The empowered group

In the second instalment from her book 'Empowering People At Work', Nancy Foy examines group motivation and dynamics.

Consider a hypothetical meeting of a group inside an empowering organisation. Like everyone else its members like to keep an eye on whether they’re winning or not.

The team leader starts with parish notices and some one line summaries from a core brief that comes down regularly from on high. The company is allocating groups a certain amount per employee for their Christmas celebrations and organising coaches to take people home after parties. The organisation has met its targets for the quarters.

“How does that fit with our own performance,” asks the team leader.

“Our deliveries to final assembly are running about 3% better than target,” says one member. “They like the new casings we suggested and we’ll have those in work by next week, which will ease the old bottleneck.”

Another member reports on the chronic Stores problem. “With a lot of nagging we’ve cut the number of outstanding items by about 10%, but it would help if you’d ask the boos to invite the Stores Manager and maybe the foreman to attend his next management meeting to discuss the situation.”

They discuss not only the inputs and outputs, but their own performance – time keeping, how well flexitime is working – and then get down to the serious business of what they want to do for a Christmas celebration.

The meeting takes about half an hour and by the time it is finished they feel that a couple of the problems have been solved. The keeper of the charts goes out to record their chosen performance indicators on the large wall chart for all to see, while the supervisor jots down a few notes for his file, and a couple more to let his boss know the group’s performance for the period.

One major difference between this empowered group and a hamstrung group is that the group itself decided what measures were most appropriate. At first they had set one or two measures that were impracticable and involved more effort than they were worth. Then there was that Stores item – something they could not control without involving managers higher up. They had finally put it at the end of the list as “Stores nagging: number of orders unfilled” and the people in Stores at least started explaining why things were out of stock.

It might be tempting for a manager to say, “I could have saved you all that trouble. I knew you couldn’t make much headway with Stores.” That “I told you so” might be fun for him, but it is a downright demotivator for the group itself.

The empowering manager simply smiles at the supervisor and says, “Thank you. That’s quite a breakthrough about the new casings. Sounds as if you’re building good relationships there.” The next morning, walking by the group’s chart-board, he tells a couple of members how pleased he is at the 3% over-target deliveries. And at the group’s behest, he spends more time with the Stores Manager trying to understand the reasons for the bottlenecks.

If stores indeed needs some new systems or investment, the empowering manager may be an ally of the Stores Manager, on behalf of the group that needs better deliveries. If the problems in Stores can be alleviated by simpler means, like showing Stores what their customers value, and how performance might be measured, his interested support is the most useful stance for a potential in-house consultant.

Eaton, an American company, influenced the thinking of Nissan when it set up its UK factory. Eaton’s philosophy statement explains, “Eaton understands that the success of the company depends, ultimately, on the performance of its employees. Sustained high performance is most likely when there is a high level of individual commitment to the goals of their organisation.”

Eaton’s key principles were:
•    Focus on the positive behaviour of employees
•    Encourage employee involvement in decisions
•    Communicate with employees in a timely and candid way, with emphasis on face-to-face communications.
•    Compensate employees competitively under systems which reward excellence
•    Provide training for organisational/individual success.
•    Maintain effective performance appraisal systems.
•    Emphasise promotion from within throughout the company
•    Select managers and supervisors who demonstrate an appropriate blend of human relations skills and technical competence.

Building on these principles, Eaton set up small groups of operators and supervisors and asked them to redesign plant layouts, cut inventories and improve lead times. They achieved significant, measurable improvements – lead-times reduced down to days rather than weeks and inventories more than halved.

Nissan’s planning was also influenced by Ian Robertson and M Smith’s adaptation of Herzberg’s work, which was based around the following factors that influence commitment:

  • Employees should understand the link between effort and performance
  • Employees should have the competence and confidence to translate effort into performance.
  • Organisational and job changes should be introduced through consultation and discussion
  • Control systems should be introduced only when necessary
  • Performance should be expressed in terms of hard but attainable goals
  • Employees should participate in setting these goals.
  • Feedback should be regular, informative and easy to interpret
  • People should be praised for good performance.

Benefits of communicating performance
Communicating performance – up, down and across an organisation – is just as important as achieving performance. Only through communication can a group’s performance ultimately be dovetailed with others so the whole becomes greater than the parts.

When the task is at the core of everything and performance can be achieved and communicated, a number of benefits come to the organisation:

  • empowered supervisors
  • relevant two-way communication
  • better management information
  • employees able to achieve.

What more could anyone ask?

This article is an extract of Empowering People At Work (ISBN 0-566-07436-2), originally published by Gower in 1994. Also see her previous posts:
Empowering people at work - introduction