And a high-performance approach is not limited to production. I have seen it applied to marketing in the chemical industry, for example, although many people believe that chemicals are necessarily commodities. I believe that there is no such thing as a commodity business. You can always create distinctiveness that leads to higher value, new markets, and higher margins, if you are willing to apply thinking, creativity, energy, and care.
Now that I have retired from CPFilms and am operating as an independent consultant, I think I understand better why it is sometimes hard to keep systems like this going in today’s corporations. Many new managers, trained as engineers, expect to run operations according to step-by-step recipes. But just as thinking isn’t brainstorming and learning isn’t rote memorization, managing a high-performance system isn’t a matter of following rules and procedures. You have to observe the systemic whole of an operation — not just what people are doing and saying, but their latent potential for contributing to the business, which is often nearly invisible because it has been repressed for so long by management. And then you have to translate that integrative, almost poetic understanding into everyday nuts-and-bolts decisions about scheduling, maintenance, incentives, workflow, and technological design.
You then have to build the authority to insist on accountability and performance — including insisting on getting it from your superiors — but you also have to give up authority to anyone who is capable of wielding it effectively. You have to trust that, given the same information you have, other people will come to logical decisions and actions that are as good as, or even better than, your own. And you have to accomplish all this in corporations that set up incentives (such as stock options) that punish long-term investment and favor short-term measures: cutting head counts, selling off underperforming businesses, and cashing in on quick gains.
No wonder the self-managing teams approach is endangered. And yet, I cannot help but believe that it will prevail in the end. Ultimately, the most critical factor is managers’ view of human nature. Managers who believe in the value of people’s diverse skills, desires, aspirations, ambitions, and enthusiasm and who are prepared to recognize and reward the quality of thinking that people bring to their work — no matter what the organizational impediments seem to be — are capable of running a high-performance organization. The concept may not always be in fashion, but there are many of us out there, ready to put it into practice, if only we get the knowledge and the courage to follow through.
Reprint No. 07302
Ralph Sink (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a consultant on high-performance systems who has worked extensively with Charles Krone and is currently an associate with Generon Consulting in Cambridge, Mass. He is a former manufacturing executive and new product development manager at DuPont and the former head of human resources at CPFilms, a division of Solutia.