Thursday, August 14, 2008

An example of collaborative leadership.

Some years ago, I used the ideas of collaborative leadership in the design of a large Ford engine plant in Romeo, Michigan. Work teams at Romeo operated a little like families and a little like independent businesses. They included both hourly and salaried members, but unless you asked, you couldn’t tell which was which. The teams were composed of 8 to 24 members with each team responsible for planning, monitoring and completing a specific component in the engine production process.

Conventional Ford plants were organized like football teams with the plant manager as the quarterback. The other employees, like football players, were all experts, skilled in a specific phase of playing the game. Each covered his or her own special job. Everyone stayed in their specialty and seldom got out of position. At Romeo, by comparison, people were organized like a rugby team. Everyone was in pursuit of the ball at all times.

There were no jobs in the traditional sense of permanently owned tasks and assignments. Everybody was responsible to do whatever needed to be done in their area on their own initiative whenever they saw it was required. The only qualification was that they were certified to undertake the task safely and effectively. Team members were more concerned about achieving the plant’s goals than worrying about who got assigned to carry out what activities. No one at Romeo said, “That’s not my job.”

Adjusting to more collaborative ways of working and making decisions wasn't easy for Romeo’s employees, accustomed to many prior years of traditional ways of thinking. They were asked to work together without a boss looking over their shoulder, telling them what to do all the time, and it took time to get everyone comfortable with this complete culture change. However, in a survey after the first year of operation, most employees reported that despite the extra effort required to adjust to the new work practices, their talents were better utilized and they had greater control over their production lines. Very few said they wanted to return to the traditional way of working.

Romeo was judged the best startup ever recorded in Ford’s engine division. The quality of the engine represented a 75% improvement over those produced in previous launches, according to new vehicle customer surveys. Romeo has also been recognized by the American Society for Training and Development for having the best team training program in the North American automotive industry.

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