This is the story of an idea so powerful, management couldn’t kill it. An idea rooted in a factory that four different companies have owned, enjoyed great results from, and then tried to shut down — only to have the idea bite management back.
The idea is self-governing, high-performance teams — the stuff of the now-back-in-vogue socio-technical movement. The place is a dog food plant, where the idea was first tried, flourished — and then went through successive owners who couldn’t decide which side of the idea they were on.
The story dates back to 1966. One morning, in an isolated warehouse at a Gaines dog food plant in Kankakee, Illinois, a 20-year-old night-shift worker was found bound to a column with packaging tape. He was unhurt, but he couldn’t get free. Once discovered, he was immediately cut down. The question was: What to do next?
The workers who’d assaulted their colleague couldn’t be punished because of union rules. And Lyman Ketchum and Ed Dulworth, the two senior managers in the plant, didn’t want to punish them. Labor-management relations were already on the brink of explosion, in part a result of the unexpected success of Gainesburgers, which had pushed the decrepit facility to operate at three-times capacity.
Instead of “kicking ass and taking names” as some supervisors suggested, Ketchum and Dulworth opted for a more radical — and more productive — course: a socio-technical pilot project. The pair took their pitch for the workplace of the future to corporate management. “People have `ego’ needs,” Dulworth argued. “They want self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment, autonomy, increasing knowledge and skill, and data on their performance.”
Their idea: “unlearn” every traditional practice and design a plant from scratch to capitalize on that aspect of human nature. Although decidedly skeptical, a General Foods vice president uttered the fateful words: “Go ahead, you are free to fail.”
What emerged was an experiment housed in a gleaming white silo-shaped plant on the Kansas prairie in Topeka. Sections of the plant painted in bright colors became natural centers where teams gravitated to compare notes — or to thrash out differences. There were no supervisors, only teams and team members who controlled plant operations. They hired new members, assigned shifts, set hours, and redesigned the placement of machinery. Everyone rotated through a wide variety of jobs. Significantly, they shared freely in information about the plant’s finances and cash flow.
Without the overhead of middle managers, with an astonishingly low 2% absentee rate, and with a level of involvement bordering on ownership, the Topeka plant set performance records at General Foods. It became an example of the next-generation workplace: curious executives and business reporters lined up for tours in such volumes that Dulworth began charging admission. But as the limelight shined brighter, GF worried about the glare. Corporate managers withdrew their support and declared the experiment “out of control.”
Ketchum and Dulworth were unceremoniously pushed out of the company. A new plant manager arrived with his marching orders: “Cut out this missionary crap.” Too late. The system had already taken on a life of its own. It seeped into the design of a new canned dog food plant next door.
In 1984, General Foods sold its pet food business to the Anderson Clayton conglomerate. In Topeka, the team structure persisted without management cultivation.
By 1986, when Quaker Oats bought all of Anderson Clayton, the Gaines dog food plant was the crown jewel of the acquisition. But Quaker made no attempt to extend the Topeka system anywhere else in its organization.
Then in March 1995, when Heinz acquired Quaker, it looked as if the new owners might finally put the experiment to sleep. Heinz’s initial reaction was to make the plant conform to its policies: management shut down half the plant, eliminated the team system, suspended all the costly ongoing training that made the team system viable, and cut 150 jobs. But the team-based structure refused to roll over and play dead.
During the last six months Heinz has performed a public about-face to broadcast its faith in the “Topeka system.” Bill Goode, a vice president of human resources and quality for the company, says, “The system in Topeka has evolved to a much higher level than any of our other plants. We look at it as a model of where we’d like to go.”
Training budgets are back in the 141-person plant; so are team meetings. Safety concerns belong to the shop-floor once more. Pay-for-knowledge is intact, people still rotate jobs, and teams determine assignments.
This old dog continues to teach management new tricks.
Art Kleiner (email@example.com) is the author of “The Age of Heretics” (Currency/Doubleday).