By Tom Leamon
A little over a month ago I began working in an organization the like of which I had heard of only as a theoretical possibility. Professionally, my graduate training included courses in organizational behavior and social psychology and many programs in management, all of which I have tried to apply professionally in multiple industries and academic programs. In both professional and personal discussions, terms like autonomous work group, self-organizing systems, work teams, flat management structures, Just-in-Time, Kanban, Lean Manufacturing, and Optimization, fell readily from my lips. I learned to follow the advice of Japanese gurus, then Germans and even Americans who had grown rich by explaining how to build and manage worker teams. In over 50 years, I have seen how these concepts actually work in real organizations and, by and large, contribute to the effectiveness of workers. However, not until I turned up for work myself in North Adams, have I found a group of workers who are genuinely self-organizing.
It is difficult to describe the process I discovered because there is basically no process—the job gets completed and that is that! Of course, an objective must be defined, and at the start of each day this is established by the coordinator who also identifies then monitors the necessary steps, but then. . .I found no single person has a single role. Anyone can, and does do whatever needs doing at the time. Half a dozen people will volunteer at any time for a few minutes to direct the main manufacturer before stepping back, perhaps to clean up the work place or fetch materials. Some tasks are more onerous than others but this imbalance is addressed by workers stepping forward to help, for maybe an hour or perhaps for only a few minutes, depending on their own volitions and work load at the time. In the latter case, should more help be needed then more workers step forward—I have never seen a gap.
My own training for the job was oddly unnecessary. As I looked bewildered, another worker told me where the work tools were kept, even though this was the first time we had spoken. This is how I learned where the scrap material was disposed of, where the raw materials were kept, how security worked, how safety and hygiene standards were maintained. No training sessions, no instructions, written or otherwise, no supervisor, no exhortations, only a deadline to be met and a product to be delivered.
And there are two more features that could be taken only from the wildest dreams of industrial engineers and organizational behaviorists—workers can come and go at will; some work for four hours or more, some for only two, but all are choosing to meet their own external schedules when they believe they can do so without ruining the team’s effort. Finally, there is no rest break until the main production run is complete, when everyone then relaxes communally until delivery (an all-hands effort) is called for. Although I have never observed this, I expect that should the run be behind schedule then no one will even consider stopping for a break. Oh, and talking of industrial engineers and their worst nightmare, staffing levels are at the discretion of the workers. Some days there is an abundance of workers while the next staff may be very sparse, a situation demanding even more collaboration.
As a newbie, I wondered if I would continue to feel the same as I did at the beginning, but so far the only change is a growing appreciation for an extraordinary group of workers and their willingness to accept my own contribution. If you, too, would like to explore this work phenomenon by working with such a group you might consider volunteering at the Berkshire Food Project. I am sure that, once they had rubbed the patina off your preconceptions, my friends there would welcome you, too.