Wednesday, October 15, 2008

All of my teammates are my bosses

In a post from earlier today, there was a reference to a story about BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, who mentioned Paul Gustavson, an organizational design guru based in Northern California. [As this post mentioned, Coach Mendenhall turns over many decisions to his players.]

Curious, I did some digging and came across a good article from Fast Company magazine on Gustavson's company website about a factory in North Carolina that makes huge jet engines.

According to the article, about 200 people work at the plant, all of whom report to a single plant manager (think of her as the coach). This means that "on a day-to-day basis, the people who work here have no boss. They essentially run themselves."

The 170-plus people who work at this plant try to make perfect jet engines. There is no cynicism about the drive for perfection. "It matters," says Bill Lane, a 35-year-old tech-2. "I've got a 3-year-old daughter, and I figure that every plane we build engines for has someone with a 3-year-old daughter riding on it."

So how can something so complicated, so demanding, so fraught with risk, be trusted to people who answer only to themselves?

Trust is a funny thing. It is the mystery -- and the genius -- of what goes on at [the factory]. And it is the reason why the plant offers so many lessons about why people work, how teams succeed.

The factory-workers "not only build the engines; they also take responsibility for the work that middle management (i.e., coaches) would normally do."

Said one worker: "I was never valued that much as an employee in my life. I had never been at the point where I couldn't wait to get to work. But here, I couldn't wait to get to work every day."

Those who work at the plant have been trained in "consensing," making decisions as a team.

In the words of one employee: "All the things you normally fuss and moan about to yourself and your buddies -- well, we have a chance to do something about them. I can't say, 'They' don't know what's going on, or, 'They' made a bad decision. I am 'they.' "

Here's an excerpt from the article that has relevance to coaches and teams:

[The factory] isn't so much a team environment as it is a tribal community. There are rules, rituals, and folklore; there is tribal loyalty and tribal accountability. There is a connection to a wider world, beyond the tribe.

Clearly, not everyone has the temperament, skills, or intellect needed to work in an environment like this. So who, in particular, doesn't fit in? "People who expect to take orders," offers [one employee] wryly.

The first encounter employees have with the [factory's] principles occurs during the hiring process. Candidates are rated in 11 areas.

"Only one of those involves technical competence or experience," says Keith McKee, 27, a tech-3 on Team Raven. "You have to be above the bar in all 11 of the areas: helping skills, team skills, communication skills, diversity, flexibility, coaching ability, work ethic, and so forth. Even if just one thing out of the 11 knocks you down, you don't come to work here."

"You are on a team, a group, and you have to voice your opinion, but you also have to know when to hold back your opinion -- when to offer an idea, and when to consent to an idea. You've got to be able to give a little and to take a little. You've got to be able to listen. You've got to be able to change. That process is how we get the best people to work here. It's a fit issue."

The plant is not a setting that tolerates muttering, resentment, or unresolved disputes.

The continuous-feedback culture -- "We call this the feedback capital of the world," says one team member -- means that while in one sense it's true that no one here has a boss, the opposite is also true: "I have 15 bosses," says Keith McKee. "All of my teammates are my bosses."

Every decision is either an A decision, or a B decision, or a C decision.

-- An A decision is one that the plant manager makes herself, without consulting anyone.

-- B decisions are also made by the plant manager, but with input from the people affected.

-- C decisions -- which make up the most common type -- are made by consensus, by the people directly involved, with plenty of discussion. With C decisions, the view of the plant manager doesn't necessarily carry more weight than the views of those affected.

That decision-making taxonomy perfectly captures one of the most nagging questions about a place like this: What is the role of a plant manager (i.e., coach) in a place that manages itself? If the plant needs a manager to make just 10 decisions a year, what does she do with the bulk of her time?

She does the kinds of things that most managers talk about a lot but that they actually spend very little time on. At the operational level, her job is to keep everyone's attention focused on the goals of the plant: Make perfect engines, quickly, cheaply, safely.

"To sustain our business, we have to reduce our costs every year. The nice thing is that here, instead of one person saying, 'Mush harder,' everyone has 15 people looking at them -- 15 peers to whom they are accountable."