“For twenty-five years, you paid for my hands when you could have had my brain as well – for nothing.” When Jack Welch heard this from a middle-aged appliance worker at the first Work out session at GE, he knew GE was on the right track. Work out was born at GE when Welch got irritated after a session with a manager in which it became clear that some problems should have been solved lower down the hierarchy instead of at the senior executives’ level. When I look at some of the research that has gone into what turned out into best-selling management books, I find that there is one underlying theme that makes a winning team.
In their book “Re-engineering the Corporation” written in 1993, Michael Hammer and James Champy said “decisions are best made by the people doing the work” That’s because while people at the top have all the authority, people below have all the information. People’s roles change from ‘controlled’ to ‘empowered’. They work in a self-directed manner, solving problems themselves. Instead of separating decision making from real work, decision making becomes a part of the work. Hammer and Champy narrate an interesting example to illustrate this. A guest approached the doorman of a major hotel and complained that his radar detector had been stolen from his car in the hotel’s garage. The doorman, empowered to perform customer service, asked how much it cost, took the guest to the front desk and commanded the clerk, “Give this man $150”. Everybody gulped but the customer was satisfied. Two weeks later, the general manager received a letter from the customer that stated he had found the radar detector in his trunk. In the envelope was also a check for $150. The postscript to the letter added “By the way, I will never stay at any other hotel chain for the rest of my life.”
When David Marquet took charge of the nuclear powered submarine Santa Fe, the ship was dogged by poor morale, poor performance and the worst retention in the fleet. The Santa Fe was regarded as the worst submarine in the US Navy with the lowest rated crew. One day, Marquet unknowingly gave an order that was impossible to execute, which his crew tried to follow anyway. When asked why his order was not challenged, the answer was “Because you told me to”. Marquet quickly realized that command and control would not work with the men and the best way to turn them around was to give them the authority to make decisions and convey their ‘intention’ to the boss. He pushed for leadership at every level. Under Marquet’s command, the Santa Fe went from being the worst crew to the best rated one in naval history, with 9 out of the 14 officers going on to command ships on their own. All this is beautifully narrated in Marquet’s book “Turn the Ship around”
In his book “Smarter, Faster, Better”, Charles Duhigg illustrates Toyota’s Production System, which would later become known as “lean manufacturing”, that relied on pushing decision making to the lowest possible level. Workers on the assembly line were the ones who saw the problems first. They were closest to the glitches in any manufacturing process. So it only made sense to give them the greatest authority in finding solutions. Toyota agreed to partner with General Motors in the venture New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or NUMMI, only if GM promised to try their way of working.
It seems evident that winning teams are those where employees who do the work are empowered to and take the decisions. However, the urge to retain control is something that managers need to let go.
Noel Tichy, in ‘Control your Destiny or someone else will’ narrates a story of an incident that took place at GE Plastics factory in Holland. An engineer told Jack Welch “The plant is nothing like it used to be. It is nowhere near as much fun as it was ten years ago. What the hell are you going to do about it?” Welch looked at him and said, “Let me tell you what I’m going to do. I’m leaving for Paris in about thirty minutes and I won’t be back within a year, maybe two years. So personally, I’m going to do very little about it. Why don’t you get fifty people who were here ten years ago, and why don’t you, for the next two and a half days, go and write down, in the left hand column why it was fun before and in the right hand column, put down why it isn’t fun now. And then, why don’t you fifty people change it and move everything back to the left side so you are having fun again. Because you are the only people who can do it.”
And that is what David Marquet did. He struggled against his own instincts to take control and instead achieved the more powerful model of giving control.
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