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How I learned to let my workers lead.


Ralph Stayer

In the era of 1980’s, Ralph Stayer owned a successful, growing

sausage company that had him inadequately nervous. The reason was
that Commitment was poor, motivation was down and the difference
between performance and potential was colossal. Over the next five
years, Stayer turned the company upside down, but only by turning
himself upside down firstly. Four years he had control of company in
his own hands, made all decisions, and delegated nothing. But when
he tried to view what the company would have to look like to sell the
most expensive sausage with enjoy the biggest market share, he
found that an organization whose employees took responsibility for
their own work. After several mistakes at the start, he finally began in
a serious way by making himself give up much of his own authorities.
Stayer bowed quality control over to the workers on the production
line. As the result Workers also began answering letters of complaint
from customers. Rate of Rejection went from 5% to 0.5%. It elaborates
that the way that he was able to help change the company culture
from one where he made all the decisions and took all responsibility to
one where everyone in the company was involved in decision making,
resulting in a more successful organization. In the interesting early
parts of the article it is stated that how the problems created are all
about the fault of the author who is the CEO of the company:

“I started by searching for a book that would tell me how to get

people to care about their jobs and their company”.
It is stated that there is something which is very easy to forget and we
probably end up placing too much emphasis on the individual and
forget the whole context in which they are operating. For example, it’s
much easier to execute well working in a team in an organization
which really buys into the agile/lean way of doing things than it is in
one with a strong culture, a tendency to favor the big up front
approach and a culture where politics and politics and bureaucracy
are predominant. Another interesting surveillance is that his
employees were so involved to him solving their problems that even
when given permission to solve problems they struggled to do so.

In organization there were good soldiers, and they always tries to do

their best, but I had trained them to expect from me to resolve their
problems. I had nurtured their inability by expecting them to be
powerless; now they met my expectations with an inability to make
decisions unless they knew which decisions I wanted them to realize. I
wonder if this explains why, when you try to work in a lively way with
a team which is used to a strict hierarchy then they will initially find it
difficult to challenge any decision and solve their own problems by
their own. This links well with another thing I have noticed as I was
reading the article - it takes a long time to change a whole system.
The article covers a period of near about 5 years and still there is
more that can be done to make the organization even better than
before. Another good change is that we don’t need to have a grand
plan in order to initiate the change – we can just do it.

These system changes trained me two more valuable lessons; First,

just start, Don’t wait until you have all the answers, if I had waited
until I had all the answers, I’d still be waiting. A grand plan was
impossible, I just knew I had to change something in order to alter
expectations and begin moving toward my goal. I wanted coordinators
who could build problem-solving capacities in others rather than solve
their problems for them…I took every opportunity to manage stress
the need for coaching skills, whenever someone became a
coordinator, I made sure that the promotion was for demonstrated
abilities as a teacher, coach, and facilitator. This new promotion
standard sent a new message: to get ahead at Johnsonville, you need
a talent for cultivating and encouraging problem solvers and
responsibility takers. The problem with working is that you encourage
the wrong behavior but equally we need to ensure that it is safe to fail
otherwise people will be terrified to make the wrong decision. In
software we can design this into the system by ensuring that we have
tight feedback loops and by automating out the possibility of human
error. Another observation which I imagine is fairly familiar to anyone
working in software development as the following: In our early
enthusiasm; we had played down the technical aspects of our
business, encouraging everyone to become a coordinator, even those
who were far better suited to technical specialties. A career team
recommended that Johnsonville set up dual career tracks — one for
specialists and one for coordinators that would enable both to earn
recognition, status, and compensation on the basis of performance

Employees thrived on their new responsibility and asked for more.

Gradually, people on the shop floor took over personnel functions as
well, followed by scheduling, budgeting, and capital improvements.
Managers came to function more as coaches than as bosses. Stayer--a
little to his own disappointment--began to find himself superfluous. In
mid-1985, the company faced a watershed decision--whether or not to
accept a massive new order that would make huge demands on every
employee and strain the company's capacities. Stayer asked the
employees to make the decision. They accepted the challenge, and
productivity, profits, and quality all rose dramatically. By the late
1980s, Stayer had reached his goal of working himself out of a job.

Stayer ends with some interesting ideas on improving performance in

organizations of which the stand out points for me were:

• People want to be great. If they aren’t, it’s because

management won’t let them to be.
• Learning is a process, not a goal. Each new insight creates a
new layer of potential insights.

He also introduced a learning and personal development team to help

employees improve themselves which seems like an interesting idea
and one I hadn’t thought about before. The traditional personnel
department disappeared and was replaced by a learning and personal
development team to help individual employees develop their own
Points B and A — their destinations and starting points respectively —
and figure out how to use Johnsonville to reach their goals. The
summary of his learning’s is perhaps the most insightful though; I’ve
learned that change is the real job of every effective business leader
because change is about the present and the future, not about the
past. There is no end to change. This story is only an interim report.
This is the idea of continuous improvement that lean thinking
encourages us to embrace – it’s all about the journey and not the