If Sabine Kluge could travel back to the past, she would land at Siemens in the 1990s and watch the first semi-autonomous groups at work. “At the time we all swotted up on the Toyota Principle and applied it to our processes as best we could,” explains Kluge, who began her career in strategic planning at Siemens in Obersendling – having taken the traditional route of a degree in business studies. So self-organization in manufacturing is not all that new?
“No, but we didn’t take it any further back then and at the same time there was a lot of restructuring going on. That was poison for the new work philosophy. Controlling took the lead in industry for many years.” Does this mean the tide is now turning? “Yes, companies are looking for creativity and new work structures.” But Sabine Kluge still encounters some of the old problems: doctrines such as ‘Someone has to take responsibility’ or ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’ or ‘That never worked in the past either’. “What does that mean specifically, who is punished, the CEO or who,” wonders Kluge time and again. She wants to jettison the doctrines because they slow things down, create insecurity, disrupt cooperation and prevent innovation. “New Work is not a revolution with lounges and ideas from dreamland. It is evolutionary and close to manufacturing.”
A project with the two production planners Robert Harms and Ronny Grossjohann – an extremely bold project for a traditional corporate culture – supports what she’s saying:
“New Work is not a revolution with lounges and ideas from dreamland. It is evolutionary and close to manufacturing.”
A new burner production facility was due to be built at Siemens’ gas turbine plant in order to improve plant productivity. The production site in Berlin – challenging both technologically and geographically – was to become a model site. An investment totalling around €12 million had to be approved by the management board. The managers in Munich wanted an Ownership Culture and the Siemens employees delivered. Yet after the money had been authorized, the project team struggled to get going with the existing management tools. The project crawled along and enthusiasm was lacking. “The planners and employees sat in the office and mulled over the plans, but the spark was missing. And while valuable time was being wasted, frustration started to creep in: “This won’t get them excited. We have to find out what moves them; how do we reach their hearts?”
By observing the dynamics of the teams, it soon became obvious that the participants were not inspired by the project management plans – which had seemed so perfect on paper – because they suppressed the creative drive of the knowledge holders. Ownership Culture and agility were difficult to reconcile with the “waterfall”. Grossjohann and Harms responded accordingly: “We’ll let them organize themselves. We simply make a room available and let go. And wherever we let go, things suddenly happened that we would never have managed on our own. We suddenly experienced at first hand people’s energy and self-confidence, and quickly understood that the core of knowledge is found at the grass roots level. The more we let go, the more groundbreaking ideas appeared. Employees who had previously spent 20 years working silently at “their” grinding machine suddenly took an active part in discussions, voiced their ideas and took responsibility in the discussions about manufacturing design – and about six-figure budget issues!” And, adds Robert Harms: “After six months at an unsuccessful standstill, all of a sudden our only task was to create the space and bring together people’s knowledge. And after a year, we suddenly realized that we are completely agile.”
And what do the bosses, who have spent years working their way up the company hierarchy, do? “Good question; they’re afraid of chaos and of losing control,” reports Kluge. In Berlin, the managers also work in a team to focus on strategic tasks: which new supplier should be brought on board, which components should we replace? “And the co-workers manage and engage in personnel development – genuine personnel development.”
How agile does a corporation really have to be? Does the management board need to be elected democratically by the employees? Or is it more important to give people a sense of meaning at the work level through worker participation and transparency in their immediate working environment? If self-organization cannot be introduced, only prevented, the key task for decision makers in companies is to eliminate barriers, let go and put their trust in the competence of the many. Yes, that also means a loss of control, which doesn’t appeal to everyone. But, as Ronny Grossjohann and Robert Harms themselves experienced, it was the very moment of letting go that ignited the fire of a common cause among all those involved. And suddenly Ownership Culture is possible: wholehearted commitment and genuine pride in working towards shared success – and this happens at precisely the place in the company where the value is created.
Is it possible to be a little less evolutionary in the first step? “We have to work on the human role in production and on communicating with the people on the production line; that’s when collaboration occurs,” explains Kluge. Those are the beginnings – New Work isn’t so difficult after all.