a single "mall manager" to replace several individual store heads, as well as for a smaller total work force than required by several stand alone operations. Realizing these benefits requires more than behind-the-scenes architectural changes. All clerks and managers have to be trained to be knowledgeable about each store's merchandise, and customer preferences. And have mastered the skill of rapidly shifting gears.
In another service industry, upscale hotels, the Oriental chain has gained considerable distinction for personalized, on-demand service thanks to an extensive cross-training effort. If you happen to be a luncheon speaker at one of their rival's hotels - say a Hilton, Hyatt or Marriott - a request for help setting up your slide projector will most likely be met with a polite: "Certainly. Please wait a minute and I'll page someone from our audio-visual department to come here and help you." No such wait is needed, though, at the San Francisco Oriental. Ask any waiter or busboy for such assistance and they will stop whatever they are doing and immediately make the projector function to your satisfaction. All customer contact employees have been trained to personally handle most requests guests might make.
Manufacturing companies are also discovering many benefits from having a cross-trained factory work force. Both General Motors and Toyota have found teamwork and quality improvement efforts thrive best when each employee has more than a passing understanding of the work done by their colleagues. At a General Motors plant cross-training the workers who assembled automobile suspension systems resulted in almost eliminating the warranty cost incurred when defective systems were sold and had to be repaired. This happened because workers at each stage of the production process had become sufficiently knowledgeable about what should have happened previously to be able to spot - and fix - defects before they became buried within the assembled car.
Problem avoidance is an important benefit of investing in flex. Another, with potential to also help lower hierarchical walls, is illustrated by the unique approach The Vanguard Group, a distributor of mutual funds, takes to coping with sharp upward surges in workload. Most of Vanguard's customer contact is by telephone. Orders to buy, sell or transfer funds from one mutual fund to another are handled by a well trained and organized group of telephone representatives. The size of this operation is adequate to handle the normal peaks and valleys of inquires and trading. But special events - stock markets crashes, surprise news events, etc. - can easily double the volume of calls.
While it is uneconomical to staff in anticipation of these occurrences, Vanguard has found a way to cope with them without the serious deterioration in service quality experienced by many of its competitors. During these crisis periods an investor may find herself giving a sell order over the phone to John Bogle, Vanguard's chief executive. He, and 300 other executives and middle managers have for several years all been trained and pre-scheduled to immediately fill-in during crisis periods. As a group they are known as Vanguard's "Swiss Army,' a reference to Switzerland's practice of counterbalancing a minimal standing army with an ability to rapidly mobilize and arm a significant proportion of its population should a threat to national security arise. Just as this practice, and the periodic refresher training it requires, helps bring closer together Switzerland's diverse cultural groups, it also puts dents into the wall between workers and managers at Vanguard At Mutual Benefit Life different walls were breached by cross-training. At this collapser of nineteen jobs into one, the barriers between the old narrow jobs, as well as the boundary lines around several departments, were obliterated to make work reengineering a reality.
If a job is given greater depth, and its incumbent equipped to shift from task to task as the needs of the customer or work require, what kind of supervision is then needed? Very little, or at least very little of what has traditionally provided by the first-level supervisor or plant foreman. In an increasing number of companies this role has become an anachronism. As part of a plant-wide restructuring, Union Carbide replaced most of its front-line supervisors in a Texas chemical plant with unionized, hourly paid workers called "lead operators." Shell has made similar changes in some of its Canadian operations, and Proctor & Gamble has had success replacing foremen with salaried technicians. AT&T, before it was broken up into several operating companies, had several years of good experience operating a hundred-person specialized billing operation without any direct supervisors. These unionized employees had responsibility for ensuring service quality, training, improving productivity, managing operating and overhead expenses, monitoring attendance, and establishing administrative procedures. Formally, this large unit reported directly what was previously an AT&T second level manager.
These shifts are part of a widespread trend to erase what once was the first management level on many organization charts, and expect the individual contributors it once supervised to take on more of the responsibility for their own direction and control. In some companies this is called "employee empowerment," a phrase that, unfortunately, has become more of an overused slogan than an indication of a reinforced job. The idea of empowerment - as in "I've empowered my subordinates to solve the problem for themselves" - has become a trendy way to express the age-old concept of delegation. It's often a good idea to do, but - as with delegation - needs to be used selectively. Redesigning jobs so that a measure of self control is built-in requires more than the easy allusions to empowerment made by many contemporary managers.
Moving beyond the slogan stage first requires ensuring that jobs are defined in terms of outcomes, expected results, not the usual laundry lists of tasks and activities that fill so many position descriptions. This is the starting point of self regulation: it's hard to be in control of something when the something is vague or inexplicit. Then, along with a clearly-communicated expectation that the job-holder will be doing whatever is necessary to correct deviations from the expected outcome, must come ongoing direct feedback. For example, every job that bears upon customer satisfaction must be designed so that it includes frequent, intimate customer contact. How else can such work be kept whole other than by closing this performance/feedback cycle?
The same principle applies when the result's of one employee's work becomes the input to, or supportive of, anothers'. Short term feedback is vital, but elaborate information systems are not necessarily required to deliver it. Farm equipment maker Deere & Co. 2 found that by simply juxtaposing operations that were once done is separate areas of the plant both quality and productivity improved. Oil accumulators for Deere's tractor hydraulic systems were once welded far from the place in the plant where the systems were assembled. When they were tested after assembly, about 25% invariably leaked, and had to be sent back for rewelding. A reengineering of the work process resulted in the welding and assembly jobs being placed next to each other. Thereafter, no foreman or quality inspector was needed to deal with the rework problem. When the first system failed, spraying the assembler with hydraulic fluid, the social process of mutual accommodation took hold (Assembler to welder:"I'll kill you if this happens again"), and the poor welding problem disappeared.
Regardless which feedback mechanism is used, building self control into jobs requires the elimination of the pockets of "information poverty" that have resulted from the industrial revolution-inspired work fragmentation. One traditionalist retailing executive used to justify his reliance on tight management of his store clerks by decomposing the word "supervision." He said it was important for his employees to realize how much they needed a boss with super-vision, the ability to see beyond their narrowly defined jobs to look at the whole picture of how the company made money by serving customers. He was right that such a perspective was vital to the business, but he was unaware of the extent his narrow definition of the clerk's jobs generated much of the need for a role with this perspective. Reengineering the retail sales process, and adding depth and flex to their their work, along the lines of the previous examples will force each clerk to have a start-to-finish view of what is required to satisfy a customer and what is each clerk's contribution to this result.
Breaking out of this self-fulfilling cycle requires structural as well as informational changes. The old first level supervisory jobs must disappear (not linger in the worker's shadow in some vaguely defined "advisory" capacity) and key elements of this job must migrate to the doers'. These elements need to be chosen on a company-by-company basis, but can typically include responsibility for issues like:
- work flow coordination,
- work and worker scheduling,
- quality assurance,
- continuous quality and productivity improvement,
- orientation, training and ongoing skill upgrading.
Other aspects of this job, such as discipline, performance evaluation and linkages with the rest of the company are less downward delegatable. The need for them will not disappear in the new corporation, but the ways they are handled will change. The nature of these new tactics for direction and control will be considered later in several following chapters.
Teams are very trendy. As with many popular ideas, the word is often used without careful attention to which of its multiple meanings is most appropriate.
When some managers talk about the importance of teams, they are really talking about teamwork. This application of a group's best effort to pull together and accomplish something is important to all organizations. Few managers would do anything but exhaust the virtues of teamwork, even though at the same time many preside over systems and management practices that favor individual over group accomplishment.
Increasingly, employees are being asked to take time away from their individual assignments and serve on task forces, committees, teams, or whatever. Texas Instruments has found it useful to create a hierarchy of teams that operate like a "shadow government" to help manage a semiconductor chip plant. Most powerful is a steering group made of the plant manager and the heads of the factory's various functional units. It approves major projects and sets overall objectives. Subordinate to it are teams responsible for "corrective actions," "quality improvement," and "plant effectiveness." The corrective action groups are organized on an ad hoc basis to handle crises and problems that can quickly solved, while the quality teams focus more on long-term improvements. Both types of teams oversee the effectiveness groups, made up of blue collar production workers and individually contributing professionals. These groups are intended to help them stay coordinated.
The widespread use of these part-time teams is paralleled by an increased willingness to work around the problems of day-to-day corporate bureaucracy by assigning key tasks to full-time, special purpose teams. As with the part-time groups that overlay the established bureaucracy, these teams usually include members from a cross-section of functional departments. They have been especially useful as tools to speed development of new products. Chrysler's luxury sports car, the Viper, was developed by an 85-person group - large for a team, but hundreds of people fewer than Detroit usually involves in launching a new vehicle.
The Viper team included members from engineering, manufacturing and marketing, working along with non-Chrysler employees loaned from key outside parts suppliers. Six of the members were unionized workers who, when the product development phase ended, were assigned to lead the teams of workers that will build each viper. All 85 members were pulled away from their home base departments and worked together in one large open-plan room.
One of Chrysler's Detroit neighbors, Ford Motor Co., carried this idea one step further and used it to lower the wall separating it from Madza, its partially-owned Japanese partner. Over a five year period a new version of Ford's best selling car, the Escort, was designed by a team with members from both companies. Initially Ford's team members were to style the car's outside, while Mazda's did the internal engineering, but soon the lines blurred as each side transferred know-how, as well as critical feedback, to each other.
Team-oriented efforts like these have been successful in many enterprises. But they all share a common failing. They are clever ways to detour around, instead of directly addressing, the problem of dysfunctional organization structures. Perhaps Chrysler recognized this when, in the wake of its success rapidly developing the Viper, it pulled its engineers out of their functionally oriented departments - such as engine design - and moved them into teams that remain together for several years plan for a single model at a time. This shift alone saved Chrysler a half billion dollars each year in costs associated with the design changes that result from each department taking the work of the previous one, adding its inputs and modifications, and sending the results to the next functional group. It also did away with the cumbersome matrix system of multiple bosses to whom each engineer had to account - a source of slowness and extra cost for many companies.
This Chrysler effort is a step that goes beyond employing the team just as an overlay or add-on. It uses it more as a basic building block of the corporate structure. Examples of this type of team usage are few and far between, and some organizations that claim to operate this way have really just renamed their departments "teams." Hypothetically, an organization built around teams will have no individual jobs, nor functional departments - only teams, their members and some limited management superstructure to keep everyone moving in roughly the same direction. Visions like this - bands of employees, all equals, and on the same e-mail network, going off doing what the group consensus suggests is best for the enterprise - make for interesting speculation. But their fuzziness at times probably makes them better building blocks for a business novel than for a new corporation.
The composite team might serve as a middle ground between these romantic visions and the team-as-an-afterthought. Their members, like elements combined to form a new chemical compound, give up some of their individual identity and character for the good of the strength resulting from group cohesion. Like composite building materials, they are a balanced blend, in this case of functional skills and behavioral types. Indicators, such as the Myers-Briggs topology, are being increasingly used to calibrate this mix. Some companies compare their teams to DNA molecules, and try to develop them so that each team entity includes most of the values and know-how necessary to function as a microcosm of the entire organization. Apple Computer has used this "genetic coding" model to plan for its long term growth through spinoffs, each potentially able to replicate key factors behind the parent's success.
Establishing teams of this sort can be difficult in some cultures. In nations like the United States where individualism is a much stronger social value than collectivism, the tendency to talk about teams and team-efforts is strong, but the result frequently muddled. It is difficult to expect a company managed by business school graduates whose education and careers have been built on their individual competitive successes to provide unwavering support for a team-based organization.
One U.S. school, the University of Tennessee's College of Business Administration, is working hard to buck this trend. In a revamp of its M.B.A. curriculum they made changes far beyond token acknowledgement of the usefulness of group efforts. Students there now study, work together, and take their examinations in teams. Grades are based primarily on their performance as team players. The school realized this team orientation could not be successfully imposed on the "workers" while their "managers" (the faculty) operated under the old rules. So a team of ten professors - called the "A Team" was created to jointly teach one unified first year course, instead of ten individual ones. The content of the new curriculum stresses the overlapping and interdependent activities of a business, and avoids the narrow functional specialization too common in both course catalogues and recent graduate's job descriptions.
Taking this idea a step further several companies have built operations from the bottom-up around teams. These include food retailers operating in bastions of American individualism like Hannaford Brothers in Maine and Whole Foods Markets in Texas. In Whole Foods' stores, departmental teams buy and price what they sell - functions seldom delegated to the store manager in most food chains. In both companies teams do the hiring and firing, establish and monitor work rules, and have significant input into the compensation systems.
Using the group as the basic unit of organization is more common in countries like Japan, where well-entrenched cultural values favor group over individual identity. This is apparent in many Japanese organization charts where only a handful of the senior-most executive positions are specified. The remaining boxes invariably designate departments or sections, not individual managers or jobs. Japanese management tends to view the corporate structure in terms of hierarchically-related collective units, not as a constellation of jobs. Relatively few national cultures have Japan's deeply ingrained emphasis on group effort and harmony. But its absence is not necessarily a problem.
Some Japanese corporations are finding aspects of teams dysfunctional. Over reliance on groups as a basis of organization can limit individual creativity and smother deviant, but useful, thinking. For these Japanese companies, the idea of the reinforced job may make more sense. Regardless, it is still possible in many cultures to selectively "engineer-in" the most useful aspects of using teams as organizational building blocks.
Collectively, composite teams possess the three attributes of an individual in a reinforced job. Their work has some requirement for depth. The team's overall mission requires more skill and knowledge than possible for any single individual to completely possess. They also provide flex. While reinforced jobs bring multiple skills to bear on a task, composite teams allow for the possibility of a mix of disciplines and functional know-how, as well as job coverage for longer periods than any one individual could provide. Many of the tactics necessary to build self control into individual jobs are useful with teams. Teams, when well crafted, can also take advantage of the dynamics of social pressure and leadership to keep on course. Within limits, team members may impose discipline on their fellow workers, though to maintain cohesiveness they need an external manager to step in as needed. Teams tend to follow a life cycle; some are more mature than others and able to take on more responsibility for self control.
Teams with these attributes are created, not designated. When composites are made for use in construction, a considerable amount of energy is often required to fuse the raw materials together and align them in a way that provides the structural strengths the builder is looking for. Likewise, composite teams require significant amounts of energy to guide their formation - much more than sending the new team members to a session or two of "team building" activities, and then calling them a team.
Team building is not something that happens in the abstract. Teams need to be built around something - actually around three things: a leader, a mission or purpose, and the attachments that form among team members. If any of these is missing, the team's ability to serve as a structural building block is diminished. The pivotal role here is that of team leader, who gives the mission a sense of life by continually articulating and rearticulating it, and who models the collaborative behavior necessary for effective functioning of the group.
This is not a disciplinarian supervisor, and is not the one-person-in-charge who is held accountable for all the team's actions. The role is more along the model developed in Roman times: primus inter pares, first among equals. Some companies, with especially mature teams, emphasize this by rotating this function. Others ensure the teams members have a say in selecting their leader.
Much of the actual team building happens as the team members train together. Royal Dutch Shell required a half year of individual training to produce a newly minted team member for its restructured chemical plant in Carrington, England. When Levi Strauss converted a New Mexico plant that made high-fashion jeans into a facility organized around self managing teams, each sewing machine operator received 100 hours of instruction in topics ranging from labor cost reduction techniques to efficient ways to lay out equipment on the factory floor. The teams are also expected to provide regular feedback and suggestions to Levi's fashion designers about the ease-of-manfacturability of the new clothes they create.
Levi's operators must each perform at least three of what used to be individual jobs. At a Corning Inc. highly automated ceramics plant the requirement is more stringent: team members must be proficient in three families of skills within two years of being hired, or they lose their jobs. Knowledge requirements like these are expensive. When Corning opened this factory from one to two days of each week in its the first year were devoted to training, both in technical and team working skills.
As in reinforced jobs, the work given to a composite team must be complete. It needs to have a beginning and end, not just be the middle part of some elongated work flow. Packaging work this ways allows the team to have a sense of ownership for the group's results. Levi's operators now each produce a finished garment, not spend their days only sewing on buttons or pockets. This ownership freeing is important psychologically, but even more vital in some companies for other reasons.
Before 1985 Japan Air Lines (JAL) organized its aircraft mechanics along the standard functional lines, with each maintenance group seeing dozens of planes over the course of a year. That year the worst air accident in history occurred when a JAL 747 crashed into a mountain in central Japan. All 520 people aboard died. While aviation safety investigators attributed the cause of the crash to a bulkhead improperly repaired many years before by the plane's manufacturer, JAL management was still very concerned that the line of rivets the builder had forgotten was not noticed even though the plane went through several major maintenance overalls since the omission. No one maintenance unit had overall ongoing responsibility for that particular plane.
To reduce the possibility of an oversight-driven accident happening again, JAL reorganized the maintenance groups. Each 15-person team, called a kizuki (which means "plane crazy," an indication of the attachments that form between worker and work, is assigned one 747 and one DC-10 from the JAL fleet. The have complete responsibility for the operability of these planes. Their signatures appear on a special plaque inside each plane's passenger cabin. After a major aircraft repair, its maintenance team leader is its first passenger.
Composite teams also create significant opportunities for leverage. Consider the experience of Teli, a Swedish telecommunications equipment maker, in rethinking the way it produces computer software. Writing software is generally an economic black hole. Costs predictably escalate from original estimates, and deadlines are faint hopes, never solid commitments. Most software writing is done by an individual college-trained engineer who stays with a project from start to finish. These engineers enjoy exercising creativity as they generate computer code, but few like the drudgery of fully documenting their efforts, making it difficult to fix mistakes or install updates.
Teli's repackaging of this work involved creation of a team with three levels of talent working as close partners. A seasoned software writer serves as team leader, and devotes most of his time to specifying the functionality each segment of the computer program needs, and monitoring its development. Two more-junior programmers breakdown the work even further into self contained modules which are then written, documented and tested by four former blue collar workers whose previous factory assembly jobs had been replaced by robots. This structure creates an upward skill path for the formerly dead-ended factory workers, and resulted in high quality software being produced much faster and more economically than with the solo engineer approach.
Other significant economies are possible when the team is used as the basic element of organization. They come from a combination of cross-utilization and reduced management overhead. Arnold Donald, head of a Monsanto division, likes to restructure work so a team of three people is doing the work of five stand alone employees - and, to maintain equity, is paid the wages of four. At eight General Mills plants work has been restructured to be done in teams where every worker is expected to learn how to do every step in the manufacturing process as well as troubleshoot machine malfunctions and workload bottlenecks. Teams members participate in selecting a leader from their membership. The leaders report directly to the plant supervisor, allowing for the elimination of four intervening layers of middle managers.
Similar savings are possible in service-oriented jobs. At Aetna Life & Casualty Co., organizing around teams allowed its previous 1 to 7 ratio of middle managers to workers to become 1 to 30 - a more than four-fold expansion!
While it might be relatively easy to assert that the job of the traditional front line supervisor needs to disappear as its responsibilities migrate to individuals or teams, it is harder to specify a single new role appropriate for all remaining managers. An old story, still making the rounds at many management conferences, typifies some of these difficulties. It goes something like this: "The factory (or company) of the future will be staffed very leanly: one man and one dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to make sure the man doesn't touch the machines."
While the story usually gets a hearty round of laughs, the mentality behind it - and the lack of a well defined positive role for the middle manager - is sadly alive and well in many corporate restructurings. The next two chapters fill some of this vacuum by laying out several viable ways middle managers can operate in the leanly structured new corporation. While these configurations are lean, they are still structures, and as such must be expected to bear loads.
One of the most important things a building's structure does is channel the loads imposed on the building to the ground. These loads are partially due to the building's weight, and partially a result of the external pressures it experiences. The structure must be able to constructively direct both of these or the building can not stand.
Similarly, the key elements of an organization must be capable of channeling pressures from a variety of directions. Employee needs, customer wants, and owner requirements all must be kept in some sort of balanced state. These forces also have to be reconciled with the demands made by the corporation's other stake holders. Strong teams and reinforced jobs can do just so much of this - and stay focused on their work at hand. Performing much of this multifaceted balancing feat is the job of its management structure.
This structure must bear loads in at least two dimensions. It needs to provide the company with both horizontal and vertical stability. In the horizontal dimension, the various teams, cross-functional processes, and reinforced jobs need a measure of orchestration. Ways of handling this are the subject of the next chapter.
Hierarchy will not disappear in the new corporation. But it will be tamed, each of its vertical tiers will have a distinct rationale, and increased options will be built into its upward careerflow.
Before moving on, it is worth highlighting a problem that seriously limits the load bearing ability of many middle management positions. It is fragmentation, another vestige of the organizational mentality spawned by the industrial revolution. Reinforced jobs and composite teams fight work fragmentation, management positions - if they are to be effective building blocks - must minimize role fragmentation.
Just as fault lines and impurities hinder the performance of building materials, management work is negatively affected when it is polluted with non-management responsibilities. It is also harmed when too many artificial distinctions are made between managers and those "managed." Managers in the new corporation need to be separate, but not apart from those they are managing.
This is not possible if the manager is also doing the work of an individual contributor. In studies pioneered by General Electric, and replicated in dozens of other companies, most middle managers were found to be spending very significant amounts of time performing tasks that had little to do with their management role. A number of these "managers" devoted from half to three quarters of their time to these activities, which explained why they only had time to oversee three or four subordinates.
Most of this non managerial work was potentially delegateable to their subordinates. Some of it was directly intertwined with the subordinate's own work, thus fragmenting both the manager's and the worker's jobs. This leads to over supervising the workers - because the manager is always in the thick of their responsibilities - and also frequently under-managing them. Many managers, when also allowed to be part-time individual contributors, seem to never develop their talents in directing, monitoring, coaching and developing others. It is easier, when performance problems or workload crises emerge, to just do it all themselves. Sometimes it is also more fun. The tasks these managers "scoop upward" tend to be the most interesting and motivating as well as most likely to be noticed and receive recognition. This when coupled with closer-than-necessary supervision is a formula guaranteed to demotivate employees.
R. Roosevelt Thomas, a leading expert in managing diversity, has seen the same pattern, which he calls the "Doer Model of Management," in companies that have difficulties assimilating women, immigrants and minorities into their work forces. He believes managers should be managing people, not doing the business. He observes that "Doer managers love to be in the trenches. It keeps them out of the line of fire."
Full-time, load-bearing managers receive premium pay for staying in the line of fire. But that does not mean living in a world apart from those managed. Unfortunately, for almost two hundred years managers have accumulated perks and prerogatives that have created wide chasms between them and those whose work they oversee.
Minimizing these barriers has been a primary objective of a many successful organizers, ranging from Mao Tse-tung to Sam Walton. Mao, the builder of one of the world's largest military forces implored his officers to: "... live under the same conditions as their men, for that is the only way they can gain from their men the admiration and confidence so vital in war.... Thus we may attain the unification of the officer and soldier groups, a unity both horizontal within the group itself, and vertical, that is from lower to higher echelons. It is only when such unity is present that units can be said to be powerful combat factors."
Similar wisdom has been articulated by astute capitalists also. The founder of the world's largest retail company, Sam Walton, speculated in his autobiography that many companies might perform much better economically if their executives' lifestyles were a little closer to those of their average customers or employees.
This is an issue, for some industries, related as much to concerns about strategic decision making as with social equity. For years executives at some U.S. automakers lived in a world far apart from that inhabited by their customers - at least regarding their automobiles. They annually, or more often, had their choice of their companies' product delivered from factory to their front door. These vehicles often received special attention as they were built to ensure they were lemon-free. After driving this car to the office, a company employee would take the keys, give the car its daily washing, refueling and preventive maintenance inspection. While for many years these practices were rationalized an executive "perk," necessary because the executive was an ambassador of the company, they also very effectively shut off the key decision makers in these centralized, top-down companies from timely direct experience with the quality, economy and reliability problems their customers encountered each day. And while their tendency to regularly drive only their own company's products signaled loyalty, it also insulated them from direct contact with the advances being made by their Asian and European competitors.
Increasingly, steps are being taken at least as far as middle management work styles to minimize some of the social walls that have divided blue and white collar auto employees. At both Honda's plants in Marysville, Ohio and General Motor's Spring Hill, Tennessee Saturn complex it is impossible to tell the plant manager from the car builders by either dress or where they eat lunch. At Spring Hill the air conditioning system includes the factory as well as offices, and the same attention that ensured ergonomic design of the manager's office furniture also made sure the assembly line floor was made of wood. Wood is more comfortable than concrete, and worker comfort reduces fatigue-inducing mistakes, believes the G.M. plant manager.
Mars Inc., the $12 billion global candy maker, goes even farther G.M.'s Saturn. No employee has a private office. This includes the chief executive of this family-owned business. He sits in the back corner of a huge room, sharing a secretary with two others, in a setting less elegant than the back room of many Wall Street brokerages. All employees handle their own phone calls, make their own copies, and are separated from each other by no more than five pay grades. Mars also maintains an exemplary profit sharing program that reinforces the common ties between managers and individual contributors. Other successful, growth-oriented multinationals such as Du Pont, Merck and PepsiCo have lessened hierarchical fragmentation - and helped ensure that role differences in the organizations were load, not status, bearing - by making a common executive compensation practice, stock option awards, available to all employees.
Reinforced jobs, composite teams, and load-bearing managers - these are the basic building locks of the new corporation. They will serve as the basis for an organization that is fast, flexible and focused. They will provide the all important foundation for the innovative organization structures that are emerging to carry businesses into the first century of globally-based competition.
The ancient Egyptians had great success building large pyramidal structures made of stone. In their time, they were remarkable architectural innovations. Many have survived, though the one at Meidum has lain in ruins for most of its history because its structure was built directly into sand, rather than on top of the strong limestone foundation that supported most other pyramids. Unlike most Egyptian builders, Meidums' did not know their materials well. The perils that result from ignoring the interplay between structures and materials can plague all builders, whether they are erecting a pyramid or an organization. Successful organization reshaping starts with careful decision making about what is being structured. Ask yourself: what is the nature of the boxes that the lines are to connect? Exactly what kind of jobs, teams and managers are most appropriate? How can they best be reinforced, utilize a composite of strengths, and become load bearing?
© Robert M. Tomasko 2002