Effective Work Team Characteristics

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

What is a Work Team?

Multiple work team characteristics help define the three common types of teams – process, focus, and project – found in organizations. All organizations have at least one work process, as their mission is to provide a product or service. In turn, at least one PROCESS work team works to provide that good or service. Plus, many organizations also use FOCUS work teams (committees and other cross-functional groups) and PROJECT work teams to manage and improve performance.

In some cases, leaders refer to PROCESS work teams as natural work groups. Hourly staff spend essentially all of their work time with their natural work group, or PROCESS work team. High performance companies allocate a higher percentage of hourly staff time to ‘away from work’ activities for focus and project team support. Often, salaried staff are members of all three types of work teams.

Learn more about PROJECT and FOCUS team characteristics and challenges.

PROCESS work teams include the people that work together each day to execute one or more processes in a manner that meets customer needs. However, not all work teams perform the same types of value stream and/or process support tasks. In smaller businesses, most staff contribute to daily process management and improvement efforts on a consistent basis.

DISCOVER MORE: How Great are Your Work Systems?

What Type of PROCESS Work Teams Do You Have?

Each year, IndustryWeek magazine issues a Best Plants Statistical Profile. Work team use is one of the key attributes of their annual ‘Best Plant’ award recipients. Also, the publication provides three operational definitions for work teams.

Natural work team: A team of employees, often hourly personnel, who share a common workspace and have responsibility for a particular process or process segment. Their direction to work is similar from an outcome perspective.

Empowered natural work teams: These work teams share a common workspace and/or responsibility for a particular process or process segment. Typically, such teams have clearly defined goals and objectives that relate to day-to-day production activities. Empowered activities might include quality assurance and meeting production schedules. Plus, work teams may have authority to plan and implement process improvements. Unlike self-directed teams, empowered work teams typically do not assume traditional “supervisory” roles and provide direction to work.

Self-directed natural work teams: These autonomous teams consist of employees who perform activities previously reserved for supervision. These work teams share a common workspace and/or responsibility for a particular process or process segment. Typically, such teams have authority for day-to-day production activities and many supervisory responsibilities.

Such responsibilities might include job assignment, production scheduling, and equipment maintenance. Other activities might include materials acquisition, training, quality assurance, performance review, and customer service. These groups are synonymous with “self-managed” work teams. All self-directed work teams are empowered.

Work Team Design Drives Operational Excellence

How leaders define work team responsibilities affects the effective span of control ratio (people per supervisor). Span of control is a key operational parameter that leaders must optimize. All too often, the job design requires a leader to devote too much time to personnel problem resolution instead of process improvement. In turn, leaders unintentionally constrain the rate of organizational improvement.

If excessive turnover rates also exist, we only magnify this ‘lack of time for improvement’ problem. How much time do you design into the jobs of EACH staff member? Collectively, how much time each day do you set aside for change support, personnel development, and workforce engagement?

EXPLORE MORE: Does Your Work Team Structure Drive Operational Excellence?

Are Your PROCESS Work Teams Unintentionally Self-Directed?

Self-directed process work teams are an advanced form of the natural work groups all organizations have. Ideally, leaders train team members to effectively assume roles that other groups traditionally provided, such as Maintenance or Quality. However, in today’s workplace, the common error is to consider teams as ‘self directed’ before effective ‘self-direction’ skills are in place.

Most often, this occurs when the supervisory span of control ratio becomes too large (the number of people who report to a leader). However, such a shift is usually not intentional. Most leaders want to manage and control overhead costs as a goal. In turn, they try to minimize supervisory headcount. Unfortunately, there are many hidden costs that come as this ratio climbs above a level of 4 or 5 direct reports per leader.

Common Work Team Tasks - US Best Plants IndustryWeek Survey

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FOLLOW THIS LINK to learn more about Project and Focus Work Team Characteristics and Challenges

PROCESS Work Team Characteristics

The primary goal of process work team members is to support daily value stream and support process performance. These activities take place in the everyday workplace. When process work team members assume more non-traditional work team roles, individual and team time must be spent AWAY from the everyday workplace to perform these roles. Work team meetings serve as the primary forum for such activity.

Here are some example PROCESS work team characteristics:

A PROCESS work team is a group of employees that meets regularly to:

  • Share information on “state of the business” topics”
  • Receive feedback related to the work team’s performance against key measures
  • Propose ideas for improvement and get updates on existing projects
  • Reinforce practices related to safety, quality, productivity, and customer satisfaction
  • Evaluate and provide input on possible changes that would affect them or their work
  • Interface with members of other teams and members of management

Factors that influence a PROCESS work team’s makeup (size, membership, and stability) include:

  • The physical location of the work an individual performs
  • The type of job being performed
  • Similarities in work schedules
  • A mandatory need to participate if continuous improvement is to occur

DISCOVER MORE: How effective are your team meetings?

PROCESS Work Team Meeting Characteristics

Process work team meeting frequency options include:

  • Once per month for approximately one hour
  • Twice a month for twenty to thirty minutes each time
  • Weekly for 15 to 30 minutes per meeting
  • Daily pre-job planning meetings at start of shift

More frequent process work team meetings help teams:

  • Maintain a focus on the overall status of the business and day-to-day performance
  • Align individual and team efforts with the organization’s mission, goals, and objectives
  • Collaborate for idea generation, problem solving, and improvement proposals

Process work team meeting location and timing possibilities include:

  • A meeting room if a quiet or multi-resource location is desired
  • The work area if a particular problem is being discussed, to stay informal, or to save time
  • At the beginning or end of each shift to avoid workflow interruptions

LEARN MORE: Which of these 10 work systems is your biggest operational excellence barrier?

PROCESS Work Team Skill Characteristics

Basic PROCESS work team skills include:

  • A desire for and understanding of continuous improvement and quality
  • Knowledge of the work area and the needs of internal and external customers
  • A basic awareness of communication and decision-making approaches
  • The ability to interpret charts and graphs
  • More advanced team, leader, and quality skills in some cases

Over time, as the process work team matures, possible changes will include:

  • A transition in process team leadership from supervisor to lead person
  • Possible team leadership rotation between team members
  • Growth in information sophistication and understanding
  • Improvements in communication and cooperative problem solving
  • Faster resolution of needs and a longer term, more focused team orientation
  • Possible peer review of performance and involvement in other personnel issues

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Things to Avoid with PROCESS Work Teams

Process work team meetings are NOT a forum to:

  • Work on problems outside of the team’s work area
  • Use lengthy problem solving exercises or develop projects
  • Deliver formal training content over thirty minutes in length
  • Provide non-constructive criticism, one way communication, or give orders
  • Resolve issues that relate to existing labor agreements

Possible process work team effectiveness constraints include:

  • How find time to meet as a team and not adversely impact customer service
  • Supervisors who do not have the skills for, or are comfortable with, team facilitation
  • Team members that fail to learn about how team dynamics work and their role in improvement
  • Not providing the team with regular, consistent support information and data

How many process work teams do you have in action each day? To effectively answer this question, you should first answer “How many processes do you own? question. Once you have done that, you can then look at how many processes each process work team owns.

DISCOVER MORE: Process Improvement Strategies

Learn more about Project and Focus Work Team Characteristics and Challenges

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Would you like to improve your job design work system?

I work with leaders virtually to measure and improve the key work system designs that drive human performance in their organizations. You can click here to explore how to redesign your work team structure to drive operational excellence. An effective team infrastructure represents a key feature found in high performance organizations. However, leaders also need other key work system design elements.

If you have interest in my VIRTUAL work systems assessment process, please send me an email.

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

WEBSITE: greatsystems.com            EMAIL: kevin@greatsystems.com

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