Are self-managing teams coming to a retail establishment near you?

According to a recent Harvard Business School article, Taco Bell has been utilizing self-managing work teams in its stores since the 1990’s. Teams are supported by technology for activities such as hiring, training and inventory controls. “Floating” managers are assigned to support several stores, but frontline employees manage daily operations.

According to the author, James L. Heskett, the practice helped the company deal with a shortage of capable managers and has resulted in a more inspired work force and higher customer satisfaction.

This is an extreme example of the creation of “work teams” that has provided an answer to the “assembly line” philosophy of work. Such teams are designed to provide greater variety and responsibility for frontline workers given the responsibility to assemble and deliver a complete product, sub-assembly, or service.

Will more companies follow the lead? The HBS article questions whether corporations are ready to give up what it calls “traditional command and control management practices.” Conversely, this post questions whether Taco Bell’s experiment portends a coming trend.

I spent some time managing restaurants in my youth and I do not find Taco Bell’s experience surprising. The teams I led were fully capable of handling operations. At that time, many management functions involved administrative matters such as timekeeping, payroll, ordering supplies, and marketing. Most of these activities can now be automated and handled remotely.

Another key management function involved dealing with employees, with the most difficult being under-performing or poor performing employees. Problems with performance can be common among relatively low-wage, service sector workers. I imagine that Taco Bell’s floating managers devote a good deal of effort to “employee issues.” However, my experience suggests that teams are usually quite capable of disciplining team members who hamper teamwork.

Because of the potential for cost-savings and increased employee satisfaction, I would expect more retailers to adopt this model. What are your thoughts?

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