Rl Wolfe: Implementing Self-Directed Teams

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REV: DECEMBER 15, 2009


RL Wolfe: Implementing Self-Directed Teams
On a clear day in May 2007, John Amasi looked down on the city of Corpus Christi, Texas, as his plane approached the airport. As director of Production and Engineering at RL Wolfe—a $350M privately held plastic pipe manufacturer headquartered in Houston, Texas—he was looking forward to visiting the company’s plant in the city. Four years previously, in 2003, when RL Wolfe had purchased Moon Plastics—a small, familyowned custom plastics manufacturer in Corpus Christi—Amasi had seen an opportunity to implement self-directed teams (SDTs) at the new plant. He had been interested in SDTs for several years, since taking a business school executive education course on workforce motivation and team structures. Amasi had been intrigued by reports of 30% to 40% improvements in productivity and quality for SDT-run units, when compared with traditional manufacturing facilities, and returns on investment more than three times the industry average.1 Those reports had come from a variety of industries—food and beverage, consumer goods—but Amasi felt he saw evidence that he could use the SDT model to drive high productivity in a plastic pipe manufacturing plant. The Corpus Christi plant, once retooled and back online in 2004, had a design capacity of 2,250 tons of high-density polyethylene (PE) pipe per year. “High productivity,” in his view, was 95% or more of design capacity. Wolfe’s two other plastic pipe manufacturing plants were running at 65%-70% of design capacity. Amasi’s first step had been to gain the board of directors’ approval to approach the workers’ union and offer a long-sought concession in health care coverage to clear the path for what became known as “the Corpus Christi experiment.” The new plant would not be unionized, in contrast to Wolfe’s other two plants. His second step had been to lure 35-year-old Jay Winslow from Wolfe’s top competitor to become plant manager. When Amasi and Winslow sat down to design the work system, they both envisioned a flattened and simplified organizational hierarchy and committed work force with a high level of satisfaction in their work (see Exhibit 1 for background on the theory of self-directed teams). That commitment and 1 David A. Garvin, “Understanding Self-Managing Work Systems,” Technology and Operations Review, 1997.


HBS Professor David A. Garvin and Elizabeth Collins prepared this case solely as a basis for class discussion and not as an endorsement, a source of primary data, or an illustration of effective or ineffective management. This case, though based on real events, is fictionalized, and any resemblance to actual persons or entities is coincidental. There are occasional references to actual companies in the narration. Copyright © 2009 Harvard Business School Publishing. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685, write Harvard Business Publishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business Publishing. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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sense of ownership, they believed, would inspire the workers to continuously improve processes, thereby increasing productivity and quality. Now Amasi was on his way to tour the plant and talk with Winslow. He was a frequent visitor at the plant, eager to see firsthand whether SDTs could help him achieve and sustain high productivity in a plastics manufacturing plant. So far, the plant was running between 80% and 82% of...
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