Several years ago, Acme Mineral Extraction Company introduced teams in an effort to solve morale and productivity problems. Acme used highly sophisticated technology, employing geologists, geophysicists and engineers on what was referred to as the brains side of the business, as well as skilled and semi-skilled labor on the brawn side to run the company’s underground extracting operations. The two sides regularly clashed, and when some engineers locked several operations workers out of the office in 38 heat, the local press had a field day.Suzanne Howard was hired to develop a program that would improve productivity and morale, with the idea that it would then be implemented at other Acme sites.
Howard had a stroke of luck in the form of Donald Peterson, a long-time Acme employee who was highly respected and was looking for one final, challenging project before he retired. Peterson had served in just about every possible line and staff position at workers faced on both the brains and the brawn sides of the business, Howard was pleased when Peterson agreed to serve as leader.There were three functional groups: operations, made up primarily of hourly workers who operated and maintained the extracting equipment; the below ground group, consisting of engineers, geologists and geophysicists who determined where and how to drill; and the above ground group of engineers in charge of cursory refinement and transportation of the minerals. Howard and Peterson declined the first step was to get these different groups talking to one another and sharing ideas, They instituted a monthly problem chat: an optional meeting to which all employees were invited to discuss unresovled problems.At the first meeting, Howard and Peterson were the only two people to show up.
However, people gradually began to attend the meetings, and after about six months they had become lively problem-sovling discussions the led to many improvements. Next, Howard and Peterson introduced teams to select a problem and implement a tailor solution, or SPITS. These were ad hoc groups made up of members from each of the three functional areas.They were formed to work on a specific problem identified in a chat meeting and were disbanded when the problem was solved. SPITS were given the authority to address problems without seeking management approval. There were some rocky moments, as engineers resented working with operations personnel and vice versa.
However, over time, and with the strong leadership of Peterson, the groups began to come together and focus on the issues rather than spending most of their time arguing.Eventually, workers were organized into permanent cross-functional teams that were empowered to make their own decisions and elect their own leaders. After 18 months, things were really humming. The different groups were not just working together; they also had started socializing together. At one of the problem chats, an operations worker jokingly suggested that the brains and the brawn should fight it out once a week to get rid of the tensions so they could focus all their energy on the job to be done.
Several others joined in the joking and, eventually, the group decided to square off in a weekly softball game. Peterson had T-shirts printed up that said brains and brawn, The softball games were well attended, and both sides usually ended up having a few beer s together at a local bat afterwards. Productivity and morale soared at the Wichita plant, and costs continued to decline. Top executives believed the lessons learned should make implementing the program, at other sites less costly and time-consuming.
However, when Howard and her team attempted to implement the program at the second plant, things did not go well. They felt under immense pressure from top management to get the team-based productivity project running smoothly. Because people were not showing up for the problem chat meetings, attendance was made mandatory. However, the meetings still produced few valuable ideas or suggestions. Although a few of the SPITS teams solved important problems, none of them showed the kind of commitment and enthusiasm Howard had seen originally.
In addition, the sister-plant workers refused to participate in the softball games and other team-building exercises that Howard’s team developed for them. Howard finally convinced some workers to join in the softball games by bribing them with free food and beer, ‘If I just had a Donald Peterson, things would go a lot more smoothly’, Howard thought. It seemed that no matter how hard Howard and her team tried to make the project working in the sister-plant, morale continued to decline and conflicts between the different groups of workers actually seemed to increase.