Amazing things happen when you give people a bit of trust and authority to do things according to their own judgment. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a Fast Company article called Engines of Democracy. It describes a revolutionary jet engine plant in Durham, North Carolina that produces some of General Electric's most important engines: the GE90, the CF6, and the CFM56.
I'm going to quote from it heavily, but you really should read the whole article.
GE/Durham has more than 170 employees but just one boss: the plant manager. Everyone in the place reports to her. Which means that on a day-to-day basis, the people who work here have no boss. They essentially run themselves.
How does that possibly scale? Self-managed teams.
The jet engines are produced by nine teams of people -- teams that are given just one basic directive: the day that their next engine must be loaded onto a truck. All other decisions -- who does what work; how to balance training, vacations, overtime against work flow; how to make the manufacturing process more efficient; how to handle teammates who slack off -- all of that stays within the team.
Not only are the teams self-managing, they have unprecedented authority and transparency.
Everyone knows how much money everyone else makes, because employees are paid according to his or her skill... This plant has no time clock. Workers leave to go to their kids' band concerts and Little League games.
The results are pretty compelling:
When it all comes together, GE/Durham can accomplish things that are almost unheard of -- even in the world of sophisticated manufacturing.
Although comparisons between GE plants are difficult--no two plants do exactly the same kind of work, with exactly the same kind of overhead to support it--Bob McEwan, who has authority over GE/Durham says simply, "They are the best in the GE Aircraft Engines division."
The most interesting measure may be one that the people at GE/Durham talk about themselves. They don't really think that their main job it so make jet engines. They think that their main job is to make jet engines better.
But you don't have to be a highly skilled worker making jet engines to see this at work. Anyone flying on Southwest Airlines has seen this too. Scott Gatz, in Trusting a community to get it right, observed the following:
You might think that the SWA gates would be a madhouse, but in fact they are very orderly. People arrive and begin to lineup into three lines (A, B and C) in a quite orderly fashion. People in each row are cordial to each other asking “is this the line for B to san diego?” and exchanging niceties and often that question allows people to break into a friendly conversation. If you were to look at the gate area from above, you’d see what looks like three branches on a tree, they curve around the furniture and the walls, but they are a line.
He goes on to compare it with America West:
A throng of people surrounded the doorway to their gate, each trying to push past each each other so they could get to their seat earlier (even though they know they are guaranteed to sit in the same seat no matter how quickly they board).
And he connected the dots:
It struck me that this is a lot like community on the web, if you give people a little guidance and a benefit, they’ll actually organize themselves just fine. On SWA, the benefit of being orderly is a smoother travel experience and a good seat and the guidance is telling people where they stand — those that are in line C know that no amount of pushing will get them good seats and those in A know that they are gonna be in a seat they like no matter what. On AW, they don’t ask anything of the traveller, they don’t trust the travellers to line up, they treat travel as a solitary experience “every man for themselves”. And it shows.
On the web, we’ve seen some really interesting communities grow: flickr, delicious, craigslist. All of them give benefits to people in the community (tags make it easier to find stuff, the tools allow you to connect with friends or meet new people or sell stuff, etc) and all give a simple amount of guidance “to get those benefits, we’d like you to tag, post, rate, report bad stuff, etc”. And you know, the community organizes itself. Those communities police themselves a bit. There’s abuse (”people cutting line”), but its buried deep down in the site because the community won’t rate it or will report it. Those communities help me find where the good stuff is, because, that’s what they’d want someone to do for them. And the sites actually ask people to do it and reward people for doing it right. Really quite simple.
To summarize: give people some trust and authority. They deserve it. You'll be amazed at what they can do without you supervising their every move. It works for employees and customers.
Posted by jzawodn at February 09, 2006 09:57 PM