Material Excerpts: Designing High-Performance Work Teams




This material is reproduced from the seminar, Journey to Excellence, Copyright © 2005, Donald F. Barkman, The Business Center, Oak Ridge, TN, All Rights Reserved. A single copy may be made for the reader's personal use. For additional information, please contact The Business Center. Thank you.



Good work design applies the principles of job enrichment and Socio-Technical Systems design. In addition, there is a need to consider certain specific factors affecting the creation of work teams. Because the idea of "teamwork" is inherently appealing to most persons, the desire to create work teams has gained considerable popularity.


Teams and teamwork are not the same thing.


Teamwork is cooperative behavior. Teams are a social structure. Teamwork can exist independently of teams. Leaders should not confuse wanting good cooperation and collaboration with the creation of teams. Organizations can have high levels of teamwork and no teams. Similarly, organizations can be filled with teams that exhibit few of the behaviors considered to be teamwork. Teams can become possessive, exclusive of outsiders, resistant to influence and information, and fractured by cliques.


A well designed team will promote teamwork among its members. A well designed organization will promote teamwork among its teams. Let's see what contributes to building strong teams.


Team members in a strongly linked team will:

1. Work together during the same time period.
2. Work together in the same physical area.
3. Retain the same membership for an extended length of time.
4. Operate/maintain/use the same technology.
5. Be jointly accountable for achieving common goals.
6. Act interdependently to achieve success.
7. Receive common consequences for achievement or failure.


It is not always possible for every team to possess all of these characteristics. To the extent that a team does not have these characteristics it is weakened. A team whose members are spread across three shifts may find it difficult to address a performance issue with a fellow team member who does not work with three-fourths of the team. Likewise, a team whose members are given individual performance rewards may maintain a "look out for myself" approach despite exhortations to practice teamwork. Teams with high levels of turnover never really gel.


If it is not possible to create teams following these guidelines, then teams are probably not a suitable organizational structure. Some organizations have tried to create teams of people with the same job description. The "secretarial team" is a good illustration. All the members work independently for separate leaders, are rewarded based on individual effort, have their own dedicated office equipment and may be dispersed in separate areas. While it is desirable to promote teamwork among the secretaries and to have them collaborate on common issues (e.g., phone coverage), calling them a team is a misnomer.


What does a true team typically look like?





Teams are organized into units of 5 - 15 people based upon the work technology and business results which can be identified within an organization. Eight is a very manageable size. Sometimes super-sized teams of 15 - 50 are created to cover large production processes. These are usually subdivided into smaller groups.


Teams often have designated leadership roles who may be semi-supervisory, coordinators, or facilitators depending upon the degree of participation involved. These leaders may be permanent or may rotate at intervals ranging from weeks to years. The complexity of the technology may determine how quickly leaders can be trained and rotated.


Teams report to a supervisor, department manager, area manager, managing resource, or some similar person. This person is usually the first level of "exempt" staff in the organization. Typically the span of control this person has over the teams is very great with upwards of 20 to 60 team members under his/her charge.


Some organizations create "core groups" or "product streams" or "area committees" to link all teams in a large area together. These groups include the managerial staff for the area, representatives from the various teams, and usually members of support departments such as quality, maintenance, engineering, etc. These groups meet to manage performance and consistency in area practices.





Teams in office environments are often similar in design to manufacturing teams. A group of employees responsible for delivering a complete service is created. Client relationships with specific customers replace random work assignments and disjointed interactions with customers. The customer for the service may be an individual (e.g., insurance policy holder or agent), another internal department, or remote locations within a geographic region. The creation of on-going relationships improves knowledge of customer needs and the quality of feedback within the job itself.


Jobs are often redesigned so that narrowly defined, repetitious positions are replaced by jobs with greater skill variety and authority to make decisions. A greater level of education about the customers and products is provided. Individual members may retain specialized expertise so they can act as a resource to the entire team, but most members function in more of a generalist capacity to handle all the needs of the customer.





Many organizations limit their employee involvement team designs to first level employees. Above these teams the organizational structure and practices resemble traditional organizations.


Some organizations create teams of professionals and managerial employees. The responsibilities and behaviors of these teams may be different than first level teams. This is due to different amounts of training and experience possessed by the team members. It may also be influenced by the amount of power vested in the individual members in their respective roles. First level teams are empowered by the company to take part in higher level decisions and thus gain power. Professional and managerial teams may be required to share existing power among their members rather than acquire additional power.


Project teams and matrix organizations are two of the more common methods for creating professional teams. These team structures often create multi-disciplinary teams whose members have complementary skills. These may be combinations such as: marketing, research, design, manufacturing, and finance; or, production, engineering, maintenance, and quality.


Members of these teams may be primarily responsible to:

a) the project or area team with their performance judged by the team manager and perhaps the team members;


b) the functional or staff group (e.g., finance, engineering) with their performance judged by their functional managers -- perhaps with formal input from the team leader.

Difficulties sometimes arise when the expectations and work demands of the team unit conflict with those of the functional unit. Close cooperation of the leaders of these respective units is needed to prevent and resolve such problems.


Some of these teams have long life spans, e.g., product line or customer service teams. Others resemble task forces -- they complete a project, then disband. It is not unusual in some organizations for professionals to be "matrixed" into multiple teams.




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