When the pirate set out to change their world, they had no models to follow. They were the pioneers and their ideas inspired and guided others. It’s not an accident that the American and French revolutions that followed also spoke of freedom, equality and brotherhood that was at the core of the Pirate Code. Several years later the co-operative movement sprang from the very same Welsh valleys that many pirate came from, taking their ideas of mutuality and self-help into a new realm.
Fortunately for us, there are already some pioneers who are showing how you can decrapify work and create a workplace that enables people to thrive and use their talents to the full, for the benefit of everyone. These are the Treasure Maps we can use find our own riches. These are the stories that we can weaponise to argue that it doesn’t have to be this way, that by doing things differently was can create good work for all, thriving organisations and strong communities.
I’ve picked some of my favourites to summarise here, so that you have some ‘tall tales’ at your fingertips (although, as I’ve said, there’s no need to embellish them, just tell them clearly and forcefully). There are plenty of sources with more information about these and other companies and I’ve provided some links in the Resources section if you want to dig deeper.
So here are the Treasure Maps I’ve chosen.
Buurtzorg is a community healthcare organisation in the Netherlands that has become known as an example of self-management at its finest and as a TEAL organisation. Its story in certainly inspiring and shows how a different approach can really be more powerful.
Community healthcare in the Netherlands, as in the UK, had been subjected to the worst excesses of a focus on efficiency over effectiveness and on process over people. In the name of profit maximisation, the work of the community nurses had been broken down into discrete tasks, each of which was allocated a time. Nurses where given a work schedule of tasks and locations and a time they were expected to complete them in. The consequences of this were that the patients experienced highly fragmented care, with a procession of nurses coming to them to carry out discrete tasks, without any continuity and without any time for caring. The nurses, on the other hand, were driven to exhaustion running around to complete their tasks in the allotted time and had no time for human connection with their patients. It was a kind of madness that served neither patient of nurse but was driven by the needs of the process.
Jos de Bloc worked as a nurse and was fed up with this and so he decide to do it differently. He formed a company and won a contract to deliver community care in a small area. Jos knew that the nurses were more than capable of organising their own work and wanted to put the patient needs at the centre of that work. They wanted to return to the way they used to do their job, spending time with patients, getting to understand their needs and integrating their care with the community around them. He formed an initial team of 12 and they resolved to work differently. They jointly agreed what their purpose was and then set about organising their work as they saw fit.
They showed that this approach was far more effective as they could provide service 40% cheaper than that ‘conventional’ approach and with much better patient outcomes and faster recovery. As word spread, nurses approached them wanting to join and so they began to expand, setting up more teams of nurses and taking on new districts.
One of the keys to Buurtzorg’s success is that they are highly connected through their intranet. All the nurses are able to contact each other and to participate in company wide conversations, such as the continuing one around purpose. They are able to share expertise, to collaborate on new projects and to suggest new initiatives for the company to pursue.
Buurtzorg has now expanded to cover 40% of the market for community care in the Netherlands, and are also expanding internationally. They now employ over 1500 nurses but because they are self-organising, the central office function remains less than 50. They have minimised the bureaucracy because they trust the people to do the right thing and give them the power to do it themselves.
You have probably never heard of Morning Star. They are a tomato processing business in the southern states of the USA, who provide 40% of the tomato paste for pizzas in the US. They have a large number of sub-contractors and a big seasonal workforce (those tomatoes don’t pick themselves), which is not unusual for an agricultural business. However, what is remarkable about Morning Star is the way that they organise themselves. They have rejected the conventional command-and-control approach and use self-management instead.
Morning Star have a linear business process, with different people responsible for each step. Rather than trying to manage this through a central planning process, the owners of each step are responsible for negotiating agreements with the people responsible for the steps before and after theirs. Every year this process creates ‘Letters of Undertaking’ between all the parties and together this covers the entirety of the production process.
This allows each owner of a process step to use their own judgement, local knowledge and relationships to get the best agreement and to dynamically repond to any changes on the ground that occur during the year (as they inevitably will in a business dependant on weather and temporary contractors). This gives Morning Star both resilience and adaptability, as well as engaging the people involved at every stage.
I love this company because they truly have a people-centred business. Their stated purpose is ‘the stewardship of our people’ and their CEO, Bob Chapman, extols an approach he calls ‘True Leadership’.
Despite not having the usual focus on profits and productivity, Barry Wehmiller is not only successful and profitable but growing too. It operates in a very conventional market, high end production engineering, but has a very unconventional approach to business.
Whilst still quite hierarchical in structure, the way they lead is through conversation and dialogue based on trust and respect. They don’t have meeting or reporting structures, the managers are expected to know what is going on because they are in constant contact with the people they lead. Bob Chapman himself has between 400 and 600 1-2-1, face-to-face meetings every year and he expects every other leader to do the same.
Haier started out as a state-owned refrigerator manufacturer and has grown into a major white-goods maker with global spread and a highly progressive organisational structure and culture.