How Many Teams Drive Operational Excellence?

by Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

Several years ago, I came across some survey results that intrigued, angered, and motivated me. In that monthly issue of Training Magazine, a half-page table summarized the results of a survey that the magazine had conducted regarding the use of teams in organizations. To this date, I still find these results to be amazing in terms of the lack of perspective they reflect. Many of the respondents stated that they did not have any teams at work in their organizations! In reality, people should ask “How many teams do I need to drive operational excellence?”

Specifically, 73% of the organizations surveyed stated that they had “some employees that were members of a working group identified as a team.” This, of course, means that 27% of the respondents felt that they did not have any teams in their companies. A second set of statistics from this survey indicated that of those organizations with teams, only 55% of their employees were members of these teams – 45% of the workforce felt that they were not on a team. These percentages did not vary significantly with company size. Why would these statistics bother me so? Why would they serve to motivate me to challenge their accuracy?

EXPLORE MORE: Does Your Team Structure Drive Operational Excellence?

How Many Teams Do You Have?

All organizations have teams, and essentially, all employees are members of at least one team. The disparities between this belief and those from the survey are significant. They indicate a lot of what I feel holds back high performance in organizations. We don’t recognize the teamwork that goes on in our world every day. Worse yet, we fail to make the regular investments necessary to improve work team effectiveness.

A difference in operational definitions offers one possible explanation for these off-base percentages. Personally, I hesitate to call a group of people working together to achieve a common a goal a “team” until they demonstrate a certain degree of cohesiveness and accomplishment. However, the “groups versus teams” debate is one of more semantic differences than practice.

The bottom line is this – you spend money on these teams every day. In turn, it is key that each team works to optimize its performance within the larger work system. It’s operational excellence from the inside out.

LEARN MORE: How Effective are Your Work Team Leaders?

Recognize All Teams to Optimize the Value Stream

The fact that a group works together to achieve a common goal makes them a team. However, their level of effectiveness may be less than desired. Our failure to recognize most groups as teams results in a lot of sub-optimization across most, if not all, businesses, schools, churches, chambers of commerce, and city councils. In fact, very few of these team types even measure and trend their performance over time across multiple dimensions.

Unless all employees of a given organization work in an isolated, non-interactive vacuum, they are on some kind of team. In other words, if you count on other people to achieve your own work goals, you are on a team. Your team might not meet regularly. It might not have a fancy name. Your team might fail miserably when it comes to group dynamics management. In any case, you are still a team if you share a common goal and need each other to help attain it.

DISCOVER MORE: What is a Work Team – Key Characteristics

How Many of Your Teams are Effective?

We further complicate and confuse the use and effectiveness of teams when we attempt to make distinctions between formal team processes and the daily work people do for the organization. Do you remember quality circles, self-directed work teams, or kaizen teams? Once an organization chooses to use these terms, trains people in team concepts, or places those who become members of such teams on a pedestal, they essentially tell the other employees that their groups are not as important. Often, the message is sent that you are on a team only when you are in a meeting room, away from the workplace. For the other 39 hours a week, you are not on a team. In other words, for most of your time at work, the implication is that teamwork is not important.

I have even heard people say “We tried to use teams in our organization, but they did not work, so we dropped that program.” This explains the survey percentages. More importantly, it also shows why so many companies just can’t seem to reach the goals they desire. If we did not need teams, this whole argument would be moot. In sports, it is obvious whether teams exist or not. In business, schools, or communities, the definitions are far less clear. Also, what is less clear are the potential benefits that we gain if our city councils learn to effectively use that time they spend together each month.

Recognize and Develop the Teams You Count on Every Day!

If you question my argument, watch these groups in action. Better yet, ask yourself “When was the last time I almost fell asleep in a meeting?” Members of effective teams only fall asleep in meetings on the day after Super Bowl Sunday! The recognition and development of the teams you already have in place is necessary for several reasons. Effective team use helps you:

  • Increase performance ownership and enhance project quality
  • Reduce the time it takes to put a project in place
  • Demonstrate the dependency that employees have on each other to achieve their personal goals and the goals of the organization.

LEARN MORE: Process Improvement Strategies

How Many Process and Focus Work Teams Do You Need?

Most importantly, focus on the development of the process work teams you rely on daily first. These groups show up daily to make sure customers get their expectations met. How many process work teams do you have?

Second, develop the abilities of the focus work teams you have in place to support key strategic objectives. Common focus work team examples include safety committees, leadership teams, and recognition teams. In the case of focus teams, the challenge is to make sure that you do not have too many of them. Most organizations form more focus teams than they need, primarily at the middle and upper management levels.

DISCOVER MORE: Empowerment, Engagement, and Creativity Drive Innovation

How Many Project Work Teams Do You Need?

Third, develop your project work team capacity. Avoid the mistakes others make and stay within your ‘available leader’ boundary. Any location has a limited number of true leaders. I don’t mean the people who hold leadership jobs. Instead, I mean the true formal and informal influencers that work at each location. The limit to the number of project work teams you can effectively support is your total number of effective project team leaders.

Project work teams are a must for both sustainable continuous improvement and innovation. However, leaders with sound project and group dynamics management skills must be in place to support these teams, along with other factors. Don’t form more project work teams than you can support. The restrictor plate that limits project team performance is the number of available, trained project team leaders.

EXPLORE MORE: Use my teach-it-yourself “Facilitating and Leading Teams’ workbook to help develop your core team of project work team leaders!

Improving Work Team Use to Drive Operational Excellence

We each have unique skills that are more developed than the skills of others. Without teams, these skills often go to waste. Worse yet, without the recognition of team existence and efforts to improve work team effectiveness across the board, workplaces do not improve like they should. They fail to realize their true potential. This applies to non-work teams as well. The names you give to your teams are secondary to recognizing their existence. You need team effectiveness across all work teams to sustain high performance.

Take the first step. Define the number of teams you have in place right now. Once you do this, you can begin to help each team improve how they work together to help drive operational excellence. The next time you meet with one or more people, either at work or away from the job, ask yourself “Do we have a common goal?” If you are taking the time to meet, you probably do. What would it take to increase effective team use? In this day and age, we need to use our time together wisely. Plus, we need each other to make our workplaces and communities more effective.

DISCOVER MORE: How to Reduce Meeting Waste

Buy a print or eBook version of my ‘Facilitating and Leading Teams’ workbook NOW on

Keep improving! – Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

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