RL Wolfe: Implementing Self-Directed Teams Introduction and Background Analysis This case was about the implementation of self-directed teams (SDTs) at the new pipe manufacturing plant of RL Wolfe located in Corpus Christi, Texas. The assessment took place in the second quarter of 2007, four years after the initial implementation of the SDT structure. The main change agents were John Amasi, RL Wolfe’s Director of Production and Engineering, and Jay Winslow, the Corpus Christi plant manager.
Winslow was hired by Amasi to help in the planning and implementation of SDTs in the new Corpus Christi plant acquired by RL Wolfe in 2003. In contrast to Wolfe’s Austin and Columbus plants, the new plant was not unionized and was structured differently than the unionized plants in terms of job distinctions, work roles, and workers’ level of autonomy and involvement in decision-making. Amasi expected that after the implementation of SDTs, the Corpus Christi plant would achieve high productivity defined by him as 95% or more of design capacity.
Meanwhile, the Wolfe’s Austin and Columbus plastic pipe manufacturing plants were running at 70% and 65% of design capacity respectively. Amasi’s Assessment Amasi arrived in Corpus Christi in May of 2007 to evaluate the results of the implementation of STDs. He found that the productivity level was at 82%- extensively higher than at Austin or Columbus’ plants, but still well below Amasi’s initial target of 95%. Efficiency levels on the third shift were considerably lower than for the first and second shift.
Absentee rates were notably below the average for the first and second shifts, although they remained equivalent for the third shift. Leadership style and the role of the coordinator had changed positively, with 80% of the decisions about work made on the factory grounds versus through direction by the coordinator. The assessment exposed some problems in performance evaluations, ongoing tensions between the technicians and the line operators and material handlers, who felt they lacked status compared to the technicians.
Besides there was worker frustration over perceived management failure to hand over promised control, and critical questions about just how much freedom to give the SDTs. Challenges Although the Corpus Christi plant had higher productivity and lower absenteeism rates compared to the ones at the other Wolfe plants, it was still not performing at the “high productivity” level that Amasi anticipated. Implementation of SDTs at the Corpus Christi plant had been associated with these superior results.
The challenge is to figure out how to better utilize the SDT at Corpus Christi to drive productivity, as well as determine whether or not to implement SDTs to Wolfe’s other plants. Interventions Analysis The SDT arrangement in place at the Corpus Christi plant represented a completely different organizational structure than in the other Wolfe’s plants. Amasi assumed it would be easy to establish SDTs at Corpus Christi since this was an entirely new plant for the company.
Although Amasi was able to get a new start with mostly new workers and a new plant, he did not consider the cost of the lack of congruence between SDTs and the culture and organizational structure in the broader organization. Although it is not stated in the case, it seems that there was no pressure to change structure due to any competitive advantage. Amasi solely took the decision of establishing SDTs in the new plant based on his readings and perceptions about the potential productivity improvement.
I believe he needed to evaluate first the skills and culture required for the success of SDTs. From the case I can infer that the other two plants at Wolfe had a hierarchical structure with rigid job classifications and weight on the worth of seniority. There is strong evidence that the overall organizational culture and management style has historically been authoritarian. Wolfe’s culture lacked consensus-building and genuine participation in the decision-making processes, which are crucial characteristics for SDTs’ success.
Although it was estimated that after three years of SDTs’ creation, the teams made 80% of the decisions, I cannot certainly infer that there was a change from an autocratic culture to one of consensus. Apparently, teams were empowered but at the same time they were not allowed to set performance goals or participate in strategic plans for the overall company. The limited empowerment might hinder the ability of SDTs to effectively work. I recommend a transition system where SDTs set their own performance goals, in coordination with management’s goals. The fact that operators complained bout having to wait for maintenance personnel to come in and repair problems, showed that they were willing to carry out these repairs themselves. I believe this is an indicator that operators were interested in self-management to some extent. This is a positive frame for SDTs success. Amasi’s expectation of getting 95% of productivity within three years was too optimistic. It represented an improvement of about 40% over the performance of the other two plants. A change in the culture of an organization cannot be done overnight, but instead is a process that takes time and perseverance.
SDTs achieve gains when there is congruence among culture and organizational structure, skills and ability of the workers, opportunities to participate, supportive management, appropriate mix of team incentives, and the right environmental conditions. I believe Amasi needed to be more realistic and aware that this transformation required time and systematic OD interventions. Moreover, while higher productivity levels have been associated with the implementation of SDTs at Wolfe, there may be other reasons for this improvement.
For instance, Corpus Christi was a new plant with workers and managers more attentive to tasks and goals. In addition, through the meticulous hiring process, Amasi and Winslow might get better workers than their counterparts in Columbus or Austin. The poor performance of the third shift (night hours) was present not only at the Corpus Christi plant but also in Wolfe’s other plants. The attempt of Winslow to solve this issue was rejected by the SDTs who saw this intervention as a lack of keeping the promise to allow self-direction.
It might be worthwhile to give the SDTs the tools to investigate the problem. The reason for the shift’s poor performance could be the dissatisfaction of the workers with their poor family life (not able to share with family members during day hours), and the lack of any compensation differential; ultimately this caused workers to lose their motivation. At the manufacturing plant where I was a supervisor, workers rotated across different shifts allowing everyone to set a family time during the month. They had also a slightly higher remuneration to compensate the hardiness of the third shift.
Winslow promoted a growing division between the line-level factory workers and the workers designated as “technicians. ” I believe that Winslow gave preferential consideration to technicians when he wanted feedback of SDTs’ performance. This contributed to an increased gap between the two levels of workers. One of the principles of SDTs is egalitarian value (all members need to be treated as equals), which had been undermined through these actions. I would recommend doing some icebreaker activities and training that lead both levels of workers to improve their relationship.
Besides, there was a fairly high turnover of floor workers, which means the membership within the teams changed frequently. This could hinder team cohesion and productivity. Winslow needed to improve workers’ motivation through egalitarianism, compensation and stimulating training programs, such as the Teachable Point of View used by Ford. I want to point out that Amasi and Winslow did not include a clear incentive program to compensate the additional responsibilities acquired by workers through SDTs’ implementation. The extra $2 per hour that Amasi initially considered was eliminated because of union concerns.
Although SDTs might help to perform the same job more efficiently, I believe team players needed a compensation incentive to enhance their commitment. I recommended a systemized team-based performance evaluation system. Finally, I would recommend that Amasi and Winslow continue working together to improve SDTs with the target of further increasing in productivity (a more realistic 90% goal). Once the SDT structure has been refined, Amasi should meet Wolfe’s top managers to present the requirements and advantages of implementing SDTs at Austin and Columbus’ plants.
I believe that Corpus Christi can be used as a benchmark for implementing SDTs at Wolfe’s other plants. At the end, overall Wolfe’s transformation in culture, structure, people, and task would set the SDTs’ requirements for success: enhanced productivity and competitiveness. Appendix (1) Self-directed team is defined as a committed, multi-skilled, multifunctional group with responsibility for the completion of a fairly whole piece of work and the control of all input, output, and underneath variables and conditions that influence team performance.
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