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.

Duh, right?

Well, maybe.

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

Reader Comments
# Oliver Thylmann said:

You'd like the books by Ricardo Semler, with Maverick being the first and Seven Day Weekend the second. He has built an entire company around this kind of thing.

Here is my short book review of Maverick:

A quote from the book:

"As I tell our people constantly: we've all learned how to answer email on Sundays, but none of us has learned to go to the movies on Monday afternoon. Until we learn that, we are email slaves harnessed to the wicked ways of the Profit and Loss Master." - Ricardo Semler, Maverick

on February 9, 2006 10:55 PM
# rr said:

You guys are missing the point. The reason SWA lines are orderly is because position in line has actual value. The closer to the front you are, the better your seat is. People at the front of the line won't tolerate someone jumping the line and people refrain from cutting in because they're stealing position.

If you have assigned seats, position in line has much less value, so there's less incentive to confront someone cutting in line and there's less deterrent to doing so.

SWA lines are orderly because people tend to guard and respect things that have value.

on February 9, 2006 10:56 PM
# Sencer said:

Reminds me a bit of Volvo's experiments in the 80s in their Uddevalla plant. NUMMI vs. Uddevalla, or Toyota vs. Volvo if you want. There's plenty of literature on it.

on February 10, 2006 12:28 AM
# ScottG said:

Is there any part of my post you didn't quote ;)

And rr, I agree that the value of the position helps keep the line in order, but the point I was trying to make is that the group becomes quite friendly, social and orderly. It feels anti-thetical to the idea that they are protecting their turf - it seems that everyone chills out because they know what the value of the position is and they know what is expected of them. SWA sets up the structure, but the community falls into line (no pushing, fist fights, yelling, etc).

on February 10, 2006 12:35 AM
# Sam Newman said:

This of course borrows heavily from the Japanese lean manufacturing pricniples - specifically Toyota's Jidoka process ( In it teams are completely in charge of their own process. They can change the way they work to be more efficient or to help fix problems - this automomy is key.

Many of the lean manufacturing techniques made its way into software development in the form of agile development methods (

Jidoka and Lean manufacturing is about much more than this of course - core amongst the process is the 'line stop'. When you see a fault, you stop the entire line, fix it, then continue.

There is a great story about a US company engaging a Japanese chip manufacturer. They set what they believed to be an insanely low number of allowable chip failures per batch - something like 3 in every thousand, something they believed couldn't be done. Before the contracts were signed, the Japanese company were asked for a trial batch - and the US said they wanted "no more than three failures per 1000".

When the batch was delivered, the slightly bemused Japanese business man handed over one box, saying "here are the 997 working chips", and then handed over a much smaller box "and these are the three broken ones you wanted..."

on February 10, 2006 05:19 AM
# Adam S. said:

I very much want for stories like this to be true, but it always seems something is missing from these anecdotes. I can certainly think of plenty of counterexamples. Have you ever boarded a subway in Japan? Stood in a ski lift line in Europe? Worked for a nonprofit? Been a member of message board that went to hell after someone decided to post a racist joke?

I'm not saying that the story about GE isn't inspiring and (roughly) true. I'm just saying that there is something missing from the happy conclusions about removing all the rules, sprinkling trust over the factory floor, and watching the magic happen. There's obviously more to this than that.

Toyota's NUMMI facility is a good case in point. Toyota is justly famous for the more cooperative production style they developed, and the results, of course, speak for themselves. Toyota is the world's largest auto maker, and GM is going straight to hell. But there are at least two kickers:

1) Have you ever seen what it looks like to work in NUMMI? These people aren't skipping rope or curling up with a good book when the mood strikes them. It looks like a factory floor, full of people racing to complete rote tasks.

2) GM and other automakers have had a hell of a time trying to replicate the efficiencies of NUMMI. This suggests that it isn't all that easy to get this formula just right. It's not just a question of fewer rules, more trust. It's a very complex blend of incentives, delegated responsibility and control, feedback systems, etc.

Again, I agree that something interesting is happening in the GE plant, and we would all do well to pay attention to it. But I think the fortune cookie (or Fast Company) version -- "trust people and they'll surprise you" -- of the lessons to be drawn are way too simple.

on February 10, 2006 05:43 AM
# kellan said:

I'm intrigued by the story of the GE plant, but I *hate* flying SWA, it has nothing to do with cordiality, but some mix of prisoner's dilemma and rats in a maze trying to find the cheese.

on February 10, 2006 06:15 AM
# Scott Kathrein said:

Wikipedia - "This doesn't seem to have work too well for Wikipedia..."

I gotta set that one straight. That IS the impression you would get if you've never used wikepedia and only read the couple news stories about Wikipedia abusals..

Wikipedia is a huge *success* and such is an excellent case-in-point for this article. The depth and breadth of the knowledge available from it is amazing - all from self assimilation. Sure there have been problems - but guess what - I'd say it is THE most useful single source of general information on the net right now - and that's the bottom line.

on February 10, 2006 09:56 AM
# Jack Dahlgren said:

I'm a bit like Adam in thinking this analysis is a bit too simple and therefore the conclusions may be too widely drawn.

GE is pretty well regarded as being a company that values good management. It would seem absurd to me that they would be unaware of the reputedly great results of this plant and would not investigate further. So if they are aware of this then why haven't they applied it across their other plants and made them equally efficient? Indeed in reading this article, it seems to me that one of the keys is to get the right people - the article states how people are selected - people who can be "trusted" rather than simply giving people authority. Of course giving trust and authority is important, but it is only the last step in a long chain of setting up a productive environment.

on February 10, 2006 10:45 AM
# Joe Hunkins said:

I'm skeptical you can extend this liberty to all but very highly qualified and motivated people doing very interesting tasks.

In fact I think Google's hiring frenzy will prove an interesting experiment - can they extend their (successful) unsupervised model to thousands and thousands of employees? Has Yahoo done this successfully or tightened up the ship over time?

on February 10, 2006 11:04 AM
# Steve said:

"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)."

Those of us who travel frequently for business understand the reason for the jockeying for position. It's about ensuring that you get a piece of the limited overhead storage space for your carry-on luggage, so that it won't have to be checked in or stowed 30 rows back from where you sit.

on February 10, 2006 12:53 PM
# Shanti Braford said:

It seems like a natural prisoner's dilemma.

The particular case I'm thinking of is startup founders splitting the equity pie and divying up the work to be done.

Noam Wasserman's "Founders Frustrations" blog has some interesting studies on the topic.

I think we've all either experienced or known first-hand the effects of not being trusted by employers or co-workers. Of course this has the opposite effect on people.

The only real option is to do your best to pre-select potential candidates / b-partners for integrity, honesty and trustworthyness. (not to mention, talent!)

on February 10, 2006 02:23 PM
# grumpY! said:

GE is a well-known leader in process (ISO, six sigma, etc). jack welch in particular was process and metric obsessed. they've pushed a lot of the management into these processes, reducing the need for ad-hoc decision making. as another poster noted, these people are not wandering around doing what suits their fancy, in fact they likely have far fewer degrees of freedom than heavily managed workers.

on February 10, 2006 03:44 PM
# Tukra said:

I have managed a lot of people and I have to say that I've trusted people and been disappointed far more that the reverse. Most people need guidance and supervision far more than I would have ever wanted to give them. I have read a full article about this GE plant before and the thing that stood out was how stringent their hiring process was to make sure that people were capable of performing in this kind of environment. Apparently they turn away a lot of technically qualified applicants because the skills need to perform without supervision are much more rare than me might want to admit.

on February 10, 2006 05:32 PM
# James Day said:

Wikipedia is suffering from some decrease in personal responsibility but there is still plenty of it around. The high profile "problems" tend to be from those outside the community. Even those are quite interesting - the Seigenthaler incident corresponds with a rapid doubling of traffic and that very fast growth continues today as the mainstream media attention remains. Seems that people are voting with their feet and noticing that when there is a problem, something is done about it... and in reasonably fast time. As far as big incident responsibility goes:

1. the person who did the Seigenthaler biography no longer works where he posted it from, having resigned.

2. the chief of staff who authorised replacing his congressional member's biography with a sanitised one which didn't mention term limits earned his boss much negative press and community attention and probably significantly decreased his chances of being elected again.

3. by blocking Wikipedia the government of the PRC has ensured that much of the material in the modern and traditional Chinese languages will be written by those outside the PRC. Not the best way to get the views of the PRC known to the world.

I have worries about Wikipedia but those are more about the need to avoid excessive concentration of power in the hands of any party, which could eliminate the ability of the community to moderate its actions.

on February 10, 2006 06:52 PM
# James Day said:

In the airlines case there is one shortage which affects behavior in both cases: overhead baggage storage. SWA clarifies the situation: A will have all the space they want, B will have enough and C will suffer, regardless of what they do. America West leaves people with an incentive to get to their seats before their neighbors to get this scarce resource first.

on February 10, 2006 07:00 PM
# Brian Duffy said:

A lack of a formal management chain doesn't mean that work is a fun place... your peers are typically tougher to deal with than your boss.

on February 10, 2006 10:13 PM
# Paul C said:

Everyone waits to make a decision and you end up waiting for ever. The flip side of not taking the initiative in a small group scenario is heartening, but to have only one instruction? I do think that small groups given a level of autonomy in the workplace can produce great results, but it's a broad brush you use - what about crappy internal politics which produce tensions and potentially ruin a working day/week/month? Nonetheless potentially positive.

on February 11, 2006 01:11 AM
# WebMetricsGuru said:

I'm a beliver in self-directed teams. The company I work at is 40% home based (we are a big player in the Dow Jones Index) and very much set up on Virtual Teams.

Most of my co-workers are spread all over the world and we work together on all sorts of projects (related to Search and Web Traffic, Loyality Measurments - etc) very successfully - using a Matrix type approach.

And it seems to work very well. We don't get that much direction (well...maybe we should get more) but we are very productive. I won't say this is the perfect has it pros and cons - but I think, overall, it is the future - and the more we enpower individuals to make decisions about their work - the better the overall product is going to end up being - because there is a need to take pride in one's work - and that happens a lot more when someone feels they own the work.

on February 11, 2006 04:29 PM
# NN said:

I'd second the post about Ricardo Semler, and Semco. Also of interest may be the system of "Participatory Economics", google for "parecon".

The comment 'they treat travel as a solitary experience “every man for themselves”. And it shows.' struck me. Much of modern life in the Western world is about individualism, it's encouragd, and is embedded so deeply into the fabric of society that you don't usually notice it. Do better for yourself, even if it's at the expense of others. The whole "greed is good" thing.

One example: companies give every employee an annual appraisal, and a ranking against their peers. So while, to some extent teamwork is encouraged in the workplace, your peers are also your competitors.

Likewise in advertising. You are individually encouraged to buy this car, that shampoo, etc. In fact you're invited - through skillfull psychological manipulation - to feel inadequate unless you use said product.

Given the traits that society encourages, I find it remarkable that we are in as good a state as we are. Though I sometimes wonder how things may be if we had a society which encouraged egalitarianism, pervasive democracy (e.g. in the workplace - where a manager is actually needed, he/she is voted in), and community spirit.

Anyway, my 2c.

on February 12, 2006 12:38 AM
# Jerome Alexander said:

Employees come to work with an implicit trust that their managers are always working for the best interest of the company and its employees. That trust should not and cannot ever be taken for granted. Look what is happening today. It is no longer "What's good for the company is good for the manager." It has become "What's good for the manager is good for the company." Top executives have totally lost sight of this phenomenon and are allowing managers to run amok for their own personal agendas.
Several years ago I wrote a book on the subject of workplace culture and employee morale. It is as relevant today as it was then. Employee morale is directly linked to the interaction of employees with line managers who are charged with executing the policies and strategies of companies. Unfortunately, many of these managers subvert the good intentions of the organization to meet their own personal goals and agendas at the expense of their peers and subordinates. This management subculture is the result of a corporate culture of ignorance, indifference and excuse. Better corporate level leadership is the key. Read more in "160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic."

Jerome Alexander

on January 14, 2007 08:50 AM
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