Empowered Employee Teams: What is Old is New Again

It is always amusing when someone “discovers” a “new” management concept that has actually been around for a long time.

The concept I’m referring to is having teams of empowered employees – something that is fundamental to lean production and has been in place at Toyota and some other companies for years (and, in some cases, decades).

The most recent discovery of this concept has apparently been made by management guru Gary Hamel, who has written several books and for a good number of years has been widely considered a management expert.

His latest book is The Future of Management. I haven’t read it, or any of Hamel’s books, but I did hear him speak some years ago. He is a bright man, and I believe he does know what he is talking about.

That applies to his latest book, which was discussed in The New York Times. According to the article, written by William Holstein, the book focuses on three companies – Whole Foods, W.L. Gore & Associates, and Google – and their use of empowered employee teams.

Mr. Hamel argues that these innovative companies realize that employees should not be treated like 13-year-olds who need clear boundaries on their freedom. Employees are on the front lines and are often closest to customer needs. As a result, they should have power to reveal to their hierarchies what products and services are needed, and they should be involved in deciding how the company’s time and money are spent. Moreover, they should be pursuing a passion or a mission, not just quarterly profits.

The implication of all this is that we don’t need as many managers in organizations. Yes, we still need some managers and some centralized processes to prevent an organization from spinning wildly in all directions. But the best organizations will be those whose employees have the power to innovate, not just follow orders from on high, Mr. Hamel says. In such an environment, the notion of a whole class of managers evaluating and re-evaluating each action of those below them in a vertical hierarchy becomes nonsensical.

That’s a fine message, and one with which I certainly agree. But Gary Hamel is by no means the first person to deliver it.