Rl Wolfe: Implementing Self-Directed Teams.

Table of Content


The self-directed work team is an autonomous work unit capable of self-management. Such team has little need for direct supervision from managers; rather, the manager’s role is to meet the need of the team through the provision of resources, training and encouragement (Douglas & Gardner, 2004). The team is typically comprised of 5 to 15 members who are responsible for performing and managing all or most aspect of a set of interdependent work tasks (Yeatts and Hyten, 1998).

In order to overcome the competitive challenge for production efficiency and effectiveness, organizations have focused on removing hierarchical layers, increasing employees’ involvement, and pushing the decision process to a lower level within the organization. Self-directed work teams are among the most popular forms of organizational redesign in the US in recent times. Organizations with self-directed teams have reported significant improvement in productivity, work quality and returns on investment (Garvin, 1997).

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This may be explained by the observation that employees of self-managing group tend to define their work role as contributors to the groups primary task rather than in relation to one specific job. This paper is designed to analyze the implementation of a self-directed team model and discuss the impact of this approach on the productivity of RL Wolfe’s plastic pipe manufacturing plant in Corpus Christi, TX. It will also critically analyze the role of communication in implementing the self-directed team model and how management of the company dealt with the conflict situation inherent in the approach.


RJ Wolfe is a privately held plastic pipe manufacturing company with headquarters in Houston. In 2003, RJ Wolfe purchased Moon Plastics, a small customs plastic manufacturer in Corpus Christi, TX. This plant uses plastic extrusion to produce polyethylene pipes for the natural gas and oil industry. It was retooled in 2004 with a design capacity of 2,250 tons of high-density polyethylene pipes per year, runs four extrusion lines 24 hours a day over three shift, and presently operates at about 80% of design capacity, John Amasi is the director of production and engineering of the company.

He has been interested in Self-Directed Team (SDT) model for several years, and felt there was an opportunity to implement the SDT model at the newly acquired and retooled plant in Corpus Christi. Amasi hope to boost workforce efficiency, and increase productivity to 95% of design capacity by creating semi-autonomous workforce teams to run the plant. Transitioning to a Self-Directed Work Force: Establishing a self-directed work team in an organization requires a balancing act to accommodate the shift in power and responsibility occurring between managers and team members (Douglas & Gardner, 2004).

The behavior of the leader will facilitate the development of high level of team empowerment which is vital to the transition from a traditional management model to a self-directed model (Kirkman and Rosen, 2000). The SDT implementation team comprising John Amasi, the managers of RL Wolfe’s Austin, TX, Columbus, OH and Corpus Christi, TX plants met to address the job definition, hiring, team setup and responsibilities and role of the coordinator.

  • Job Definition: Two job levels were created for the workers on the factory floor.
  • Hiring: SDT model require workers with the diverse skill sets, and ability to work on flexible job assignments in the plant. Job interviews were structured to identify and recruit workers that are good at problem solving, ready to learn, adaptable, have organizing skills and demonstrate initiatives. In all, 90 workers were hired including 20 workers from Moon Plastic Plant.
  • Team Setup and Responsibilities: The SDT model anticipate that workers would view the production process as an aggregate of interdependent job functions that are equally responsible for the quality of the final product. Two teams of 12 – 15 people were set up for each shift. The workers are rotated through all the jobs in the factory at regular intervals, thus ensuring all workers fully understand the production process.
  • Role of the Coordinator: The coordinator of a SDT will serve various roles based on the need of the team. These roles may include acting as a directive leader, a coach, a supportive leader and as a delegating leader. The coordinator provides the team with resources and information required for decision making.


RL Wolfe operates two other plants with unionized workforce. The union contracts at these plants have workers in two divisions: production and maintenance. The maintenance personnel were paid a higher wage than production personnel, and workers lack the flexibility to work across divisions even when simple intervention would prevent shut down of the extrusion line.

Conflict between the line operators and maintenance workers occurs when there is equipment breakdown. Often there is disagreement on the cause of the problem and the best way to resolve it. Lack of communication between the two teams breeds resentment and discourage cooperation that is essential for efficient plant operation. Absenteeism is a serious problem in RL Wolfe plants. This is rampant among the third shift maintenance workers. They are absent from work at a rate that is 20% and 35% higher at the Austin and Columbus plants respectively that at comparable plants.

Other issues encountered in the SDT implementation process revolve around personnel management and plant policy.

  1. A fairly high turnover of floor workers lead to frequent changes in team membership, with negative impact on team cohesion and decision-making ability.
  2. Performance evaluation became more difficult because the coordinators are not very knowledgeable of the workers job functions.
  3. Because management chose not to set a hard boundary for the SDT’s decision making powers, there was conflict when the plant manager refused to cede control of production goals, pay, and benefits to the team.


Fundamental changes occur to the structure of an organization that is transitioning from a traditional management model to a self-directed team management model. The structural change combined with changes in influence strategy affects the perceived form and function of communication within the organization (Douglas, 2006). In order to ensure a clear path for the implementation of the SDT model in the new plant, Amasi’s first step was to seek approval of the company’s board of directors to offer the worker’s union a concession on health care coverage.

The decision by Amasi to communicate with the workers’ union, and respond to their demand changed the dynamic of the relationship between the union and management. This strategy had a positive effect on the perception of the union, and help cleared the path for what became known as “Corpus Christi experiment”. Having conceded to management for the workers of the new plant to be non-unionized, the union workers of RL Wolfe’s two other plant succeeded in preventing Amasi from paying higher wages to workers in the new plant.

A higher wage structure for non-unionized workers of the same company would be an incentive for workers to opt-out of union membership, and ultimately weaken collective bargaining powers of the union. A positive communication relationship characterized by trust, mutual respect and openness between superiors and subordinates as well as among team mates should be present in a collaborative work environment (Kets de Vries, 2005). The assumptions and expectations of implementing the Self-directed work team model were achieved with successes in some areas and disappointments in others.

The job definition issues caused disruptions and initially got workers confused. However, this was resolved by implementing recommendations from the team members and coordinators. This resolution was evidence of the positive communication relationship between the team and coordinators. Although a few factory floor employees were discharged for various reasons, most SDTs in the new plant eventually took ownership of quality improvement and safety issues.The collaborative work environment and open communication among the teams has increased ideas generation for process improvements, and productivity is at a record high at the new plant compared to other plants of the company.

In conclusion, the implementation of Self-directed team model in the Corpus Christi plant of RL Wolfe has practical implication for work group design, training and team development as well as the productivity of the plant. Kauffeld 2006) argued that management strategies aimed at enhancing team competence and improved productivity could include self-directed work teams, and that the design of competent teams must start with identifying and validating work characteristics that are related to team competence.


  1. Douglas, C. , & Gardner, W. L. (2004). Transition to self-directed work teams: implications of transition time and self-monitoring for managers’ use of influence tactics. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25(1), 47-65.
  2. Yeatts, D. E. , & Hyten, C. (1998). High-performing self-managed work teams: A comparison of theory to practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Kirkman, B. L. , & Rosen, B. (2000). Powering Up Teams. Organizational Dynamics, 28(3), 48-66.
  4. Douglas, C. (2006). Communication in the Transition to Self-Directed Work Teams. Journal of Business Communication, 43(4), 295-321.
  5. Kauffeld, S. (2006). Self-directed work groups and team competence. Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 79(1), 1-21.
  6. Kets de Vries, M. F. R. (2005). Leadership group coaching in action: The Zen of creating high performance teams. Academy of Management Executive, 19(1), 61-76.

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