The University Record, June 11, 1996

Is the U-M ready for self-directed work teams? Are You?

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Keynote speaker Ann Harper asked the audience to rate the University on its readiness for a self-directed work force.

Photos by Bob Kalmbach

"People are self-directed until they go to work," said Ann Harper, "and then they turn over their self-control to others."

Redesigning the way work is done and turning the traditional management pyramid upside down was the focus of the keynote address for the Workplace of the '90s conference held last week. Bob Harper and Ann Harper, president and vice president respectively of MW Corporation, a New York consulting firm, addressed an audience of more than 250 during last Wednesday's presentation.

"This is the biggest change in the workplace in 200 years," Ann Harper said. "We are talking about a transformation to high-performance, self-directed work teams that are set up to use everybody's brains. Most workers now are oversupervised and underutilized."

The keynote address titled "Self-Directed Work Teams and the Future: Is Your Organization Ready? Are You?" was presented both Tuesday and Wednesday during the conference.

The Harpers say that work and the way it is accomplished are changing and that the self-directed team is the inevitable future. Businesses, organizations and government are beginning to move---slowly---toward the concept. Quality management teams are near the midpoint on the road to the high-performance, self-directed team concept, they note, and are a great improvement from merely soliciting suggestions from employees and then perhaps not even using them.

The teams that work best, according to the Harpers, are ones that are multi-functional, make recommendations, decide when to implement those recommendations and solve problems. In fact, those teams "plan the work, do the work, check and improve it," Ann Harper said. "They are empowered to decide."

Asking whether the University of Michigan was ready for the self-directed concept, Ann Harper asked for a show of hands from those who believed the U-M rated high in the 12 essential ingredients for self-direction in the workforce to be successful.

The 12 points and positive audience response was:

1. Is there a driving force at the top of the organization? 10 percent

2. Is there top management support for the concept? 3 percent

3. Is there trust between management and workers, unions and management? less than 1 percent

4. Are you more involved in your work than you were a year ago? 30 percent

5. Do managers and supervisors "buy in" to the concept of worker participation more than they did a year ago? 15 percent

6. Is there better and more frequent communication? 40 percent

7. Is there more work security assurance (support for individuals within the workforce in cross-training, assistance)? 3 percent

8. Is there more training available to workers? 50 percent

9. Are you getting more information about work than you did a year ago? 10 percent

10. Do you have more power over the work you do? 10 percent

11. Are measurements taken of the progress made? 2 percent

12. Are you receiving more reward than you did a year ago? 0 percent


Although the U-M may not be entirely ready to embrace the concept of self-directed work teams, it has taken the first step in putting the "customer" at the top and helping managers learn to coach, train and support workers in serving them in ways that are both speedy and cost-effective.

The Workplace of the '90s Conference, now in its 17th year, is sponsored by Human Resource Development and Conferences and Seminars.