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A Production Plant With Zero Hierarchy And Employees Who Set Their Own Hours

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar March 01, 2017

We sense a different atmosphere the moment we walk into the spacious and bright meeting room tiled with a local shell limestone. Looking out of the window we do not only see production halls but also a ZEN garden with waterfalls. The circle of chairs in the middle of the room catches our attention immediately. We are here to meet the managing director Paul Habbel, sales director Goran Nikolic, organizational development expert Michael Wolf and shift leader Tahir Ljiko. Actually we are wrong as all the titles are no longer valid in this company where all hierarchies have been removed. The manag

Gutmann Aluminium Draht

Gutmann Aluminium Draht (Gutmann) in Weissenburg, in the south of Germany, is a medium-sized business with 128 employees with a turnover of € 35 M and EBITDA of € 3.6 M in 2015. The company specializes in manufacturing aluminum bars and drawing wires. The company was founded in 1937 and faced difficult times in the 2008/2009 crises incl. job cuts. In 2010 Gutmann started with a unique approach with mindfulness and a community of individuals as its operating system. The figures (see table) prove that mindfulness & business-results can go hand in hand.

The atmosphere is somehow relaxed but focused and welcoming. We sit down in the circle of chairs. Circles are the key aspect of this organization. No tables. In the next six hours we experience a deep connection and open exchange on the “Gutmann Journey” to a more sense driven and people-oriented-organization. In addition we visit the production and talk to Tahir, a former shift leader. Astonishing: In these six hours we experience a “slowing-down to be efficient” where we are not disturbed by mobile phones or outside disturbances - just being here and now.

The journey towards self-development

It all started in 2009 when Paul Habbel was very sure that there had to be another way of doing business in the future. He was deeply motivated by the energy experienced in a large-group-format (Open Space) and by the book “Leading for Life” by Matthias zur Bonsen (available in German language only). He was sure that there has to be a way where employees feel like entrepreneurs and make use of their full intelligence. A way where real appreciation and trust would eliminate friction and at the same time would spark creativity and engagement.

Paul Habbel: “I am here to open and hold spaces for relevant dialogue. In the end it is about love and what you want to cultivate in your organization. Is it love or is it fear? Love means for us, acceptance for who you are.”

He had the vision of a more sense-driven and mindfully organized company with a strong community based on strong individuals. One key aspect of the journey is the self-development of every single member of the 128 person organization which as a result is the story of success for the whole organization. And the journeys success is partly due to the strong belief of Paul Habbel that this is the only right way to go as well as his patience and trust that eventually everyone will come on board.

How does this manufacturing company work?

  • Gutmann sees its organization as a living organism with a "higher and core passion". Their “higher passion” is to make the world a more aware place by being a role model for a mindfulness organization. They spread this by word of mouth e.g. by inviting local leaders to film & discussion nights about mindful leadership, initiating regional qualification initiatives. Their “core passion” is to produce aluminium wire and drawn profiles and make their customers enthusiastic.
  • Gutmann removed all traditional hierarchies and replaced them by roles and responsibilities. They clearly verbalized everyone’s accountability for the whole and individual roles and responsibilities. Orders from sales are directly handed over to the production floor where the workers decide by themselves what to produce when based on the quantity needed, deadline etc.
  • Employees decide when and how to work. The workers plan the capacity, derive the required people per shift and plan the shifts by using sticky dots. When extra-shifts are needed, yet again it is the workers who decide together who can come in for an extra-shift (e.g. on a Saturday). Holidays are planned by the workers depending on the expected workload.
  • Everyone is asked to bring in his/her full intelligence and ideas to work. Everyone is allowed to make any changes in his/her own area of responsibility but has to call in a circle whenever their decision would have an effect on other roles. In addition there are fixed circles for the main functions within Gutmann (e.g. HR, Infrastructure, Complaint Management, Projects, … )
  • Decisions are based on the consent principle. Circles function according to the consent principle (general permission, agreement), not consensus (finding a solution that everyone is happy with). In a circle they process tensions, no matter what the origin of the tension is (role, responsibility, tasks, personal…). The circles tend to improve over time and do get help by the organizational development expert if needed (as facilitator). In every circle meeting they have a timekeeper and a “mindfulness keeper” who rings a bell if someone is not respectful with others or not mindful to him-/herself or others.
  • They practice an appreciative-inquiry communication style. The appreciative-inquiry communication is based on the non-violent-communication-approach by Marshall Rosenberg, supported by courses on mindfulness, self-development and -reflection. “Letting go”, “real listening” and “asking questions” is seen as a key ingredient for a successful community.
  • Gutmann's figures are open to everyone in the organization. The company figures are presented monthly (e.g. turnover, profit-and-loss calculation) to support entrepreneurial- and market-oriented thinking. Investment decisions > € 100.000 are discussed and decided together

Tahir Ljiko: "As a shift leader in the past I had the picture of being a „servant“ for the workers. As a result they came to me with all their problems and expected me to solve them – that was tiring and cumbersome. Today, they have the freedom and responsibility to solve the problems by themselves – and the solutions they find are most of the time better. It is about different perspectives and understanding them – both yours and the one of your colleague!”

How do they perform?

The figures speak their language and even being in a region where it is hard to find qualified people; the company gets job-applications more or less on a daily basis. Applicants knows already a lot of Gutmann when they come for interviews and wants to work there, even if there are in safe and long contracts with their current companies. On one hand the operating system and flat organization makes it a great place to be. On the other “not looking away” and “the moment of truth” (pointing out issues, taking full responsibility, speaking-out if things go wrong) means to personally express tension you have with colleagues and solving them. This is challenging and only works with the willingness and the support to self-reflect & self-develop.

The organizational development expert does not only function as a facilitator of circles (if needed) but also as an individual coach to each and every employee for self-reflection. About 85% of the staff members are happy with the journey Gutmann took, some are still waiting to jump on board and some few feel resistant to the “personal opening up” in circles. However, since the change of the operating system no single former leader has left the company.

Our conclusion

These six hours passed quickly and though having worked with purpose-driven organizations before, this experience feels different. We sit in the car back to the airport and are puzzled by what we experienced. This concentrated atmosphere, the slowing down to be efficient and the deep connection in the circle. The fundamental thing for all this is the trust in the process, the clear vision and endurance of Paul Habbel, yet his willingness to let go and watch what emerges in the company. And maybe by writing this article we became a messenger of their purpose to create this world somehow a better place.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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