Schools Bureaucracy: Empower Your People; Chrysler Does (Part A)

The next few posts will compare one example of a recent American corporate success that has valued the creative and cognitive input of workers and staff with two organizational episodes taken from my school experience. The first of these school cases involves an almost naïve bureaucratic soft directive, well meaning and even a good idea but delivered in apparent full ignorance of its impact on the already stretched energies of school house workers.  The second school item, by contrast, involves a fairly thorough collegial examination of a support plan for struggling learners, initiated in our school by admin in concert with some staff, echoing similar programs in our area, but vetted through scrutiny by staff and administration together.

So, one corporate success that subverted hierarchical thinking, and two school episodes, one of which instructs how not to do it, and one how to do it.

To the corporate success…..

First off, allow me a tangential thought and an apology for using an article from Time Magazine. From the day I perused its pages semi-religiously as a college student (there are other activities of that day that also embarrass me) I lived with a dawning suspicion that I was following a false prophet. As my sophistication and knowledge of the world grew, and I began to know something on my own about a few things, I began to note the over simplicity of some of the messages Time intoned, which in time led to recognition that the truth of a situation or idea related by the magazine was in some instances quite distant from what a given article claimed. It was not so much slant that bothered me, but the inadequacy of the pictures drawn.

So, with apologies, I nonetheless draw your attention to an article in the December 19, 2011 Time Magazine, entitled “Power Steering: How Chrysler’s Italian boss drives an American auto revival.” The article examines how Fiat took over Chrysler, initially with American government financial assistance, and the manner in which bossman Sergio Marchionne transformed the troubled automaker into a revived industrial powerhouse now competing with increasing success on the open market.

Of course there are numerous angles to such success, but the piece germane to my discussion is Marchionne’s treatment of assembly line workers. To begin with, as reported by Time, rather than close a ramshackle assembly building, Fiat put the workers to work renovating the building, thereby giving them employment, a good thing. Then management brought in Italian workers to train their American counterparts in Fiat’s manufacturing system. Then, and this is the crux, rather than dictate lockstep each moment of the manufacturing process by fiat (clever, huh?), the American workers were first given the analytical skills to examine the assembly process. With those tools, the workers themselves helped to configure the assembly process with quality control, efficiency, and safety in mind.

Time Mag, at least, seems convinced that productivity has been boosted because “workers, not engineers, own the quality control process;” workers are much more “proactive.” Management is reported claiming that the UAW exhibits “very, very strong support” because no longer is hierarchical organization the norm at Chrysler; the UAW likes it presumably because its members are empowered and recognized as respected, thinking, contributing members of the whole. In fact, if other news articles over the past year are to be believed, The UAW and Chrysler have forged a broader partnership via a two tier wage structure designed to honor earlier contracts, but also to allow the old giant auto maker to once again have an internationally competitive cost system.

With apologies for my acceptance of some level of Time Mag “truth”, the upshot seems clear to me — where management and labor are so enlightened as to recognize that each thrives where the other is viewed as a partner, the organization prospers.

Parenthetically, it would be interesting to trace the historical development of Fiat’s and Marchionne’s managerial perspective. Has the Toyota success I discussed in earlier posts influenced the Italians? Or have they somehow arrived at a similar place in isolation? In an international marketplace, I suspect the former.

Next week I will focus this lens on what I see as a bureaucratic blunder in a worthwhile educational cause.

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