• 01 Sep 2006
  • What Do You Think?

Are We Ready for Self-Management?

On its face, self-management looks like a "win-win" answer to the scarcity of good managers and the predominance of low-involvement entry-level jobs. But are sufficient numbers of entry-level employees ready for self-management? And is management ready?
by James Heskett

Summing Up

Predominant reactions to notions of self-management explored in this month's column could perhaps be described best by two words, "enthusiasm" and "skepticism." Many respondents felt that the concepts should be implemented by a broader range of organizations. But just as many cited obstacles to its implementation, chief among them management itself.

Many respondents were enthusiastic. For example, Leeor Geva characterized self-management as a "win-win strategy." In Jonathan Narducci's words, "Any method that gets all company employees interested in how their jobs affect the customer … in how their jobs can be improved … in getting work done more effectively is most definitely welcome." Birgi Martin said, "I think self-management is needed at all levels of staff." Lavinia Weissman characterized self-management as "a leadership decision that invites initiative and not followership." But John Inman's comments suggested a concern that was more strongly voiced by others, when he commented that "if you are a command and control manager … keep away from self-management …. However, if you can ask and not tell, engage people in learning conversations, coach, develop, and create a clear picture of the result, you probably will be thrilled with the result …."

Others, while attracted to the idea in theory, characterized these views as too inclusive and optimistic. Gaurav Goel suggested that "Self-management may work well when team sizes are small and there are limited personality conflicts." Ashutosh Tiwari, while questioning whether self-management could "prove its effectiveness in the long run," concluded that it might work "where skilled employees get together to accomplish a specific task within a certain time frame."

Self-management is perhaps an extreme case of what we have found, in our research, to be one of the features of high-performance work places that are most attractive to the people who work there: latitude to deliver results for customers, whether external or internal to the organization. However, the path to greater latitude on the job is not short. It involves, as Pradipta Saha commented, "Selecting the right entry-level employee …." We have found, for example, that high performance organizations give at least as much attention to attitude as to skills in selecting people. Next, as Debbie Lee suggests, "… there has to be a great deal of training." Again, high-performance organizations train for skills, not attitude. Nari Kannan points out two other critical components of a self-management initiative: "Proper structuring of work and responsibilities … incentives, advancement and promotions." Must all of these steps be achieved before latitude is expanded to deliver results, perhaps through self-management?

The major obstacle to self-management, as one might suspect, was thought to be people, especially managers. C. J. Cullinane identified the most important requirement for self-management success as "conviction and commitment of top management." As Peter Johnson put it, "True and genuine self-management cannot happen if there are bosses or supervisors around." Barry Frank commented, "You've got to choose carefully who wants to self-manage and who doesn't." Margie Parikh concluded, "Self-managed teams happen only if readiness is there on both sides." What do you think?

Original Article

In the early 1990s, Taco Bell's management was faced with a dilemma. It wanted to create thousands of new locations, including stores and kiosks, at which its line of Mexican-themed products could be sold. At the same time, it was experiencing a shortage of capable managers in a fast-food industry known for low-paying management jobs. One part of the solution was to create fewer, higher-paying management positions. The other was to train thousands of entry-level workers at its stores to manage themselves. This enabled Taco Bell to assign one manager to several stores and to increase the "span of control" for area managers from ten or so units to several times that many.

Under the "self-management" initiative, employees were trained and given new technology to enable them to hire, train, and supervise their new colleagues; manage the day-to-day inventory of the store; handle the resulting receipts; and deal with personnel problems themselves under the supervision of a "floating" manager responsible for several such stores. They received above-market pay, partially in the form of performance incentives. The result? More highly energized workers, better cost control, higher customer satisfaction, and new ideas for organizing work. One self-managed team, for example, developed a program called "aces in your places," in which team members assumed jobs they wanted to learn during slack business hours, then took their "battle stations" to achieve maximum capacity (up to 50 percent higher) during rush hours.

This is an extreme example of the creation of "work teams" that has provided an answer to the "assembly line" philosophy of work. Such teams are designed to provide greater variety and responsibility for frontline workers given the responsibility to assemble and deliver a complete product, sub-assembly, or service. It characterizes what James O'Toole and Edward E. Lawler III in their new book, The New American Workplace, would regard as a "high involvement" workplace in which employees are treated as assets rather than just expenses. They contrast, for example, the high wage, high benefits, and high involvement policies of Costco with those of Wal-Mart. Both organizations, of course, have been highly successful. (One might argue that Wal-Mart has achieved high involvement through less expensive methods including the creation of a strong culture.) But the authors maintain that the Costco model not only is more attractive for workers but also creates fewer social costs for such things as medical expenses.

What would seem to be a "win-win" answer to the scarcity of good managers and the predominance of low-involvement entry-level jobs nevertheless raises some questions. Are sufficient numbers of entry-level employees ready for self-management, especially if it requires the application of new technologies to help them perform jobs such as interviewing and hiring new team members or ordering supplies and managing inventories? More important, is management ready for this? After all, it flies in the face of traditional command and control management practices. And in many cases it will require the development and use of new management information systems in which many organizations may be unwilling or unable to invest. What do you think?