Thomas Regout: well on the way to self-directing teams
2014 – At the production department of Thomas Regout International Ltd. about 100 people are employed. They manufacture telescopic conductors for industrial applications. Thomas Regout International is part of the Regout group, a medium large enterprise in the manufacturing industry with approximately 315 employees.
The production employees work in self-directing teams. The teams together are responsible for realizing set targets. Team members coordinate and plan their selves, for example the allocation of tasks. Furthermore, the production process has changed from batch production to flow production. Previously, employees used to manufacture many different products in a discontinuous process. Nowadays, employees manufacture one product as a team, from beginning to end in a continuous process. Team members no longer perform one or two activities, but work throughout the entire production chain and perform different activities. This production is based on customer demand instead of on a prognosis. No longer are large parties of parts produced extra to keep in stock, which results in a delay for other orders.
Motive and goals
The traditional market for which Tomas Regout manufactured was not profitable enough to compete with, mostly, foreign manufacturers. Therefore, the decision has been made to manufacture products for more profitable markets. Customers from this ‘higher’ market are more demanding: they expect shorter delivery times, high quality products and they order smaller parties. To meet these demands, the production management team decided to manufacture in a continuous flow, with self-directing teams.
In order to make employees move along the entire manufacturing process, they have to be broadly deployable. Self-directing teams are most suitable because they manage their own manufacturing process. Furthermore, other motives were to reduce costs (by reducing waste), and increase flexibility and quality. In order to achieve this, employees’ skills should be utilized and they should become more involved in the manufacturing process. This should result in employees actively suggesting possible improvements.
The new mode of operation
In this delineation the focus is on working with self-directing teams. In order to make sure self-directing teams function properly, team members should meet the following criteria: they have to be broadly deployable, self-directing and willing to work flexibly. The team needs to achieve the set targets within the demands that are set to delivery times, quality, efficiency and safety. They take over responsibility for tasks that are necessary to guarantee a smooth manufacturing process like forming a task schedule, carrying out quality checks, maintenance, coaching other employees, and provide reports. Multiple employees should be able to carry out every task in order to make sure that, in case of fall out, the manufacturing process is stable. In concert the team decides the allocation of tasks. A team coach supports the team. In principle, the team coach has final responsibility for the performance and continuous improvement of the team but is not involved in carrying out tasks in the manufacturing process. At the same time, the team coach is supposed to stay in the background in order for the team to adopt managing tasks. Eventually, the function team coach should cease to exist.
January first 2012, the first self-directing team started. Soon two teams followed in May 2012. The remaining three teams started working in a self-directing way in February 2013. Before the implementation, the motive and goals for working with self-directing teams were explained. Courses were offered to support the new way of working. First, there were sessions in which teams could practice how to work in a flow production method. Secondly, employees learned how to give feedback about mistakes in a respectful way. Errors in the manufacturing process should be solved as early as possible in order to reduce waste. Thirdly, team members were given training about continuously improving the manufacturing process. The aim for this training was that team members actively come up with points of improvement. In order to achieve this, it is important that team members dare to speak out and be taken seriously when they suggest improvements.
To provide the employees with the necessary education, an education plan was made for all employees, partly based on a profile ‘competences and skills employee 2020’. Furthermore, a skills matrix was drawn up which indicated the skills every team should possess. Employees are offered in-house training. In consultation with senior manufacturing employees, the competence manager sets up the trainings. The competence manager supports and guides employees in their personal development. He is responsible for performance reviews, guidance in absenteeism, the developmental process and he supports team coaches with the implementation of self-directing teams. Previously, team coaches were leading, but in self-directing teams, team coaches need to play a facilitating role. To give support to the team coaches during these changes, they all followed a special leadership training. They learned to manage in a different way by assuming a more coaching role.
Team meetings were organized in order to reflect and evaluate: first once a week, currently every other week. Supervised by an external advisor, teams discuss different work related subjects and ideas and problems are expressed to each other.
The self-directing teams perform successfully. Labor productivity has increased. The teams deliver faster, are more flexible, and deliver high quality products. They make fewer mistakes than before: In 2010 there were 5000 mistakes per one million pieces produced, now they only make 1000 mistakes per one million pieces produced. There could be three different reasons for this: Firstly, the entire team is responsible for the quality of the end product. This results in employees addressing each other when a mistake has been made. Previously, every employee only focused on his/her own task and when a mistake was made somewhere in the production chain, one did not considered it to be their responsibility. Secondly, employees are more involved. This is shown by the fact that employees increasingly come up with own initiatives and improvements to reduce waste. This reduces costs. Thirdly, team meetings have a considerable added value. In these meetings teams solve many problems. Furthermore, employees’ competences are better used. They develop certain competences due to a wider variety of tasks and their employability increases . Also, team cohesion increased and, absenteeism decreased: from 8% to 5%. According to the production manager and the employee we spoke to, the implementation of self-directing teams led to more involvement from the employees. More responsibility, more freedom doing their tasks, more cooperation between teams and more diversity in work activities made the work more interesting for many employees. They are more independent than before and that is a big difference.
Experience & Lessons learned
The changes have a large impact on the employees. During a short period (3-4 months) changes happened to fast; teams experienced to much pressure, which led to stress and resulted in complaints about the quality of the products. Enthusiasm for the new way of working varied. Where team members were used to carry out solely manufacturing tasks and were used to a more hierarchical team setting with a manager, now they need to perform managing tasks themselves. This means that many of the employees had to acquire new skills. This is hard because they are used to their routine: most employees are 50+ and work at Thomas Regout for more than 20 years. Also the team coaches find it hard to adjust to their new facilitating role. Slowly this improves for employees and team coaches, and the notion arises that everyone should adjust because the new mode of working at Thomas Regout is here to stay. Furthermore, an employee indicated that work is heavier than before because his team works with the heaviest products. Before he also worked with different products that were less heavy. The response is to try to let robots execute the work. In this way, employees carry heavy products as little as possible.
Another point of consideration is that collaboration between teams is not optimal yet, not everyone is convinced by the fact that teams should help each other when necessary. However, slowly reallocation occurs, employees are more positive and the notion arises that employees need to start learning again. According to the production manager and the employee we spoke to, the implementation of self-directing teams led to more involvement from the employees. More responsibility, more freedom doing their tasks, more cooperation between teams and more diversity in work activities made the work more interesting for many employees. They are more independent than before and that is a big difference.
Veerkracht in de plaatwerkindustrie. In Tuinzaad, B., Rhijn, van G., Bosch, T., Vos, F. (2013), Snel en wendbaar in de maakindustrie, pp. 53. TNO.
Sector: High Tech & Smart Materials
Theme: Flexible organisation; team working, self organisation