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The Team and Me Reflections of a Design Group

February 1, 1994
In 1991 Asea Brown Boveri Canada Inc. assigned a group of employees to design a team-based factory for the Toronto-based electrical manufacturer. The project mandate was to meet the following four goals:

  • Cut manufacturing time in half
  • Boost output from 280 units of switchgear to 400 units
  • Reduce the company's head count from 150 to 120
  • Implement the new design within a seven-month period.

I put together a seven-member design team, composed of two workers from manufacturing, three from engineering, one from production planning and one from finance. One team member was a female and one of the males was a person of color. Their ages ranged from 23 to 49 years. Their company service ranged from four months to 12 years. They held positions from manager to clerk. Their family situations varied from a single mother to a father with teenage children. In short, they were a representative cross-section of business and modern lifestyles.

Each member brought something unique to the team, and each got something different from the experience. Following are comments from the team members on their experiences.

Time considerations:
Work demands are strenuous for employees participating in strategic planning projects.

My son was 4 years old. We had been told that there would be a lot of traveling, late nights and overtime. I was a bit concerned about him because I'm a single parent. The company was very supportive.

Team participation:
It's the responsibility of human resources to ensure that participants have the skills and abilities to be as successful in this project as they have been in their other positions. This may require training for handling new tasks and for working as a team.

My supervisor asked me to be involved in a special project to change the process of the company. I asked how I would be able to handle this. I have worked on the shop floor most of my life, so this was a new experience for me.

Process mapping:
After the team had finished its basic training, it moved full steam ahead toward its first major task, which was to pinpoint the current time it took to manufacture the product from order entry to invoicing.

Process mapping was given to one or two people and the group carried on with the interviews. Documenting wasn't just a one- or two-week exercise. It took about four weeks to actually map it out, compare notes and boil down those notes into something that was more condensed.

Benchmarking:
For some members of the team, the benchmarking trips were the highlight of the team experience.

The other companies told us all about the mistakes that they had made, mistakes like not getting help from the people. They told us that it was a long process and not to expect results overnight. We learned that [a team-oriented company] is [something] that everyone within the company has to believe in, everyone including the managers, supervisors and people in the plant.

Bonding:
The benchmarking trips also proved to be a bonding experience for the team. It's an experience that HR managers should insist on for their own professional development.

We got up at 6 o'clock, showered and got together in the restaurant. By this time we were living like a family. We were eating together, sleeping in the same hotel, telling jokes. We were actually sharing our lives together, talking about our families and our personal lives. That was something that I had never experienced before. When you work together in a plant you go your separate ways at 4 o'clock. But this was like a family working together.

Design planning:
One can gain a sense of how well the team was functioning by reflecting on the words used by one team member to explain how the new organizational design was developed:

We started with the idea of some sort of team organization for the work force and some sort of social organization in the facility. As we went through the benchmarking process, that [idea] became stronger. By the time we got to the design phase, the one common thread that ran through our whole approach was that all of us believed that the team concept-some sort of team-based design-was the way to go.

Approval process:
The team subdivided into small work groups to draft the Master Plan. This was the homestretch for the group. They could see the finish line as they were developing their final product. The work room became a factory of activity as team members rotated from sharing the computer to reviewing data to helping other teammates with their part of the work.

We put together a document that we called the Master Plan-our original analysis of the flow in chart form, a chart of our new proposed flow and models for the team organization, statements about what we were trying to achieve and an examination of design compared to original goals. We felt comfortable that in spite of everything, the design still surpassed the goals that we set.

Team separation:
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and that includes a project team once it has completed its mandate. A task force experience can be a tremendous learning opportunity for an employee.

After the presentation, an implementation team was formed. Some of us went on the implementation team, some of us went back to our old jobs and some of us ended up with new positions. For some of us, this experience was so great that at least one of us went on to do other things. I got my reward by gaining experience and knowledge that I wouldn't trade for anything. It's an uplifting experience.

Personnel Journal, February, 1994, Vol.73, No. 2, p. 48.