Best practice

Personnel Today’s monthly series reveals how managers tackle business problems and enhance performance. In this issue strategic consultant Tina Mason, former business manager of Dutton Engineering, explains the benefits of self-managed teams

Dutton Engineering is a subcontract manufacturing company based in Sandy, Bedfordshire. Its 40 staff specialise in the design and manufacture of components and enclosures in steel and aluminium, mainly for the electronics and food packaging industries.

When I joined Dutton, it was typical of its industry sector, with responsibility for quality firmly in the hands of an inspection department. We’d achieved the BS 5750 standard relatively early for a “metal basher” and hung the certificate proudly in reception. It had brought us status, but not business.

To really progress, we needed to mobilise the talents of all our employees. We had to try and move from a heavily supervised, task-focused environment to a team culture centred on the external customer.


Rethinking quality


It was a radical shift. To demonstrate this, the company took everyone to a local conference facility for a day and emphasised the need for change. Everyone was encouraged to look at what they did for internal customers and to consider the value of working together as a team. Following the launch, self-measurement was promoted throughout the business.

Instead of introducing a tired suggestion scheme, we opted for a more radical approach to employee input, inspired by the “Kaizen” business philosophy.

Kaizen stresses continuous change on a step-by-step basis, and locates responsibility for change firmly with team leaders and members instead of senior management. Everyone was encouraged to look around their own work area and say “Why don’t I…?”.

Many employees had worked in environments (including ours) where they had never been allowed to do anything creative, and they needed special encouragement to have the confidence to put ideas forward. The role of team leaders was therefore vital.


Changing structures


As the culture of partnership with colleagues, customers and suppliers slowly developed, it seemed appropriate to review the actual company structure.

Our manufacturing operation had comprised of skill centres, such as the welding shop. The employees within that skill centre were highly specialised and restricted to a narrow range of activities, with a limited understanding of the rest of the operation.

We gradually moved away from this, towards multi-functional teams organised around specific customers or products. Each team had a leader, whose role was quite different from that of traditional supervisor. Their role was to coach, lead and facilitate.

It now became much easier to develop strong customer partnerships, as each customer was only dealing with a relatively small number of people. Training opportunities also improved, with team members exchanging skills and knowledge freely.

Ownership of quality now rested with the producers themselves. Formal inspection was disbanded, and teams were given the task of self-inspection – a very important step towards empowerment. There was an economic motive, too: dealing with defective products after manufacture is expensive, so quality needed to be built-in from an early stage.


The next step


Teams were still scattered across the factory – the logical solution was to make each team a manufacturing cell. It was a major task: to take a factory based on work centres (polishing bay, machine shop etc), and transform it into one containing production cells, each with enough resources to fulfil customers’ requirements. Teams would have to share some resources – all the ramifications of goods delivery, storage and despatch had to be taken into consideration.

The entire transformation was planned, budgeted, and undertaken by the teams themselves, with support and guidance from management. Surprisingly, teams brought in very few specialists, preferring to do things themselves and conserve cash to buy extra tools or equipment. The majority of the move was accomplished within one month – and made a dramatic change to day-to-day working. Materials and people were travelling much smaller distances, and efficiency was vastly improved.

Teams had a much clearer idea of the “big picture”. They started to take on more responsibility, with the primary focus always on customer care.


Quality work and quality time


The results? Today, a far smaller proportion of our staff are engaged in administration and, since 1989, the volume of business has doubled. Work in progress and stocks have been radically reduced. And lead times have been slashed by 75 per cent.

Teamwork has certainly made a difference to the customer: each team is driven by a service ethic, and they get involved in re-engineering and cost reduction projects jointly with customers in order to stay competitive.

There is no magic formula for teamworking, however – you cannot put 10 people together and tell them they are a team. People need time: time to develop, time to learn. The one thing a team needs is a goal – preferably one it believes in, has ownership of, and can realistically impact on. In our case, a system of annualised hours was introduced.

The flexibility of this system meant that if a team worked smart and finished its work, its members could go home and enjoy extra leisure time. Time, in our stressful lives, is probably one of the most precious commodities – if nothing else, teamworking has given our people back some time for themselves.

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