The Big Tomato: 5 Reasons To Consider Self-Management In Your Organization

Recently, a group of international business people and consultants met to learn about the principles and implementation of self-management at Morning Star’s Liberty tomato processing plant in central California. Yes, tomatoes. We witnessed an incredibly sophisticated, environmentally sensitive, operation of people and technology that produces above industry average profits, pay, and quality. And they have no managers or titles. To most of us this seems incomprehensible and being a doubting Thomas, I had to see for myself.

It’s very real. Some of the basic principles:

• No coercion or force with others
• Honor your commitments and re-negotiate when it becomes necessary
• No titles except “colleague”
• People are most productive when they have autonomy
• Focus on accountability including the impact of your behavior on others.
• Lack of focus on profitability or growth for either’s sake – the emphasis is on perfection
• Bring your concerns to the person with whom you have the concern and abandon the unilateral authority to fire people

It was clear that the world of Morning Star is imperfect, but the commitment to the basic principles developed 25 years ago is relentless. It’s an inspiring, living constitution in which Morning Star colleagues have faith.

The reasons for the rest of us to consider embracing self-management principles include:

  • A compelling focus on principles can yield remarkable results for everyone. They are in your organizational DNA whether you want them or not, so why not have principles that make sense for everyone?
  • Titles and structure can hinder the very leadership performance you seek to encourage. If your titles and structure went away would the senior managers you have today be chosen to have a leadership role if everyone were free to choose?
  • Relying on individual autonomy and accountability does not necessarily lead to chaos. In fact, quite the opposite. But isn’t that the rationale we use today to justify hierarchical organizational structures that have existed for over a century?
  • If we refrain from using the coercion of managerial rank to enforce behavior, we allow people to be accountable and freely choose how to support success. What is the terrible thing that will happen if we refrain from force?
  • When you hone your mission and performance in a self-managed enterprise you eliminate much unnecessary bureaucracy and wasted effort. In Morning Star’s example, the HR department has largely vanished but the essential elements (e.g. health insurance) are still managed to the colleague’s benefit. And they pay better than their competitors. Isn’t that what HR is supposed to accomplish?

During a dinner conversation with Paul Green, Jr., one of the colleagues at Morning Star’s Self-Management Institute, he posed the question: would you try today’s typical management practices with your family? Would you write your wife up for not feeding the kids on time? Of course not. The metaphor of a healthy family has some application in a healthy and productive organization. Is it possible that the distance that we’ve put between ourselves and our colleagues is at least embarrassing, and at best, a powerful reason to behave differently in the future?