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Teamwork Takes Work

February 1, 1994
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Featured Article
When U.S. space shuttles blast away from Mother Earth into the vacuum of space, the astronauts on board become isolated communities in which each member must rely on the others to survive. These strong individualists, who spent a great deal of energy competing with others to become astronauts, now must reverse course and function as a self-directed work team. Whether they're repairing the Hubble telescope or deploying a satellite, shuttle crews must work in perfect synchronicity.

Teamwork doesn't come naturally to this group of high achievers. Only through extensive training can they learn to work harmoniously. Linda Godwin, mission specialist with NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, says that knowing the success of the mission depends on effective teamwork is powerful motivation. "We have to be willing to compromise and to make decisions that benefit everyone as a whole," says Godwin, who has flown on one shuttle mission and currently is preparing for a second one in April.

Companies that are making the move to self-directed workplace teams strive for the kind of harmony exhibited by shuttle crews. And in theory, it sounds simple enough: Put workers with different areas of expertise together, empower them with the ability to solve problems and make their own decisions, and together they'll create better products, faster processes and more profitable companies.

In fact, most people believe in teams because there's a long tradition of teamwork in this country-athletic teams, military teams, rescue teams, and so on. "To say otherwise is blasphemy," says Jim Shonk, author of Team-Based Organizations. He believes the tradition of teamwork aids American companies that reorganize from functional departments into worker teams. "I'm certainly not here to say that there's a preponderance of things running against teamwork in this culture because I don't believe there are."

Judging by the number of companies struggling with workplace teams, however, bringing a group of individuals together does create barriers to success. People are people after all, and they bring to the table a wide range of personalities, expectations, experience and knowledge. Americans raised to function as individuals, to respect and accept authority, and to expect increased wages based on seniority, don't adjust easily to the team concept and can hinder a team's effectiveness. Calling a group of workers a team, in other words, doesn't a team make.

Forget about the Lone Ranger.
One of the primary reasons teams don't always gel immediately is that North Americans are raised in a society that values individualism. Our culture honors the self-made man, makes the Lone Ranger a popular folk hero, teaches us not to look at anyone else's paper in kindergarten and grades us on a curve in college. Even the athletic teams we so admire give trophies to the most valuable player. "It's quite unrealistic to put us in corporate America [after all this conditioning] and ask us to be team players," agrees Lee Sproull, professor of management at Boston University.

At Gossen Corp. in Milwaukee, the issue of individuality is an ongoing struggle, even though the company reorganized into teams more than eight years ago. When Gossen first put its 120 employees into cross-functional teams, the workers didn't understand how working together would be any better for the company than each of them working well on their own. "The goal of teamwork was too abstract," explains Jef Butterfield, president. "We operate in a culture where people don't see the value of their expertise to other departments."

To overcome this misconception, Gossen embarked on an employee communication and training effort that continues to this day. The goal of this effort is to continually remind employees of the company's mission to satisfy the customer. Employees are empowered to identify customer needs and create processes to fulfill those needs. Instead of working to please a boss or department manager, employees now focus solely on how to please the customer. "You can't ask people to change and accept new responsibilities unless they understand the ground rules and expectations," Butterfield says. But when they keep a mission in mind, and when top managers continually reinforce the importance of that mission, everyone reads from the same page. Suddenly, there becomes a reason to work together.

The importance of having a clearly identified mission may sound like a gross oversimplification-and it is-but successful teams are those in which members know why they're working together. Imagine how successful the space shuttle crew members would be if they had no idea what they were supposed to accomplish once they were orbiting the earth. Teamwork is a means to an end, it isn't an end in itself.

Another goal of self-directed work teams that flies in the face of our cultural conditioning is the notion of employee empowerment. When you take employees out of a traditional, hierarchical structure in which bosses tell other bosses what to do, and put them into teams in which they can make their own decisions, is it any wonder that few readily take to the idea? In a lot of companies, employees just don't believe that they suddenly can be their own bosses.

Such was the case at Shelby Die Casting in Shelby, Mississippi. The 385-employee company, which makes automobile parts, reorganized into workplace teams 16 months ago in an effort to save a plant that was scheduled to close. Though the plant has been saved, performance is up and scrap is down to 12% from 40% just two years ago, it was a struggle getting employees to accept their new role as decision makers.

According to Lois McMurchy, training coordinator, this is because the Southern Delta culture perpetuates the notion that employees shouldn't make decisions; that, in fact, they shouldn't even think. It started in the time of slavery, she says, and since then, generations of workers have been conditioned by their employers that management knows best. "Now, we're telling them it's okay to think and respond to business challenges," she says, "and believe me, it takes time to make this kind of cultural and societal change."

At Shelby, there was strong motivation for employees to accept their new authority, because if they didn't make decisions to save the plant they would lose their jobs. Nonetheless, the road to empowerment has been a rocky one. For example, workers were reluctant to express their opinions to supervisors, who never had listened before. So top management got rid of those supervisors, saved $250,000 in the process, and let the workers run their own teams. But to be effective, team members have required training in group dynamics, communications, problem solving and brainstorming. Slowly, employees are beginning to understand the goals of the company, and they're becoming more involved in setting them. "We're teaching employees how to be empowered," McMurchy says.

Shelby Die Casting is a long way from being completely run by self-directed teams. But morale is up, worker trust is on the rise, employees know they can affect change and they're more self- confident. "Employees are very accepting of empowerment," McMurchy adds, "but it's like teaching a bird to fly. It takes a while." She doesn't think the teams will be fully self-directed for at least another three years.

Another problem related to empowerment is, conversely, that employees will embrace their new responsibility as decision makers only to be shot down by managers who aren't used to having their direct reports take charge. "Often, employees try to make suggestions and then they're penalized for speaking up," explains Caryl Berrey, senior product designer with Zenger Miller in San Jose, California. For employees to gain more control over their work, leaders have to have less control.

Fred Mott found this out when the Tallahassee Democrat in Tallahassee, Florida, for which he was general manager, reorganized in an effort to improve service to the newspaper's advertisers. The goal was to free the ad salespeople from administrative tasks by pulling together all the artists, production workers and clerical, accounting and billing personnel involved with the ads. A year later, the new cross-functional organization had done nothing to improve customer service, ad errors persisted and the sales representatives still complained of having insufficient time with customers. Why? "Because we set up this team but we didn't pass control on to the team members," Mott says.

Team members would come up with recommendations about how to do their jobs better, for example, and those recommendations would be ignored because they would impact managers in some way. The turf battles were unbelievable. Even Mott had trouble backing off.

The ad sales department at the Democrat didn't turn itself around until management realized that workers shouldn't have only the authority to make recommendations, but also the authority to take action on those recommendations. Managers had to learn how to communicate the goals they wanted to accomplish rather than the problems they wanted to fix. Today, the team identifies its own problems, which creates the buy-in necessary for members to want to solve those problems.

Leaders are vital in self-directed work teams.
Just because employees become empowered in self-directed work teams doesn't mean there's no role for managers in the team-based organizations. Even the space shuttle crews have a commander on board who has the final say when disputes arise. What it does mean is that leaders have to learn to lead in new ways (see "Leaders Guide Team Development").

Companies need people who are experts in team process and who understand and can help with the interpersonal challenges posed by teams. Ideally, this person isn't a technical expert-other team members fill that role-but rather an expert in giving feedback and resolving conflict. This facilitator, who may work with two or three teams at a time, provides the objective voice teams need to stay on course when personality and work-style differences threaten to throw them off.

Team leaders play a significant role at Rochester, New York-based Bausch & Lomb. In the contact lens division, the company has created 12 cross-functional teams and 150 department teams, all charged with addressing specific business issues. Each team is assigned a facilitator or adviser who helps to resolve team conflict. These advisers work with several teams at a time, and their skills are in such demand that they have become a readily promotable group of employees.

The need for leaders and managers to change how they lead and manage in a team-based organization can't be underscored enough. Leaders can be a team's biggest asset or its primary obstacle. As explained in the book, Leading Teams: Mastering the New Role, "Without skilled leadership, teams easily can flounder, get off course, go too far or not far enough, lose sight of their mission and connection with other teams, lose confidence, get stymied by interpersonal conflict, and simply fall short of their enormous potential-especially in the early months and years of their development."

Given that leaders are necessary, what should the new role of the team leader be? The book's authors say that team leaders should understand their responsibilities along these lines:

  • To build trust and inspire teamwork
  • To facilitate and support the decisions made by their teams
  • To expand team capabilities
  • To create a team identity
  • To make the most of differences
  • To foresee and influence change.

Training must be ongoing.
If you have managers who understand their new role, you have clearly identified the company mission, and employees believe you're serious when you say they can make decisions on their own, will teams begin to work at that point? Not without training, training and more training.

How often do managers hear, "Just tell me what you need and leave me alone; I don't have time for meetings"? People who've worked independently for years-especially those who have worked in a professional capacity-don't automatically know how to work effectively with other people and they don't take readily to the idea.

That's why, for at least a year before each space shuttle mission, the astronauts chosen to fly on that mission work together almost every day. They share office space, spend countless hours together in shuttle simulators, practice space walks in giant water tanks and rehearse everything from stowing their flight suits once in orbit to troubleshooting malfunctions on the shuttle. Very little happens on a shuttle mission that the team of five to seven astronauts hasn't already rehearsed.

This type of commitment to training is extending to corporate America. At Bausch & Lomb, for example, it wasn't long after teams were implemented that the company realized employees were going to need training if they were to be successful in their new roles as team members. The company implemented its TOPS training program, which stands for Team Oriented Problem Solving. Just as the astronauts work side by side preparing for their missions, employees at Bausch & Lomb attend the courses with their team members and work on actual team problems during each session. The 16-hour course has taught employees such things as the stages of team formation, how to structure meetings and agendas, the six-step problem-solving process and how to resolve conflict. It provides the support employees need as they ease into their new collaborative role.

Training also was the route to team effectiveness at XEL Communications Inc., a manufacturer of telecommunications equipment in Aurora, Colorado. "Our big dilemma was, 'should we train before we reorganize the work force or while we're in the midst of the change?' " explains Julie Rich, vice president of human resources. Her company decided not to provide training before workers were in teams, believing that employees would forget training for which they didn't have a use.

Once employees were in teams, however, it became apparent that many of them would need training in workplace learning skills such as reading, writing, basic math and English as a second language. Employees had to have these basic skill sets before managers could even think of asking them to do problem solving, write peer appraisals, handle scheduling conflicts and take on other new areas of responsibility.

Another barrier XEL had to overcome was the entitlement mentality of many employees. "People have grown up in traditional organizations believing that if they stick around they get their merit increase and if they put in time they'll get promotions based on seniority," Rich explains. "But employees don't progress that way in our kind of environment. We regard them as mature individuals and we expect them to take initiative to grow with the organization." A portion of XEL's training, therefore, focuses on the notion of individual accountability and employee empowerment.

Rich laughs when asked if the training has been successful. "It isn't over," she says. "You can't train enough in a self-directed team environment. It's a never-ending process." (See "Good Team Members Are Trained, Not Born.")

Cynics who believe worker teams can be created without a huge investment in training should take note of Displaymasters, a display manufacturer in Minneapolis. In early 1992, the 75-employee company put workers into teams without defining their new roles and expectations, without providing any training on how to be effective team members, without putting in any measures of accountability and without addressing the workers' interpersonal needs. The result? Chaos. Employees became so skeptical of the team concept and so frustrated with management's attempts to empower them that they fell silent, believing there was nothing they could do to change this stupid experiment in teamwork. "The silence around here was very loud," recalls Mark MacDonald, vice president of marketing and sales.

The company has since regrouped and now is providing training to its employees on how to be part of effective self-directed workplace teams. More employee communication has been undertaken to let employees know it's OK for them to speak up about their frustrations. Teams have been realigned with facilitators assigned to each one. And expectations have been spelled out for each team so employees know what they're working toward. Slowly but surely, the workplace is changing and employees are working together more effectively. But don't dare use the word "team" around Displaymasters these days. The term got such a bad rap among employees that the company now refers to its new cross-functional teams as "departments."

The problems experienced by Displaymasters, XEL, Bausch & Lomb and others aren't unusual. When you look at how different individuals are, you begin to see how the notion of teamwork could create every kind of problem imaginable. One employee may think the company doesn't pay him enough to make responsible decisions. Others simply don't want the responsibility that comes with empowerment. Still others will say that teamwork and empowerment are what they've been waiting for all their professional lives.

In the end, creating effective self-directed work teams-and teammates-takes nothing but time. As NASA's Godwin says: "You've got to spend a lot of time at it and it isn't all formal training. It's getting to know people and working together with them for many months. You have to develop confidence in others, and a lot of what creates confidence and effective teams is being in close proximity with your teammates on a regular basis."

Teams in corporate America may not operate in the same cozy proximity as crews in the space shuttle, but given the right assistance, the performance of team members can be just as stellar.

Personnel Journal, February, 1994, Vol.73, No. 2, pp. 40-49.

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