A couple of weeks ago in Karmakonsum
, a German blog for eco fair life style and economy, I came across Ricardo Semler and SEMCO – the incredibly successful Brazilian company that is directed mostly by its workers and employees since the 1980es. How did I not discover it earlier? Now that I have read Semler´s book „Maverick“ from 1993, I have found a lot of good things to learn for companies who want to get really agile and lean beyond software development departments.
At SEMCO they have proven it is possible to get rid of basically all kind of bureaucracy, if you start treating your employees as adults.
Written down process manuals are replaced by common sense, expanded knowledge, plus motivation to do your work in the best possible way to make your company succeed. Control and the needed to ask for permission for all kind of small things can be reduced to a minimum, from travel expenses to lunch invitations – if you just ask everybody to employ common sense, and have transparency on the numbers. Transparency is an important part of the SEMCO miracle. All employees and workers have full knowledge of revenue and expenses. This allows them to take meaningful decisions in factory committees, about what to change to get more efficient and make the customers happier. They are also fixing their own wages and hiring their managers. Hey, managers, getting scared now?
Of course such a company also needs leaders. But being leader there is not a question of status and privileges. They do not expect big personal offices and secretaries, but are just full of new ideas and ask nasty questions.
One important human organization principle that the company leaders adopted is keeping the units small: one plant or sub-company should not be bigger than 150 people. Pretty interesting, that Dave Snowdon gave the same number in his ALE2011 keynote asan evolution-built-in human constant for the size of a group a human will be able to identify with.
Democracy and open communication define the SEMCO identity rather than saying they agree in this or that business. There is a lot we can learn from them, if we are brave and fearless. Starting at a huge company may not be as easy, as there are politics around on many levels, and dragons.
What seems more promising to me is starting at a small or mid sized company, where the existing amount of process is not so overwhelming. First I would inspire lean and Agile principles. Software developers are often open to democratic principles, and shop floor workers often already know and apply a few lean methods nowadays. If we then start to engage teams of software and hardware developers, scientists, workers and sales people in how to build better products for the customers, our how to make design or production more efficient, they will sparkle with new ideas.
As people are learning together and get a broader view on the company’s goals and the boundary conditions, they can make good improvement proposals. Then step by step some of them will learn to see the whole, at least to have a bigger interest in the company’s business, and feel responsible for making their work more efficient.
Another book I have read recently is „Delivering Happiness“ from Tony Hsieh, which will get its own blog post: learning how to really, really have company values and use them in daily life.