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At GE, small groups run a big plant

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

In most manufacturing plants, a supervisor oversees the work of a few dozen people. But at General Electric’s jet engine facility in Durham, N.C., more than 300 employees report to the plant manager.

These 300+ people thrive in self-directed work teams. Within their groups, they decide how to coordinate jet engine assembly, who gets time off and what processes to follow. They also work together to address personnel conflicts on their own.

By organizing themselves into teams, they exert more control over their daily work lives. There are no time clocks. Individuals are free to come and go as they wish, but their teammates hold them accountable.

As a result, employees look to each other for support and supervision. They cannot rely on a supervisor to referee disputes or solve their problems. As one of them says, “I have 15 bosses. All my teammates are my bosses.”

As the sole supervisor for the entire facility, the plant manager sits in an open cubicle in the midst of the factory floor. The manager keeps everyone focused on the big picture and does not get embroiled in team dynamics.

There’s no mystery about compensation: Everyone knows what everyone else earns. That’s because every individual’s pay is tied to skill level—and that data is available to all.

Most manufacturers use assembly lines. But at the GE plant, each team “owns” an engine from start to finish.

For this kind of system to function well, employees need to possess multiple skills. They thus get cross-trained so that they can step into different roles on different days.

— Adapted from A Team Of Leaders, Paul Gustavson and Stewart Liff, AMACOM.

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