Our five factories produce a range of sophisticated products, including marine pumps, digital scanners, commercial dishwashers, truck filters, and mixing equipment for everything from bubble gum to rocket fuel. But we go one step further. In an immense production unit, people feel tiny, nameless, and incapable of exerting influence on the way work is done or on the final profit made. Everybody has the monthly statement that says exactly what each of them makes, how much bronze is costing us, how much overtime we paid, all of it. Your own self-interest would argue strongly against it.
Maverick has been published in 16 languages and sold over one million copies. At any given moment, a gray-haired senior executive may share a pod with a couple of 20-something recruits fresh from school. We also believe in the importance of comparing expectations with results. If you think someone should. These values—democracy, profit sharing, and information—work in a complicated circle, with each dependent on the other two. All are laboratories for further exploring what is possible when leaders relinquish control and allow rational people to pursue their goals unfettered by established rules and procedures.
In fact, we no longer advertise jobs. The Lumiar schools in Brazil seems to be structured to promote creative confidence. But if you invited me to go through that pile of papers on your desk, I could fill both in a trice. Several years ago, for example, we needed a bigger plant for our marine division, which makes pumps, compressors, and ship propellers. If you had to kill a mammoth or do without supper, there was no time to draw up an organization chart, assign tasks, or delegate authority.
By 1980, the company had evolved into a supplier of major equipment for shipbuilders, and today Semco offers a diverse range of products and services, from air conditioning components for office towers, to inventory management and environmental planning. Semler agreed, and when it became clear that the workers were every bit as committed to saving the firm as he was, he gave them more and more responsibility. No coordinator reports to another coordinator—that feature of the system is what ensures the reduction in management layers. Common sense is a riskier tactic because it requires personal responsibility. Reviews and mentions of publications, products, or services do not constitute endorsement or recommendation for purchase. Increased productivity let us reduce the work force by 32 % through attrition and retirement incentives. The rooms are bright and airy, the walls decorated with contemporary Brazilian art.
Second, we assumed that all our employees were trustworthy adults. Quantity of work is more important than quality. Miraculously, he was still alive within the 20-inch pancake of crushed steel and shattered glass that remained of his car. Or, they said, maybe it works for you, but you can't generalize it. The biggest problem that democratic schools face isn't that they don't work.
Of course the full Semco story has dozens of cases and examples that back the theories up. We bought the building and moved in. Give yourself time to think. That's why in order to understand his approach to education, you need to explore his approach to business first. Having satisfied himself that adults thrive on responsibility, Semler set out to show that children would react the same way.
In Brazil, where paternalism and the family business fiefdom still flourish, I am president of a manufacturing company that treats its 800 employees like responsible adults. Instead, there are workstation pods — round tables with four low dividers and network plug-ins for laptop computers. It was an interesting situation—one that tested our commitment to participatory management. Ask them always to say you cannot take the call at the moment. Semco Partners offers an extensive network of contacts, direct access to target customers, informed risk monitoring, innovative management techniques, cultural proficiency, a brand recognized and trusted by the market, and, above all, an incomparable record of success in bringing multinationals to Brazil. Paperwork often took two days to make its way from one end of the factory to the other. They can wear whatever clothing makes them comfortable.
Semco did grow, and rapidly. The company was doing badly. Of the 3,000 votes at the company, Ricardo Semler has just one. The year was 1980 and Ricardo Semler was only 21. And good luck—fundamental to all business success. Semler describes how he turned a gritty São Paulo pump plant into an exemplar of participative management. He decided that, two days each week, he would do whatever he might do if he knew he only had a short time to live.