Analysis of the
General Foods’ Topeka Plant
In the 1960s, the Human Resources department at General Foods was promoting NTL T-Groups. One of the participants was Lyman Ketchum. When General Foods wanted to expand their dog food processing plant in Kankakee, he asked instead to build a new plant in Topeka based on ideas he had learned in T-Groups.
Working with Ed Dulworth, he set out to be revolutionary from the get-go. He included an hourly worker, a maintenance craft foreman from the Kankakee shop floor, in the planning discussions. This man was an unofficial counselor to the workers at the plant, and had been both a union shop steward and president of the local. The inclusion of such a person almost guaranteed worker buy-in.
Ed Dulworth believed in a Maslowian Hierarchy of Needs, stressing the need for people to be self-actualized at work. He believed that they wanted “self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment, autonomy, increasing knowledge, and skill and data on their performance.”47
The experiment is well documented, because Mike Brimm, who was researching his dissertation for Harvard Business School, spent the summer on the shop floor in 1971.
“The plant was modern and temperature-controlled... It stank of tallow and grain, but it was, in other respects, a comfortable place to work...Instead of supervisors,... there were ‘team members’ and ‘team leaders.’...The Topeka plant had no reserved parking places for managers, and only one lunchroom, where everybody ate together at large round tables... There was no bathroom on the first floor, so managers and workers had to use the same facility; and only one entrance, so everyone used the same door. There were no fences, no guards, and no locks on the lockers.”48
Pay scales were based on knowledge, rather than seniority, with team members deciding when fellow members were ready for more pay. Teams set their own hours and breaks.49
Brimm found that the workers internalized a group mentality, referring to the plant as “us,” as in: “It will cost us an extra $5000 to ship the product to market if we do that.” Brimm, who had Marxist leanings, was intrigued by the level of buy-in. After all, the workers weren’t really “us;” they didn’t own the plant and couldn’t truly make decisions about the work they were doing. The managers were still setting the goals; the workers only had more say in how they would achieve those goals.50
Brimm returned to the plant the following summer to see what the long term effect of such radical changes in the workplace might be.
“And, indeed, when Brimm returned for follow-up interviews the next summer, in 1972, many of the workers had discovered the limits of the system. The feeling of being pioneers had leveled off. Ketchum had lobbied to have a second plant (to make canned dog food) built on the site, and now there were disputes about who would be team leaders in the new plant. Most telling of all, the people who had talked about utopian dreams the previous years now said to Brimm, in effect: Don’t get me wrong. My job here is the best I could find anywhere in Kansas–-maybe anywhere at all. But it’s still just a job.”51
47. Kleiner, Art; The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change; New York: Currency (Doubleday); 1996; p. 86.
48. idem; pp. 88-89.
49. idem; p. 89.
50. idem; p. 91.