Effective Work Team Characteristics

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

What is a work team? All organizations have at least one work process. In turn, they have at least one process work team. In some cases, leaders refer to their work teams as process work teams. Some also refer to process work teams as natural work groups. Plus, in many organizations, focus work teams (committees and other cross-functional groups) and project work teams exist. Salaried staff are often members of multiple work teams. Work team characteristics help define the team type.

Work teams are 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.

DISCOVER MORE: How Great are Your Work Systems?

What Type of 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. Work team responsibilities affect the effective span of control ratio (people per supervisor). Span of control is a key operational parameter that organizations need to optimize.

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.

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

Are Your Work Teams Unintentionally Self-Directed?

Self-directed work teams are an advanced form of the natural work groups all organizations have. Ideally, team members are trained 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.

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Jump ahead to learn more about Focus Work Teams
Jump ahead to learn more about Project Work Teams

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

The process work team’s makeup (size, membership, and stability) is primarily influenced by:

  • The physical location of a job that 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 are suggested to:

  • Help 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
  • Allow a regular forum for idea evaluation and proposal presentation

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

Skills desired of process work team members initially would 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
  • Certain members with more advanced team, leader, and quality skills

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 for:

  • Working on problems outside of the team’s work area
  • Involved problem solving exercises or lengthy project development
  • Providing formal training packages over thirty minutes in length
  • Non-constructive criticism, one way communication, or order giving
  • Resolving issues that relate to the labor agreement

Possible constraints to process work team effectiveness and consistent meetings include:

  • Providing meeting time without adversely impacting customer service
  • Supervisors who do not have the skills for, or comfortable with, team facilitation
  • Team members fail to learn about how teams work and their role in improvement
  • Failing to provide the systems for regular, consistent support information and data

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

Would you like to learn more about other team types?

Select the type of team below that you would like to learn more about to go directly to that type.

Jump ahead to learn more about Focus Work Teams
Jump back up to learn more about Process Work Teams

How Effective Are Your PROJECT Work Teams?

All organizations have at least one project work team. Project teams stay intact until the team finishes their project. In some cases, the team remains intact to work on a new project, as with some Quality Circle or Kaizen Team processes. Examples of project work teams include process improvement teams, kaizen teams, tiger teams, quality circles, and engineering teams. Here are some example project work team characteristics:

PROJECT Work Team Characteristics

A project work team is a cross-functional group of employees that meets regularly to:

  • Support one or more of the organizational or location objectives via project implementation
  • Carry a project through from start to finish, using a disciplined development approach
  • Evaluate action plan and item success to-date, and make adjustments as needed
  • Proactively attack key project needs that extend into two or more work groups

 The group’s makeup (size, membership, and stability) is primarily influenced by:

  • The nature of the given project or objective
  • The degree of cross functional representation required
  • Individual abilities to actively participate in the project’s completion
  • Limiting the group’s size to ten or less people for problem solving effectiveness
  • The type of objective work required — info sharing versus problem solving
  • Providing departmental representation without departmental overload
  • The urgency for project implementation

 Meeting frequency, location, and timing options include:

  • Hold regular progress meetings until the objective is complete
  • Meeting lengths are kept to around one hour or less
  • Get together every one or two weeks, depending on the nature of and need for the project (a ‘kaizen event’ project team might do all of their work over 2-3 days)
  • Limit the active number of project teams in process at any given time
  • Normally meet virtually or in the designated available locations

 Skills desired of project work team members would include:

  • A desire for and understanding of continuous improvement and quality
  • A basic awareness of communication, problem solving, decision making, and project development tools
  • Shared responsibility in the content, impact, and success of the project
  • An understanding of how the project will impact the profitability of the organization
  • The ability to spend time on project development tasks between meetings

Project Work Team Changes and Challenges

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

  • A shift from management member dominance to more support / hourly representation
  • Faster and more effective completion of the project development cycle
  • Projects increase in complexity and become more process-focused
  • An increase in active project teams in action at a given time as resources increase

 Possible constraints to project work team and meeting effectiveness include:

  • Requiring a given person to lead, or to be a member of, too many teams
  • Failing to have a given department actively represented
  • Not having the necessary support information for prompt decision making
  • Failing to regularly complete action items away from the meeting
  • Lack of effective team leadership, in meetings and between meetings
  • Not developing and following a systematic plan for project completion

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How Effective are Your FOCUS Work Teams?

All organizations have at least one focus work team. In some cases, focus teams are known as cross-functional teams. Focus teams meet regularly to address key organizational focus areas. For example, the senior leadership group is a focus team that meets on a regular basis.

Focus work teams exist to tackle a specific problem or perform a specific task. Their representation includes different functional disciplines or process segments. In some cases, focus teams form on an ad hoc basis. Other examples of common focus work teams include safety, training, and recognition committees. Also, customer satisfaction teams, waste reduction teams, planning teams, and leadership teams may exist.

Focus work team performance is more difficult to measure. This is due to the cross-functional membership and variability in team process types. In many cases, focus team members do not even track the amount of time they invest in the one, or more, focus teams they are on. However, significant savings and team performance gains can be made when leaders optimize their use of focus work teams and project work teams.

Here are some example focus work team characteristics:

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Focus Work Team Meeting and Member Characteristics

The group’s makeup (size, membership, and stability) is primarily influenced by:

  • The type of key performance area being supported (safety, cost, quality, growth)
  • The degree of cross functional representation required
  • The ability of each individual to actively participate in the group’s work
  • A recommended group size limit of ten or less people for meeting effectiveness
  • The type of focus teamwork required — info sharing versus problem solving
  • Balancing departmental representation with possible departmental overload
  • The urgency for key performance area improvement

 Focus work team meeting frequency, location, and timing options include:

  • Meeting regularly throughout the operating year
  • Meeting lengths being around one hour or less
  • Getting together every one or two weeks, depending on the urgency for performance improvement
  • Normally meeting in the standard locations that are available

 Skills desired of focus work team members would include:

  • A desire for, and understanding of, continuous improvement and quality
  • A basic awareness of communication, problem solving, decision making, and project development tools
  • Shared responsibility in the content, impact, and success of the team’s key performance indicators
  • An understanding of how key performance areas impact the profitability of the organization
  • The ability to spend time on system enhancement tasks between meetings

Focus Work Team Changes and Challenges

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

  • A shift from management member dominance to more support / hourly representation
  • Cycles of improvement for the work systems the group is responsible for
  • A shift in meeting frequency as organizational priorities change
  • Delegation of system improvement efforts to project teams

 Possible constraints to focus work team and meeting effectiveness include:

  • Requiring a given person to lead or to be on too many teams
  • Failing to have a given department actively represented
  • Not having the necessary performance data or support information for prompt decision making
  • Failing to regularly complete assigned action items between meetings
  • Lack of effective team leadership
  • Not developing and following a systematic plan for system improvement over time

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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 learn more about how measure and improve your job design work system. 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:www.greatsystems.com            EMAIL:kevin@greatsystems.com

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