How do you develop employees to self-manage?

That was a question raised in a personal development plan of a bquest client whose was frustrated by his company’s lack of business growth.

There is a lot of good practice guidance out there on developing ‘self-directed teams’, ‘time management’ and ‘self-management’, ‘personal effectiveness and productivity”, and so on, but most of it refers to skilled people, professionals and management. The client in question is responsible for line operators in a low tech production environment. The operators are not as prodctive as they should be.

The client calls the operators ‘simple people’, by which he means they have little in the way of qualifications, they work with their hands and not with their brains, they are not very literate or numerate, and they have few aspirations beyond earning enough to live on.

According to the client, these operators do not ‘self-manage’. He gave examples of this as he saw it. In his words, if they saw a broken bottle on the floor, they would leave it. If they were faced with a problem, they did not check with the shift supervisor but did what they thought was right, which often was wrong. They did stupid things like washing an electrical panel with a wet cloth. If they didn’t have the right tool at hand, they would use something else, and damage it.

After being helped to assess whether these and other examples were occasional and exceptional or whether they did actually represent a fundamental problem that was stopping business growth, the client was helped to cluster the examples. From this, it emerged there were four key problems to the lack of ‘self-management’ on the production line:

  1. Operators did not understand the consequences of not following procedures correctly.
  2. They did not always pay attention to detail.
  3. They did not sufficiently care about what they were doing.
  4. He, the client, had low expectations of ‘simple workers’ and this message was being communicated to them, and they naturally lived up (down?) to expectations.

Understanding the cause(s) of the problem was the first step in learning for the client. And learning how to analyse problems using root cause analysis tools like fishbone and 5 Whys.

Of course, there is no one solution. Instead, the client developed a number of actions:

1) Identify the behaviours you want (and the behaviours you don’t want) – pay attention to detail, ask questions when in doubt, measure 5 times and cut once, follow the procedures to the letter, and so on.

2) Use behavioural interviewing methods when recruiting to identify people who, have demonstrated these behaviours in the past. You should try and get the ‘right’ people to begin with, even when recruiting unskilled operators.

2) Define behaviours and standards of the tasks and procedures. These should include the decision criteria when to call in the supervisor for help, what to do when time or other demands are conflicting with the need to do things right, and simple problem solving skills).

3) Train and assess new operators for absolute correctness in doing the procedures, not sufficiency. Get them to do the job right! Do not put new operators next to experienced operators without first giving them training in correct procedures; or they may learn all the short-cuts the experienced operator has developed over time (which may actually work) but without having gained the experience that enables them to take the short-cuts safely. Monitor performance closely to begin with. Have periodic refresher and reinforcement training. Regularly praise correct behaviours. Never tolerate incorrect behaviours. (Depending on the situation, you may accept short cuts that are known to work safely; maybe these should become standard procedures?)

4) Get operators to meet and talk with people down the line, their internal customers in marketing and sales, warehousing and outbound distribution. Show them the consequences of getting it wrong. Give them the financial facts.

5) Give operators ‘ownership’ of their workstation. How this is done will depend on the work situation, but workers can personalise their space, have the names written up or photos put up, have something that is unique to them. If they pick up a broken glass at home, then making work more home like will mean they will transfer their good behaviours.

We will see if this approach works for the client; we can always adapt the strategy as we go along. This is bquest learning in action!

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