MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa — The workers at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant have found out they can get along just fine without bosses.
For the past two years, the plant has been run by "self-directed" work groups made up of the 150 or so employees who make industrial and automotive rubber hoses.
It has been a successful experiment, says plant manager Robert Becker, one that is being used at other Goodyear plants.
"There was just dissatisfaction with the way things were done," Becker said. "This plant used to have traditional supervisors."
"Basically it was a parent-child relationship. You know, the old 'I'm the boss and you do what I say.' "
Becker said that approach was not popular with employees, several of whom were attending nearby Iowa Wesleyan College.
"I think what really happened was, as the education level and expectations of our employees grew, the workplace wasn't keeping up with their ability to function in that workplace," he said.
In 1984, the company decided to launch a "supervisorless team" made up of "people that all had that can-do, a little bit of rebels, the people that were really the free spirits," said Becker.
The experiment, which stresses more employee involvement in the running of plant operations, was considered so successful that three more work teams were formed over the next two years.
Instead of having middle-level management positions, such as production managers and floor supervisors, each work team chooses a "coordinator" who brings to Becker the group's ideas and complaints.
"The challenge we make to every person is: Don't ever put that coordinator in the position of being an old supervisor," he said. "You're not fulfilling your responsibility as an employee if you put that guy in a supervisory mode."
The self-directed work teams may appear to mirror the way some Japanese companies run their operations, but Becker and officials at company headquarters in Akron, Ohio, said the idea is not the result of Japanese philosophy.
"As far as we're concerned, it's an evolution of what needed to be done in an American factory," Becker said. "It had nothing to do with the Japanese way of doing things."
Becker, who has been plant manager for about a year since moving from Lincoln, Neb., said production has increased more than 40% since 1985. Absenteeism and accidents have declined during that time, he said.
In Goodyear's headquarters, Bill Fair, director of public relations for the company, and Mike Burns, director of organization development, said many of the company's 48 plants in North America are "embracing the system in varying degrees."
"We think we have a very successful system at Mount Pleasant. It's on the leading edge of all the systems," said Burns. "The Mount Pleasant plant, overall, is considered a good plant."
Fair said employees at Mount Pleasant and at other Midwest plants, such as in Hannibal, Mo., have adopted "an entrepreneurial attitude" as a result of the work teams. "They view themselves as managing their own jobs," he said.
Becker said it goes beyond that, however.
"We operate on the principal of trust and mutual respect. We trust that our employees will do what is expected of them, what is right, what is fair," he said.
"Fairness is the principal. If you violate that trust, we don't give second chances."
The system has made employees more than clock punchers, he said.
"They really have a fierce sense of ownership of this plant," he said. "They have a fierce sense of loyalty here in Mount Pleasant."