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In Praise of Self-Directed Work

| October 5, 2021

by Rick Fredericks

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is by Rick Fredericks, MOR Associates Program Leader and Leadership Coach.  Rick may be reached at [email protected]]

My first adult job was stacking lumber at a saw mill on the far western slope of the Rocky Mountains. This in the days when logs were held in a pond before debarking. Sawdust was burned in wigwam burners. The air smelled of musty water, sage brush and wood smoke. The noise from cranes, huge rotary saws, and planers was deafening. The shift started at 7:00 AM. By 9:00, we were covered in pitch and grease.
The Mill Superintendent was never without a pipe and a lumber scaling tool. His name was Charlie and he watched us the way a miser watched his money. He assumed the worst about the stackers. The crew justified his perspective by knocking over stacks of fresh-sawn lumber. This brought the saws to a halt.   
On break one day, I approached Charlie with an idea to speed up the workflow. The stacking crew watched with interest. Charlie response: “I’m paying you top dollar to S&S (sort and stack), I’m not paying you to think.” (In 1972, “top dollar” was $1.75/Hour.)
The joke was on me. The crew, my erstwhile buddies, had a great laugh. In the foundry of mental models, assumptions were forged into beliefs. #1: Never become a boss. #2. The “system” serves to exploit. #3. Work hard, keep your head down, and laugh at the stupidity of management. Yup, I became the type of employee that would become the topic of many MOR coaching conversations. In other words, an archetype: hard-working, task-proficient, and cynical.
Fast forward a few years. I moved back to New England to become a printer. “Charlies” were everywhere. The shop floor was over-supervised, over-controlled, and over-measured.  We were paid to push paper through presses, not to think. I never missed a day or shared an idea. The HR Manager counseled me on “being a contrarian” and suggested “alternative employment”.  But how could you fire a person who was uber-dependable and broke production records? Instead, they made me the plant trainer. My new boss simply said “figure it out”. Suddenly, I was being paid to think.
The company certainly took care of its employees, offering generous benefits, job security, and promotion from within. But managerial promotions were based on length of service and job expertise, not leadership.  Ultimately, this led to stagnation and high overhead. Margins slipped and turnover rose. 
In a radical move, the company elected to eliminate two layers of production supervision and unleash “Self-Directed Work Teams.” This was 1994 and the SDWT idea was emerging alongside TQM (Total Quality Management). Suddenly, several thousand employees were being “empowered.” Thinking was now part of the job. The prospects were at the same time fearsome and exhilarating.
We hired a consulting company to support this evolution. I met the President, Brian McDonald, who laid out his values. First, employees are an organization’s most important resource. Second, the people closest to the work should make decisions on how the work is done.  In his words, “they should run it as though it was their own business.” Third, a group becomes a team with shared goals, collaborative practices, and accountability for team results. All this was buttressed by the premise that “leaders coach, managers measure.” After our meeting, Brian mentioned that “feedback is a gift.” He then provided a plus/delta on my performance in the session.
Brian and I spent the next eighteen months on training and coaching teams. We travelled thousands of miles and endured pushback from those giving up control. In addition to team practices, Brian emphasized practices in support of inclusion and safety. Our shop-floor folks were a tough crowd and this was a new idea. Brian was adamant. If each member does not feel valued, included and safe, teamwork will falter. In his words, “great teams are more than the sum of their parts.” They represent a “place where everyone can make a difference”. His stand resonates still today. This message has always been a cornerstone MOR value.  Decades later, the teams are still place. They make operational decisions, select and train new team members; and run “their” business as if it was their own. By the way, the business is paper checks. They shrugged their collective shoulders when COVID hit. They were already resilient and agile.
Take some time to think about your organization. Are team members defined by their job titles, not the “whole person” contribution? Are they paid to “do” and not to think? Are they expert but with a veneer of cynicism? Do they operate in silos, resisting change? Do they reject the notion of moving up, based on assumptions about management? Most importantly, look into a mirror, is a “Charlie” staring back?
The “gift” of COVID is the openness to new ideas about work and work-teams. If anything, the movement to remote/hybrid work amplified the importance of autonomous work. COVID has demonstrated that the organization’s people are capable of being self-directed and productive during a most difficult period. Why not take it to the next level? Developing work teams to be self-directing builds greater engagement. Teams will become “heads – up” to opportunities, trends, and threats. Mutual networks of support will reduce the issues of isolation and burn-out. The issues of “hybridization” will be resolved by teams that own this challenge. For these reasons, this might be the best time to build a self-directed workforce where autonomy and ownership for the results go hand in hand.
Developing a self-directed work team is not a magic pill activity. Many employees in technology are used to being “solitary heroes”. It can be disconcerting to own additional obligations supporting teamwork. Team processes require training and coaching. In the beginning, there will be breakdowns. Not every decision or result will be ideal. A good leader/coach will use these as teaching opportunities. Many nascent teams are derailed because a leader goes “Charlie” and countermands a decision without explanation.
Self- Directed Work is a concept that engages, unifies, and aligns. Leaders are liberated when teams have the tools and power to plan, decide, and execute.  Freedom from daily oversight means freedom to strategize, coach, and lead.
R.I.P., Charlie. Your feedback was a gift.