On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in October, we sat down with Lisa Fecteau, founder and owner of Regitex, to ask a few questions about her company’s approach to self-management. As we settled into her cozy kitchen with a cup of tea, she was curious about Percolab and why we wanted to interview her. We shared that Percolab has been self-managed since it’s inception, and as we are continually growing, we’ve made our practices and structures more explicit. We even train other organizations as they make the shift to self-management. We are always hungry to learn from other self-managed organizations, especially in other sectors. Regitex is just about as different as it gets from Percolab.
Lisa founded Regitex with her brother in 1998. Regitex manufactures yarns used in the production of protective garments (think firefighter’s uniforms), technical yarns for medical purposes (think bandages), and high-tech yarns used for a range of other purposes (like hosiery). Regitex does straight-up industrial production: raw materials come into the factory, machines are used to transform them, finished products come out of the factory, and then shipped all around the world.
When I think of this kind of industrial structure I think of foremen and plant managers. I think of a boss and the boss’ boss and of the boss’ boss’ boss. My imagination might even conjure a cigar-puffing owner living on a yacht somewhere far away: totally disengaged with the people who work for him and totally engaged with the profits they generate.
I seem to have a very narrow and staid (maybe even stale) view of what it means to run a factory. And Lisa Fecteau, with her unassuming manner, was turning that view on its head.
Regitex’s move to self-management did not happen in a burst of inspiration. It was a long, slow progression of small steps that carved out a self-managing path for the organization’s functioning. In the intervening years between the company’s founding and shift to self-management, Lisa bought out her brother’s shares in the company (thus becoming sole owner) and the company made the move from manufacturing yarn for fashion and furniture (its first market) to the protective textile focus it has now. As the manufacturing capacity and number of employees grew, Lisa decided to connect with her employees directly. For a period of 2.5 years she did rounds of interviews every 6 months. Sitting down with teams, and sometimes individuals, Lisa would ask questions so she could learn about their perception of the company. Sometime after the 5th round of interviews she realized that she had heard enough about the dissatisfaction and issues that were arising, and that nothing had significantly changed between round 1 and round 5 of interviews.
She had no idea what to do but decided she would just sit with it for a while
It all started to unblock with the need to hire a new Director of Production. After a long and unsatisfactory search for the right person, Regitex’s Director of Human Resources presented Lisa with an interesting alternative: what if instead of hiring a single director of production they created a Production Team comprised of existing employees who carried production know-how because of their work within the company.
Within a short time it became apparent that the team approach was more efficient and led to better decision-making because the Production Team had direct access to the information they needed to run things smoothly. Lisa and her HR director started experimenting with creating more of a team-based approach within the company to see how this would work out. The enthusiasm for self-managing practices was spreading across the company.
So Lisa left.
I didn’t expect that turn in the story. Lisa explained that had been sensing that she was still too much at the centre of the company and that instead of gently propelling it along towards self-management, her presence was holding them back. She completely withdrew from all operations and administration and didn’t set foot in the factory for months. “It was painful,” she confides, “I felt like I wasn’t needed anymore.”
Upon her return they decided to abolish all titles and job descriptions, including those in upper management, and move to a role-based system. They determined which were the functions that needed to happen for the organization to run smoothly, and then invited employees to self-nominate for the roles they found interesting. The roles were adapted to the logistical challenges of a company that works with day, evening, and night shifts, and the obligations outlined in their collective labour agreement.
Because, yes, Regitex is a unionized workplace.
While we were surprised and intrigued by this information, Lisa seemed unfazed about our union-related questions. For her, a key element to self-management is about trusting people’s common sense and ability to make thoughtful decisions – if you just give them enough space. In recent months, Regitex had a couple of grievances filed against them – not by internal employees, but by the union’s syndicate head office. At a formal meeting between herself, Regitex’s internal union reps and the syndicate’s official representatives, the grievances were quickly withdrawn when the Regitex employees made it clear that they had complete decision-making authority over their working conditions.
As a new collective agreement is in the works for early 2018, a strategic planning committee has been created to ensure that both Regitex’s interests and its employees’ needs are reflected in the next contract. Participation in the committee is voluntary (like everything else at Regitex) and those who have stepped forward to steer it also happen to be the company’s internal union reps. Which, in essence, means that the company’s administration has entrusted its unionized employees to make key decisions that directly impact the company and that unionized employees are considering the company interests and well-being while planning its side of the collective agreement.
As the daughter of a unionized blue collar worker, this reality is worlds away from the divisive power struggles and politicking I imagine when I think of contract agreements between unionized employees and the boss’ boss’ boss. I remember my Dad white-knuckling it through collective agreement processes in the 80’s that did not for a moment consider the interconnectedness of either the employees’ or employer’s ecosystems.
So what’s next for self-management at Regitex? They are investing in internal training for more employees to learn how to coach each other, improving the communications and other organizing systems, and exploring how profit-sharing could be done in a clear and equitable way. For Lisa, her personal next steps involve connecting with what is quickly becoming an international movement around self-management (Percolab’s own Samantha Slade is writing a book on the topic) to share Regitex’s experience.
When asked if she has a nugget of wisdom to share with us about her experience with Regitex, Lisa responds without hesitation: If you want to shift to self-management do less, not more. Don’t try to create all kinds of new initiatives. Pull back for a while, observe, watch, create space, and leave this space open for newness to emerge. That’s when stuff starts to happen.