Comparing Community Businesses – Twin Oaks and Acorn

Both of the intentional communities I live in have cottage industries.  These are the economic engines which allow us to buy the many things we don’t make or grow ourselves.  Most of Twin Oaks’ income comes from the hammocks business and the tofu business, over 90% of Acorn’s income comes from the seed business.  I’ve been involved with tofu and hammocks for over a decade, but I’m just starting with the retail part of the seeds business.

twin oaks logo


There are some highly desirable features to Twin Oaks’ Hammocks business, which i believe are part of the reason the community has been successful.  The first aspect is that production is highly flexible.  You can come in to the hammock shop at any time and weave or do other fabrication tasks.  You can work for as long as you like, there is no “boss” telling you what to do, though there are people who will train you and direct you, should you need it.  You track your own hours on a trust-based system.

this pattern is called interweave

this pattern is called interweave

Despite there not being “bosses,” the hammock shop has a manager (my dear friend Shal)  who is responsible for lots of things related to the work flow of the shop, especially ensuring that supplies are available when needed and that the multiple steps to make hammocks are balanced.  If we need more harness makers, he encourages people towards that work (if they can do it), trains visitors to do it, and will bring in people to do it, if the group is falling behind.  Twin Oaks uses behaviorist incentives during our busy season (which is the winter for production, because agricultural season is off, but we sell most hammocks in the spring and summer) — we set goals for production and we get rewards if we succeed and quota goes up if we fail.   Hammocks management (which I was part of for some years) does not like quota increases being our “stick” to get people to work.  We have tried several other approaches — treats, music and events in the shop, nice coffee — to get people to work in the shop and they have mostly been appreciated, but ineffective.   Now we start with the behaviorist sticks pretty early and raise quota until we have filled the orders, then quota drops down.

The Twin Oaks Tofu operation is a much more classical assembly line structure.  Frankly, I think we had to be a much more mature community to operate it.  It has long been the case that a dedicated team of tofu managers (usually working quite hard in the tofu hut itself) maintain an esprit de corps for the large collection of workers in the hut.  Unlike hammocks and seeds, the expectation is if you have a tofu shift scheduled, you will either go to it, or you will find someone to take your place.  Because it is classical assembly line format, production requires at least one person at each of three stations and the pace of the workers influences the speed subsequent workers need to be moving.  Specifically, a fast kettle worker (where tofu management often workers) drives the speed of the entire hut.

The Tofu Hut - a very productive place for its small size

The Tofu Hut – a very productive place for its small size

For years I marveled at the effective anarchist chaos of the Twin Oaks hammocks business.  Lots of workers, almost completely unsupervised, coming at all different times, leaving little to no communication for subsequent workers, working short or long shifts as they liked seemed to get all the hammocks made.

It was not til I got to Acorn that I realized that there was an even larger step up in the self organized workplace.  The seed business also has three production stations, which are not a classical assembly line, because each step is temporally independent.  Packing the seeds in little packets, followed by picking the seeds for each order from the storage room where all the varieties are represented.  Finally, the shipper takes the picked order, checks to make sure it is correctly filled and then creates a mailing package for it (occasionally a custom one for oddly shaped orders) and puts it in the post.

Team Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Team Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

There are lots of other parts to the seed business work here at Acorn — processing back orders, dealing with customer calls, prioritizing orders where the customer has paid for this, contracting seeds with farmers, germination testing seeds, deciding which seeds to carry, attending trade shows and much more.

During the busy season what most of the people at Acorn are working on are these three order filling steps: packing, picking and shipping.  Hundreds of person hours go into this work, and the amount of management, supervision, training and planning which goes into this process is the lowest I have seen for any of the many business operations i have ever been involved in.  It is, as I have been slightly shockingly referring to it recently as, an anarchist wet dream.

Because there is so little supervision/management instruction from above, combined with a very high feeling of affinity and connection to the business from the line workers, there is a high level of conscientious behavior on the workers to make sure that the right things get done, that the right mix of work gets done.

My personal experience is that I have come into the picking room, done a bunch of organizing, and taken over the management of that part of the operation, without asking anyone.  And we are definitely more on top of things than before I stepped into the picking room.  There is better communication about out of stock items and back ordered orders.  But I hold no illusion that if I were hit by a bus tomorrow, that we could not return to the old less centrally organized approach and things would function just fine.

And from an anarchist perspective what is most important here is that the line workers are empowered to take responsibility, they do not feel oppressed by supervisors or managers and they are happy and proud about their work.  Something that exists far too rarely in my experience.