“There must be total freedom there,” some may think, regarding autonomous units of responsibility. However, that way of thinking is a mistake: the more autonomy you have, the greater your responsibility to ensure that operations run smoothly. This begins in your own area, and doesn’t stop there by any means…

Freedom and its limits

How does an autonomous system regulate itself?

“Can everyone here do or not do whatever they like?” The GAD staff still occasionally encounter this idea, even after over two years of practicing the culture of a learning organisation. And the answer is: No, of course everyone can’t simply do whatever they like; if that was the case, GUTMANN ALUMINIUM DRAHT GMBH wouldn’t be as economically successful as the EBITDA shows. So, taking them in order, what freedoms does a system of autonomously acting units offer, and what duties counterbalance those freedoms to an equal extent?

Many an outside observer attempts to pour cold water on the supposed self-certitude at GUTMANN ALUMINIUM DRAHT by asking critical questions about the limits of self-determination and personal responsibility: how does it work with holiday arrangements, with coordinating work processes or if the overall mood is critical? Can a community of people working together on the basis of the greater autonomy of each individual still cope with nerve-wracking situations involving partial clashes of interests? Where there’s no middle management to resolve frustrations about alleged or real injustices as it is expected to do? Such questions about the fly in the ointment are legitimate – in addition, they often provide food for thought and reflection amongst the staff.

At this point, it’s important to clear up a frequent misunderstanding: freedom, as it is understood by a learning organisation, could not be further from being a playground for satisfying one’s own needs. This freedom, which always follows the precept of economic efficiency first and foremost, is a challenging freedom that often demands more from people than a certainly more comfortable reliance on a fixed hierarchy: “I’ll just shift the responsibility to my immediate superior.” It’s precisely this attitude which no longer works here.

© Katharina Daniels, communications consultant

A company that does not function economically and is therefore unable to hold its own on the market will foreseeably cease to exist on the market. Every individual in the company thus faces the challenge of safeguarding the economic success and thus the future viability of the company, in keeping with their expertise and the associated field of responsibility. What happens if there are different views concerning the extent of that responsibility? More specifically: what happens if lazybones and shirkers put the overall success of everyone in the company at risk, in the mistaken belief that they can exploit this freedom to the full without designated supervisors? And think nothing of hurling a casual “You’ve got no authority over me anymore!” at alert colleagues who admonish the shirker?

This calls for the regulatory power of a self-managing team; what’s important here is the courage of individuals to point out the problems they see, and to shrug off the fear of being discredited as a “colleague from hell” – and the development of review mechanisms. The essential point here is a new approach to monitoring joint achievements and sabotaging factors that arises from the team. The essential point is the awareness of being personally responsible for ensuring that your own work and the overall success of the company are not brought into discredit by colleagues who want to take it easy on the hard work of others. We’ll go more deeply into the solutions that have been found by a wide-awake, alert body of staff in a future column.

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