Staff Empowerment Is Objective of Team Management System

Bob Haddox
Posted on March 1, 1999

Top-down management has its strengths and its weaknesses. It can be an effective system under certain circumstances, but it can also create a power pyramid that diminishes the involvement and enthusiasm of those at the bottom of the organizational chart. Beginning with the 1996-97 school year, our transportation department began to incorporate the concepts of team management and shared decision-making. In effect, we decided to turn the power pyramid upside-down. We believed that the integration of these concepts would help us boost overall efficiency, lower absenteeism, reduce accident rates and improve staff morale and customer service, with the added bonus of improving driver recruitment and retention. The following is an account of our department's implementation process and a status report on what still needs to be done.

Some vital facts
First, a little background about the school district and the transportation department. Tulsa Public Schools is the largest independent school district in Oklahoma with 44,000 students. Our transportation department operation, with more than 400 employees and 300 school buses, is also the largest in the state. Annually, the district provides approximately 5.2 million miles of daily transportation service to 20,000 regular-education and 1,000 special-needs students. Our department also maintains approximately 500 additional vehicles and pieces of equipment. We launched the program at the beginning of the 1996-97 school year. Each year since then we have fine-tuned the system, polishing rough edges as well as modifying duties and responsibilities of staff. Not surprisingly, the revamping of the organizational structure was uncomfortable for some staff members. Many people don't like change. This involved plenty of it. This new system requires everyone to participate in the decision-making process. Some people don't like that responsibility. They prefer to have others tell them what to do. What we've discovered, however, is that once people begin to take on extra responsibility, it raises their self-esteem. They realize that they're capable of achieving more than they thought they could. Through use of these new management principals, our department set forth to achieve the highest possible level of performance, efficiency and customer service. We felt we could best accomplish these objectives by:

  • Accurately assessing the current proficiency and maturity level of the organization
  • Effectively communicating the new management principles and the desired outcomes
  • Establishing clear lines of authority, responsibility and accountability
  • Demonstrating the willingness to empower employees, share authority and allow their participation in decision-making
  • Identifying, evaluating and utilizing current employee skills and talents
  • Creating an atmosphere of trust and a sense of community that allows a lasting working relationship to develop between management and staff
  • Remembering that "action speaks louder than words" to employees who are willing to try new ideas and accept change

    Flexibility aids process

    It must be noted that from the beginning, we adopted the attitude that our transition would be a "work in progress" and would contain considerable flexibility for adjustments. We also have decided there is no magical formula that will fit the needs of all organizations. It is clear, however, that as organizations become larger and more complex, they also become more difficult to control and manage effectively. In addressing this issue, decentralization was considered as a possible solution to this problem. However, it can also exacerbate any existing problems if adequate safeguards are not in place. During the transition to team management, it is very important to control the circumstances and rate of transition while maintaining organizational stability and service performance. Decentralization can also negatively impact effective communication and complicate the transitional process unless adequate measures are implemented. Our department felt this could be accomplished by keeping the following functions centralized:

  • Communications center
  • Purchasing services
  • Computer support
  • Centralized copy and distribution center
  • Parts distribution
  • Wrecker and tire service
  • School bus remanufacturing program Each of the areas listed above will be reviewed at the end of this school year to determine if further decentralization is desirable.

    Mini-fleets established
    Within our approach to decentralization, it was determined that we reduce the scope of control for middle-level supervision as it relates to the departmental unit while expanding middle managers' overall scope of responsibility as it relates to the smaller team units or what we refer to as "mini-fleets." We accomplished this by establishing multiple teams. The transportation department was divided into six equal units with Team Supervisors. Beginning this school year, the Team Supervisor is now a Fleet Manager with a staff of 60 employees, including mechanics, driver/dispatchers, driver/route schedulers and school bus aides. The Fleet Manager will also have an operating budget and will be responsible for all operational aspects of his fleet of approximately 150 vehicles and pieces of equipment. Each team provides transportation services for approximately 40 to 45 regular-education and special-needs bus routes, 12,000 field trips per year and numerous rental services to the public. As the next phase is fully implemented, Fleet Managers will actually "buy" services from the support groups, which will include parts, wrecker service, body shop repair and mechanical repair. This approach is intended to encourage each team to operate like a business and will require each Fleet Manager to be fiscally responsible. This approach is also designed to create a sense of "healthy competition" among teams to promote improved performance. A Team Driver System also was created to incorporate the drivers into the overall management philosophy. Each team has nine drivers who receive higher wages and are assigned specific team-related tasks in addition to driving. These positions are intended to empower drivers, assign responsibility and achieve accountability as well as reduce reliance upon traditional staffing techniques. This restructuring has eliminated all dispatcher and route/scheduler positions as well as most of the clerical staff. We now pay drivers additional hours to perform these tasks along with their normal daily driving duties. This approach has made it possible, within our existing budget, to offer more eight-hour positions to drivers, which is one of our major objectives to attract and retain qualified personnel. We've tried to equally distribute our most capable and motivated Team Drivers equally throughout our route service areas. We want them to lead by example and thus encourage other drivers to elevate their skills and performance. Selected drivers from the Team Driver System are also used as assistants to the Fleet Manager. In addition to their normal route duties, these drivers monitor route service in their assigned areas and instruct other drivers about route-related duties. This system benefits the Field Supervisors by allowing them to receive valuable feedback and ideas from the drivers. It's also designed to create a career path for drivers and other qualified employees.

    Controlling the process
    In summary, we have enjoyed considerable success using the principles of team management and shared decision-making. This approach may not be for everyone, especially if they do not have a strong commitment to weather the ups and downs that occur during the implementation process. We learned that you can control and reduce the problems by:

  • Allowing sufficient flexibility within the implementation process to adjust with changing conditions
  • Closely monitoring measurable short- and long-term goals and assessing progress for needed adjustments
  • Allowing sufficient time for assimilation by employees of each phase to avoid the unnecessary personnel frustration and disillusionment that can arise as a result of extensive change
  • Implementing each succeeding planned phase based upon the successful completion of previous phase
  • Challenging employees to be a part of the decision-making process, as it often awakens a recognition of their own abilities and instills confidence and self-esteem
  • Exploring ways to allow employees to share in the benefits of good decision-making

    A speeding locomotive
    Looking back on the past two years, I often compare team management to a long freight train. It takes a considerable amount of time to connect all the rail cars to a locomotive in the proper sequence and then have it achieve its desired speed. However, once the train is connected and on the proper track, it will attain the desired momentum. It becomes a very powerful and effective vehicle with which to carry forward and implement change.

    Versatile bus drivers
    By creating decentralized teams and reorganizing existing staffing, Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma was able to provide its bus drivers with non-driving duties that allowed many of them to obtain eight-hour-per-day positions. This has helped reduce driver turnover by 10 percent. Under the team management system, drivers perform the following duties in addition to their regular driving assignment:

  • Clerical duties
  • Substitute driving
  • Route dispatching
  • Routing special-education buses
  • Routing regular-education buses
  • Data entry for computerized routing
  • Route coverage in the field
  • Assisting in supervision of drivers
  • Acting as lead drivers in the field

    Bob Haddox is transportation director at Tulsa (Okla.) Public Schools.

    Related Topics: driver recruitment/retention, morale

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