Living with a Self-Directed Work Team &
Why Self-Direction Works: A Review of Herzberg's Concepts

by Peter B. Grazier

(Published in EI Network on July 1, 1999)


As the concept of self-direction continues to grow, it helps to look at the basic principles involved. Sometimes this is best served by listening to the people who are actually living it.

I once spent a day with two self-directed teams at Sterling Health U.S.A. in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, and what I learned from these people continues to serve as a guide to many of the typical situations that self-directed teams experience.

How do roles change in this new system? What happens to the supervisor? Can front-line people really take on many of the tasks previously reserved for management?


The "Supervisor"
The two teams were the "High Speed Line" and the "Klockner Line" (named for one of its machines). These teams packaged some of Sterling's products which include Bayer Aspirin, Bayer Select, Midol, Panadol, Stridex, and others.

At the time, the two teams had operated as self-directed work teams (SDWT's) for about 3 years, so the opportunity to observe work groups in transition was excellent.

At 7:00 a.m. I met with Bill Wagner who, although called a production supervisor, was really a coordinator for three lines. Bill saw his roll as a planner, coordinator, resource person, coach, and trouble shooter if any of the teams needed assistance outside its areas of expertise. Although Bill was fairly new he fit the role of the "transitioned supervisor" well. His role was to coordinate with other supervisors, serve as a liaison between production personnel and support groups, and coach team members.

Bill felt strongly that he did not need to be involved in the day-to-day decisions of his SDWT's, and I was truly impressed by his ability to delegate decisions to his lines. During the day I observed team members expertly handling line adjustments and production glitches, all without calling their "supervisor" for assistance.

The First Team
At 8:15 a.m. Bill took me out to the High Speed Line and introduced me to the team members. Comprising this team were 6 operators, 1 mechanic, and 1 material handler.

The High Speed Line essentially took the finished Bayer caplets (produced in another area), put them into plastic bottles, labeled them, boxed them, then packaged them for shipping. Of course there were other detailed operations such as bottle cleaning, inventory control, capping, shrink wrapping, and such.

When I explained what my work was about and that I was there to learn about self-direction from them, team members opened up immediately and began sharing the experiences of their 3-year transition. Except for two short breaks and lunch, all of our discussions were conducted while they were working.

I first spoke with Fern and Delores who were at the end of the line placing finished "6-packs" of Bayer Select into the cardboard shipping boxes. They asked me if I wanted to perform the operation, but I begged off for a while, preferring to ask the questions. (Actually, I doubted that I could do it.)

Discussing self-direction, they said that at first they were afraid of their new responsibilities. They were particularly concerned with doing their own quality assurance and accurately recording information that would be audited by the FDA. They were nervous about making mistakes and being knowledgeable enough to do their new jobs well. And the comment that was particularly revealing to me was "We had doubts that we could learn it."

~Throughout the day's discussions it was clear that the concept of self-direction challenges everyone, managers and workers alike, to break through their comfort zones when taking on new and different roles.~

While talking with Fern and Delores, Nancy came by and took over for Delores. I was told that each line controls its own method for work assignments. On the High Speed Line, they rotate positions every hour to relieve stress and share work equally. During the rotation there is a "floater" position that allows some rest from the hands-on operations, but does focus on the paperwork.

When they first started as a SDWT, they had frequent meetings to set up their process, but today everyone knows the system and meetings are less frequent.

As I spoke with other team members, I heard a central theme. Everyone spoke highly of the SDWT concept. I was hearing comments over and over that seemed to echo and validate Frederick Herzberg's historic work on motivation and job enrichment¹:

  • "Before, the group leader made all the decisions. You didn't know why the decisions were made...now we do."

  • "We now have more responsibility, more pride in our work. We are solely responsible."

  • "I am now more secure as a person...this is a wonderful challenge."
    "You never knew where you were going to be from day to day, now you do."

  • "I don't ever want to go back to the old way."


At about 9:45 a.m., the line went down because the shrink wrapping machine needed some adjusting. Afterwards, I spoke with the team mechanic, Gary.

Previously, mechanics were not part of the line teams, and needed to be called when there were problems. The time it took to locate the mechanic caused additional down time, so today the mechanic is a member of the SDWT.

I asked Gary about his use of time when not making adjustments and repairs to the line. He immediately began to speak of SMED (Single-Minute Exchange of Die) concepts. Sterling used the term "SMED" to describe quick changeover concepts in general, not just die changes.

Gary showed me simple, but brilliant, innovations the team had made to reduce changeover time. In one application alone, time was reduced from two hours to ten minutes. He makes valuable use of his time by creating prototypes of team ideas.

As we approached lunch time, I began probing into problems and areas for improvement. Most of their frustrations reflected issues outside of their control. One person mentioned that at times there seems to be no rhyme or reason to production scheduling, causing unnecessary changeovers.

Additionally, the team would like to have more input on bottle design. One of their products has an odd shaped bottle that "takes two days to set up and three days to get right."

Lunchtime lasted 30 minutes, with team members returning quickly and starting the line immediately.

The Second Team
I moved on to the next team, the "Klockner Line." The people on this line were packaging Midol caplets into "blister packs," then into cartons, then into cardboard boxes for shipping. 

As with the High Speed Line, everyone on this line spoke favorably about self-direction, making it clear that they never wanted to return to "the old way."

This team showed me a number of SMED innovations they had made that had drastically reduced changeover times. A year earlier it took the team eight hours to reconfigure their machine to run a different product. They reduced it to less than one hour!

One of the issues that surfaced regarded administrative support systems. Specifically, the team recently developed an idea to reduce down time that required the addition of a metal plate to one of the machines. Although the design and procurement of the plate seemed relatively straightforward, it took two months to get the part (even with the supervisor circumventing the system some.)

Team members were somewhat vexed that as the company moves forward with improvement concepts in the manufacturing areas, the administrative systems are not improving as quickly to support flexibility and rapid change.

All afternoon I had the feeling that I was observing a team of people that truly "owned" their line. Instead of watching people just operate machinery, I was observing people operating, adjusting, repairing, cleaning, testing, quality checking, logging, and "paperworking."

About 3:00 p.m. I watched the Klockner Line Team change over their line for another product. The changeover was less than an hour and would have been faster if a screw had not become stuck. (Perhaps another SMED opportunity?)

When I probed this team for problems, several spoke about occasional personality clashes. Although they felt they have made good progress in this area, it is still something they have to work on.

~Not everyone on the teams had received group dynamics training, a concern echoed by many teams throughout my career. Without such training, team members tend to experience more frustration as they struggle with more intensive people interaction.~

At about 4:00 p.m. team members from the second shift began receiving turnover information from the first shift people, and the line kept running-a smooth transition.

In addition to the above, what else did I learn about self-direction from these people?

  • There was a reduction in the number of group leaders (foremen). Some were transferred into other positions and some became line operators, at no reduction in pay.

  • Most of the new skills that team members learned were taught to them by previous group leaders, quality assurance people, and each other.

  • One of the issues that both the supervisor and team members struggle with is when the supervisor should make a decision for the team. Some of the team members would like the supervisor to intervene whenever they are stuck or need a quick decision. Since the supervisor in a transitioning work setting must resist the tendency to take over, it becomes a difficult decision about when to intervene.

  • Team members see the tremendous potential in self-direction, and they would like to see the company move more directly to expand it into other departments.

  • At this time the supervisor is still responsible for the performance evaluations of all team members. (In some organizations, peer review are being used with good results.)

Although I was mentally energized by the day's experience, I was completely exhausted as I walked to my car. These people are working in a pressured, high-performance environment. They set high standards for themselves as "owners" of their lines, proving that frontline people can and will accept responsibility when given a modicum of control over their own destinies. EIN


Why Self-Direction Works:
A Review of Herzberg's Concepts

One of the subjects that has befuddled managers over the years is worker motivation. Managers, as a group, tend to be uncomfortable with the human aspects of performance, preferring to concentrate on the more familiar technical matters.

A quick trip to a library would give any manager a bounty of information that would help to increase worker motivation and performance. One of the foremost researchers in this field is Frederick Herzberg, an industrial psychologist. It is Herzberg's work on motivation and job enrichment that strikes at the heart of the success of self-direction concepts.

In the 1960's, Herzberg proposed that a person's needs break down into two categories: hygiene factors and motivational factors.

Hygiene factors relate to our biological needs, such as providing food, clothing, and shelter. Herzberg says we have a build-in drive to avoid pain relative to these needs, so we do what is necessary, such as work, to provide what we need.
Motivator factors, however, are very different. These factors include achievement, and through achievement, the ability to experience psychological growth.

Barbara Tower of Inner Edge Organizational Consultants distinguishes between hygiene and motivator factors with two simple questions:

  • "What makes you work?" and

  • "What makes you work well?

Herzberg used the term job enrichment to describe how the motivator factors can be used to achieve higher levels of satisfaction with a job. The following list was taken from his Harvard Business Review article of 1968 (reprinted in 1987) entitled, One More Time…How Do You Motivate Employees? Take particular note of how closely these factors align with concepts embodied in self-direction.

Meaningful job enrichment involves the following:

  1. Removing some controls while retaining accountability.

  2. Increasing the accountability of individuals for their work.

  3. Giving a person a complete natural unit of work.

  4. Granting additional authority to employees in their activity; job freedom.

  5. Making periodic reports directly available to the workers themselves rather than just to supervision.

  6. Introducing new and more difficult tasks not previously handled.

  7. Assigning individuals specific or specialized tasks, enabling them to become experts.

It is surprising to think that Herzberg first discussed these concepts in the 1960's, but that we are now just beginning to incorporate them in the 1990's. But self-direction will continue to grow because it makes sense in a highly competitive world. It also makes sense to a workforce desperately searching for dignity and meaning in its work. EIN