The Fresh Produce Company specialises in wholesale auctioning to the retail fruit and vegetable trade. The company has two big sales each week, on Mondays and Thursdays; the sales on the other days are much smaller. To enable the sale to start at 8am on Monday and Thursday much work has to be done on the previous day. For this reason Fresh Produce opens from 4pm to 7pm on Sundays and Wednesdays. This enables the bulk of the vegetables to be on the floor, ready for selling the following morning.
The company hires extra staff five university students on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Kevin, a permanent employee, is in charge and has been part of the team for six months. Kevin does not really get along with the others, but this seems to be his choice, rather than rejection by the rest.
Before Kevin arrived things were going well. The workers liked their work and generally did a good job. The job was basically unloading trucks using wheel barrows. The first sign of trouble appeared about three months after Kevin arrived. There were two workers on a job one night when there was little work to do. They took their time and talked more than usual. Kevin walked up to them and said: “I’ve never seen the work done so fast!” The two students got back to work, but the other workers felt that Kevin was being unreasonable, considering it was a slack night. From here on things went from bad to worse.
After this incident, the only communication that took place between Kevin and the others was when he gave essential orders.
Kevin’s aim was to have a productive and efficient work team, with the workers concentrating fully on the job. Kevin decided to put into action two ideas that he thought would improve the standard of work. He tried to cut the talking between the workers to a minimum, because he thought chatting was counter-productive to achieving objectives.
However, when Kevin was not around, the workers were constantly talking, and it seemed to improve their performance on the job. Kevin did not like the fact that workers felt there was nothing they could do while waiting for trucks to arrive, and they were quite happy to gather in the staff room. However, when a truck arrived they went down quickly to unload it. Kevin’s solution was to get the workers busy on “stamping and writing up” which, in the past, had always been done the following morning.
As a result of Kevin’s measures, the workers barely got a chance to talk to each other for the whole three hours. If they did, they would soon hear Kevin yell “shut up”. The workers also disliked the way Kevin had stopped their “talk and coffee” breaks. They resented this, especially when they knew that there was more than enough time for the permanent staff to do stamping and writing up the next morning.
Kevin was sure that his “efficient” attitude to the work would increase productivity and perhaps even allow the company to close half an hour early. However, the work was now taking longer to do. The workers went about the job with long faces, and no amount of prompting from Kevin could make them work any faster. Kevin even replaced one of the workers, but this seemed to have no effect on the others.
Kevin could not understand why the team seemed to reject him and why productivity was actually falling. He was sure that if his methods could be applied the job would be done faster and more efficiently. It might even result in cost savings for the company, due to the stamping and writing up being done on Sunday night, not next morning, and by closing early some nights.
Almost every Sunday and Wednesday night the company closed at least half an hour late. Closing late made the workers unhappy and compounded the problem. As a result, total costs for Sunday nights started to go up. The company was paying overtime rates, so it was extremely concerned. Complaints also started coming from growers about the declining level of service they were getting on these nights. It was after these complaints that Kevin’s supervisor asked to see him.
What has Kevin done wrong? What organisational principles has he violated? The work group, excluding Kevin, is highly cohesive. Why then is it not also highly productive?
Thanks to Stanley Petzall of the school of management at Deakin University for permission to use this material, which comes from his publication on management case studies.
Proposed solution #1
The best kind of leaders develop trust and commitment, and Kevin has done the opposite
Dr Samir R. Chatterjee is Associate Professor of Management at Curtin Business School. He has been involved in senior-level management education for more than 25 years in Australia, the United States, Japan, India, Singapore and several other countries. He has fellowships from the Australian Institute of Management and the Australian Society of CPAs.
The key problem at Fresh Produce is one of team effectiveness. The university students are “thinking” individuals who could not only collaborate and add value to the fresh-food operations, but could also become agents of process and quality improvements in the operations area by their capacity for breakthrough thinking.
The newly appointed supervisor Kevin is trying to gain an efficiency increase by focusing only on process routines at the expense of skill (providing practical tools that may enhance the process). In addition, he has not paid attention to the individual or group attitude that gives people confidence to become involved as contributors. He has also not tapped into the knowledge levels of the university students.
What has Kevin done wrong?
Kevin’s mistake stems from a lack of understanding that the experience of work is highly satisfying to people when they are members of a high-performing team. In this case, it seems that the five university students are working together in maintaining the team culture. The team maintenance depends on how the members feel about their jobs and how clearly they understand their “roles” in contributing to goal achievement. Before Kevin’s arrival they seem to have had a basic but useful culture of resolving conflict and a general understanding of purpose. Kevin’s arrival three months ago has marked a glaring “de-emphasising” of the maintenance culture and the introduction of an emphasis on tasks. He has chosen to isolate himself from the group and has made no effort to gain their approval and involvement. He has not tried to tap into the group’s existing strengths, such as cohesiveness, by extending informal communication. Instead, he destroyed this cohesiveness by discouraging informal interactions.
What organisational principles have been violated?
A team leader needs to take responsibility for performance. Kevin obviously has not conceptualised his role. He is more focused on the “efficiency” of the process and not on the overall outcome. Even if the team has the capacity for self-management, it still needs a leader. The best kind of leaders develop trust and commitment, and Kevin has done the opposite. Developing trust and informal bonding is important when a group is moderate to high in cohesiveness.
Kevin’s priorities must be to:
- Focus his attention on the overall team performance.
- Understand and explain the interdependence of team members.
- Encourage and join in the informal communication.
- Understand that the university students may have the potential to contribute beyond their simple task roles.
- Initiate some team-based rewards in recognition of the essential work culture at Fresh Produce.
Kevin’s “efficiency” effort is becoming counterproductive because, first, a cohesive group needs a far more mature team leader than a non-cohesive group. Second, his “mechanistic” approach is inappropriate for this group of students and the job of handling fresh food.
His first priority is to provide a common working approach to the issues surrounding procurement, categorisation, pricing, floor arrangement, maintenance of the freshness, customer relations and logistics, etc. This is not possible without a clear process of involvement, problem-solving, work-plan and feedback. He needs to involve the group in terms of who is delivering what by when. His best practice needs to be based not on rules but on people matching the tasks at hand. Kevin needs to think and act in a way that clears roadblocks to the work approaches articulated and accepted by the team. He should encourage learning about the work from each other and from the feedback of customers and suppliers.
Kevin needs to create a “big picture” to satisfy this group’s need to know, as to what is going on in terms of special needs of farmers and customers.
Skills needed by Kevin:
- Analytical Skills. Kevin has not shown any in breaking down the issues relating to his concepts of efficiency. He has not collected and thought through any data.
- Process Skills. Kevin needs to be trained in group facilitation and team building.
Before Kevin’s arrival three months ago, the part-time workers were able to perform their tasks in the time allocated. Instead of leveraging on this strength and building on the positive attitude, Kevin has created a management process redesign that is working against performance. He has no clear performance goals, he has also not gained enough familiarity with the people to allocate right people to right jobs. There is nothing in his plan that improves commitment and communication. Indeed, he has created the opposite, and the company is in danger of increased cost, poor performance and deterioration of work attitude.
Proposed solution #2
Michael Rutherford is South Australian Training and Development Manager for Davids Limited. He is part of a local HR team based at Kidman Park in Adelaide, and is a member of the Davids national training team responding to corporate goals and local needs.
Before casting Kevin as the villain, we must acknowledge the shared responsibility of other players in this scenario.
Kevin’s supervisor. Where was this person throughout the whole affair? There was little care in selecting a team leader who could communicate effectively, lead others and manage difficulties. Once Kevin was appointed, there was no apparent monitoring of his performance, development of his skills, or support.
Other Managers. Work practices in Fresh Produce seem to lack system or rigor. Where are the SOPs? Why is the cyclical variation in busy time and downtime being left to a team leader to challenge? Where is the support for Kevin when he tries to initiate change by having stamping and writing-up done during quiet times? Why the “staff room retreat” when work is quiet? What support structures and staff (for example, employee relations) have been provided?
The team members. Why haven’t they tried to build bridges? Given that they were together before Kevin joined them, how welcoming have they been? How unreasonable are they in retreating to the staff room? How much are they to blame for obstructing change?
Kevin himself. Despite the contributions of others, Kevin is at the core of the problem. His failings include:
- Trying to effect change without a clear plan, without gaining support, and without communicating clearly the “why”. Then remaining convinced he was correct.
- Directing rather than coaching or supporting his team.
- Concentrating on task, rather than team and individual needs.
- Communicating poorly: yelling, being sarcastic, engaging only in formal conversation with his team.
One hopes that the managers have been sufficiently “stung” by customer complaints and spiralling overtime costs to evaluate ways in which they can prevent this occurring again. But before that, the present problems have to be dealt with.
Replace Kevin. Perhaps no amount of training and support can make him the right person for the job. He is meeting passive resistance, and conflict is close at hand. However, he deserves to be relocated.
Carefully select a new team leader. A specific role and person specification is required. Does the team need a permanent employee as an external leader? Can they manage themselves?
Monitor and support the new team leader. Assuming that someone is appointed, they ought to be inducted into the position, have their performance regularly reviewed (formally and informally), and be provided with timely training and development. Particular attention should be paid to:
- Communication skills.
- Developing team commitment and co-operation.
- Motivating others.
- Managing and developing team performance.
- Developing trust and confidence.
- Understanding behavior.
Revising work practices. Many of Kevin’s problems stemmed from disorganisation at the company level. By implementing some sound quality practices (or extending existing systems to influence human resources), improvements could be made to:
- Performance management from recruiting, through to monitoring, training, career path planning, correcting poor performance, disciplinary and grievance procedures.
- Job enrichment, for example, self- managed tasks, wider responsibilities, a more pleasant work environment.
- Reviewing current jobs and producing standard operating procedures, perhaps compiled with clearly articulated targets.
- Implementing improved consultation and participation strategies that enable difficulties to be aired, problems to be identified, and more effective communication between managers and staff.
- Revising overtime practices, and exploring ways in which incentives and rewards can be used to raise morale and productivity.
The future. Fresh Produce is like many small and medium enterprises. It focuses on a product (or service), and measures itself by the amount “pushed out the door” each day. In this case, it runs a real risk of self-destructing from within, and failing to deliver quality.