How to Develop a Strong Sense of Ownership in QRM Cells

Dr. Charlene Yauch, QRM Center Director
Dr. Charlene Yauch, QRM Center Director

January 2021

I recently read a paper about how increased psychological ownership of a public good (like a lake or a park) increases the likelihood of engaging in stewardship behavior for that good.1

Psychological ownership is a feeling that you have a personal interest in the care of and performance of the ownership target (which can be an object, organization, physical space, etc.), and that the target’s performance reflects upon your identity.  It is a mental attachment to the target.  A key finding of the research paper was that developing a feeling of ownership increases perceived responsibility, which leads to active behavior to care for the public good.  The research also found that if a large number of people are considered to be mutually responsible, referred to as diffusion of responsibility, then stewardship behavior decreases.

This got me thinking about the psychological aspects of working in Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) cells.  One of the key changes that occurs for employees is that they are given ownership of the cell’s operations and are expected to work as a team to make decisions.  Part of the improved performance in cells can be attributed to the psychological changes that occur in people.  In the QRM Center’s workshops, we often tell the story of Ziggy.  He was a shop-floor employee at a manufacturing firm, and he had frequent problems with absenteeism and tardiness and a poor attitude.  When the company asked for volunteers for their first QRM cell, the managers hoped for anyone but Ziggy.  And, then Ziggy volunteered.  Not only to work in the cell but also to serve as the cell leader.  And, what they discovered was a miraculous transformation.  Ziggy embraced the new way of working.  He felt ownership for the cell and therefore acted responsibly.  He showed up for work early and stayed late.  He became a highly productive employee and was a good cell leader.

So, is that all it takes?  Is it sufficient to reorganize employees into cells?  Not quite, but it’s a big part of it.  The cell automatically decreases the diffusion of responsibility.  In addition to creating QRM cells, here are some suggestions for ensuring that employees take on a feeling of ownership.

  • Ensure that the cell teams are not too big.  I recommend a maximum of 12 people, and most cells should have 3 to 9 people.  As team size increases, communication becomes more difficult and responsibility becomes more diffused.  Larger teams are also more likely to break into cliques.
  • Before the cell is implemented, get input from the cell team on technical decisions such as equipment selection, cell layout, and batch sizes.  The cell team should not dictate the decisions made at this stage, but their input and involvement will greatly accelerate their sense of ownership.
  • When the cell is first starting, allow the team to name the cell (or give it a nickname), have them choose a cell color, and choose a team leader if one is going to be used.  This gives the cell team some initial practice in making group decisions and it helps to enhance their feelings of connectedness to the cell.
  • Also ask the team to make decisions about their work rules and norms.  To the extent possible, allow them to set their own hours and decide how much shift overlap there will be, provided they end up with sufficient weekly capacity.  Have the team document the norms to ensure everyone understands the expectations.
  • Determine the boundaries of the cell team’s authority.  Ownership does not mean that the cell members can do whatever they want.  Management should work closely with the cell team to define the limits of decisions that can be made by the team.
  • If autonomous teamwork is a new concept in your organization, hire a coach to assist with the cell startup activities.  The coach can moderate conflicts that may arise and assist both cell team members and managers at learning the norms for day-to-day operation.
  • As the cell begins operation, encourage the team to make improvements.  Allow them to devise better ways of moving products through the cell and avoiding any quality problems that occur (if any).  Implement those ideas that are within the scope of the previously defined boundaries.  Analyze ideas that require a greater investment or more involvement from other groups within the organization.  If ideas are ultimately rejected, be sure to provide feedback to the cell team about how the idea was evaluated and why it was rejected.
  • Finally, be extremely cautious about how managers or supervisors react when mistakes are made.  The team is likely to make an occasional mistake.  If the team is punished in any way, which could just be a reprimand from a supervisor, they are less likely to want to make decisions in the future.  Their sense of ownership will decline, along with their willingness to try new things and make performance improvements.  A better way to handle mistakes is to discuss them as a team and jointly develop potential solutions that can then be tested.  The trick in the discussion is to focus on the process/system and what can be improved to prevent similar mistakes in the future.  Avoid trying to place blame on one or more individuals.

Although it can be challenging to provide cell team members with a strong sense of ownership, it is well worth the effort.  The cell’s performance can improve dramatically in multiple ways, including increased throughput, fewer defects, and faster response times.

1.  Peck, J., Kirk, C.P., & Luangrath, A.W. (2020). Caring for the commons: Using psychological ownership to enhance stewardship behavior for public goods. Journal of Marketing, 1-17.