Does Your Team Structure Drive Operational Excellence?

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

What is a work team? How many work teams do you have?

To begin with, what is a work team? You probably have at least one work team in place (unless you are a one-person organization). In most cases, organizations have at least two of the three main types of work groups in place. Process work teams support external customers with their daily work. Focus teams, such as leadership teams and safety committees, support the process work teams. At least, that is how it should work.

These groups may exist, but they may not be very effective. For example, people may work in a team, but they may not have much cohesiveness. In turn, you choose not to call them teams. Nonetheless, these people depend on each other to get the work done each day. That is how I decide when I should assign the ‘team’ label to a group of people. Do they depend on each other to get the job done each day? Does your team structure drive operational excellence?

LEARN MORE: Operational Excellence

The number of work teams you create and support matters. How you use your work team time matters. These days, most medium and large-sized organizations too many teams. Unfortunately, they still fail to engage key internal and external stakeholders. A large percentage of the team time we do invest goes to non-value added topics, tangents, and discussions. Additionally, you need to know your ‘total work teams’ number in order to define the number of team leaders you need.

DISCOVER MORE: Work Team Characteristics – What is a Work Team?

Aren’t there more than three types of work teams?

In my opinion, no. Of course, it depends on how you answer the ‘What is a team?’ question. I base my definitions on a job design that either allows, or requires, people to work together. Experience has taught me that any organization needs three types of work groups to reach optimum effectiveness. To effectively pursue process excellence, you need effective process work teams, project work teams, and focus work teams.

PROJECT WORK TEAM – Quality circles, kaizen teams, tiger teams, six sigma teams, improvement teams, and problem solving groups are all examples of project work teams. These groups take time away from their ‘regular jobs’ to develop and implement improvement projects. For these groups, working in a team is an ‘away from the normal workplace’ activity.

PROCESS WORK TEAM – A process work team is made up of people who work together for a majority of the day. The degree of work team self-direction, or autonomy, varies. Working in a team is seen as a part of the job.

FOCUS WORK TEAM – A focus work team is analogous to a safety committee, steering committee, recognition board, or management group. Like project teams, they tend to be cross-functional. However, focus teams endure over time to support the primary goals of the organization. Unfortunately, too many companies fail to measure focus work team costs or effectiveness, even though significant monies are spent on this team type.

EXPLORE MORE: Do You Know How to Reduce Meeting Waste?

How does team structure drive operational excellence?

If you want your team structure to drive operational excellence, you need three types of teams in place. All staff are members of at least one process work team. Also, they may serve roles on standing (focus) teams or temporary (project) teams. The team structure defines how many teams of each type are needed to support strategy. In general, value stream staff spend 90% of their time in their process work team.

Organizations need effective process work teams to drive continuous improvement in an organization. Since they do not have much time away from the job to meet, process work teams do not have time to develop projects. Their role is to identify and prioritize projects that need to be implemented. The lack of project time in their jobs limits their ability to work on projects themselves.

That is why we need project work teams. People need time away from their primary job to work on projects. A person may be on both a process work group and a project team, but that does not have to be the case. Finally, we need focus work teams to maintain a constant focus on those performance areas key to the organization. Example focus areas include safety, cost reduction, waste reduction, recognition, and management.

LEARN MORE: Ten Ways to Change Work Culture

If there are only three team types, what’s with all of the different names?

A cynic would say that consulting firms create a lot of these names to simply to make more money. For example, if quality circles don’t work, why don’t we call them problem solving teams? Some group names help indicate differences in design or focus within each of the three major groups. The structure of Kaizen teams allows for faster project development (usually days) than the more traditional quality circle could produce (usually months).

The degree of self-direction given to a process work team leads to additional names for this team type. Multiple key performance areas results in a variety of names for focus (or special purpose) work teams. How should we design jobs and budget resources to support team involvement? How many teams of each team type do you need?

EXPLORE MORE: How to Increase Work Team Engagement

If you would like more information about the team engagement and effectiveness tools I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at

How do I measure what an effective work team looks like?

Each work group uses its own set of factors to gauge its effectiveness. In my “Facilitating and Leading Teams” team effectiveness workbook, I include tools you can use to define and assess effectiveness for each team type. In general, we measure group effectiveness by analyzing (1) results across multiple areas and (2) cohesiveness. Cohesiveness is necessary to help drive high levels of output. Keep in mind that most work groups don’t fail because of low cohesiveness. Instead, teams often fail due to a lack of proper support in the areas of information, recognition, resources, and alignment.

Example process output measures usually include the quality, safety, cost, and growth performance areas. Cohesiveness measures include absenteeism and tardiness rates, survey score results, and retention rates. Most process work teams use some set of scorecard measures. Primarily, project work team measures look at performance to milestones and budget. Sadly, leaders often fail to track cohesiveness for this team type. Also, focus work teams often go essentially unmeasured.

DISCOVER MORE: Process Improvement Strategies

Would you like to design a team structure to drive operational excellence in your organization?

My goal is to help you use the workbooks, workshops, and articles I feature on this site to (1) develop engaged and effective work teams, (2) design excellent processes, and (3) sustain great results. An organization must have an effective process, project, and focus team structure in order to drive operational excellence. However, one should not have to spend a lot of money or time to do this.

I can help you improve work team effectiveness in several ways. Options include training facilitation and effective work team infrastructure design. I want to provide you with tools to help you measure and improve work team effectiveness.

LEARN MORE: How Effective are Your Work Systems?

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

Would you like more information about the work team engagement and effectiveness tools I have to offer? If so, please send me an e-mail at!

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