SMWT's: A Team Effort

The promise of teams isn't achieved without attention to skills and training

by Rudy M. Yandrick


Over the past 15 years, a growing number of American companies have participated in a grand experiment: self-managed work teams (SMWTs). These are production or service-delivery groups that operate without direct supervision—an idea almost unthinkable a generation ago.


In his Organizing for High Performance (Jossey-Bass, 2001), Edward E. Lawler III reports that in 1999, 72 percent of Fortune 1,000 companies had at least one SMWT, up from 28 percent in 1987. Here’s why so many companies are willing to take a gamble on SMWTs:

“Once employers shed the ‘John Wayne’ model of leadership and adopt participatory management practices, some of them achieve productivity gains that previously could only have been hyperbole,” says Peter Grazier, president of Teambuildinginc.com in Chadds Ford, Pa. Indeed, SMWT literature is full of examples of production increases, waste reductions and accelerated product-development cycles.

Still, only 28 percent of the Fortune 1,000 had more than one-fifth of their employees arranged into SMWTs, according to Lawler. Plenty can go wrong with teams, and solving their problems can be difficult. Many team initiatives are eventually abandoned. For this reason, the ability to diagnose and solve its own personnel problems is crucial to a team’s success.


Shifting Expectations

Teams make many structural and operational decisions that previously were made by line supervisors, including compensation and rewards, scheduling, maintenance, inventory control, data management, training and others.

But the greatest challenge may lie in setting and enforcing new behavioral expectations, made necessary by the absence of a traditional supervisor and the presence of new employee rights and responsibilities. How will team meetings be kept orderly? How will members with attendance or conduct problems be disciplined? How will inappropriate safety and performance behaviors be corrected? Sooner or later, these and other important matters will require group consensus and enforcement.

Human Resources (HR) managers can help teams by providing technical assistance in rewriting policies and procedures that fit team practices in areas like hiring, peer-based performance evaluations and disciplining employees. Additionally, HR can help the company to establish new behavioral expectations. Lynn Hurst, director of the center for employee services at Pharmacia, a St. Louis-based developer and manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, says her company has five “best managed behaviors” for employees and teams: shared accountability and transparency, ongoing listening and learning, coaching colleagues, participatory management, and competitive benchmarking and continuous improvement.

“We are trying to build synergy that comes from grouping employees together and solving problems. That is the payoff from the ‘best managed behaviors,’” Hurst says. In such an undertaking, however, HR needs to practice what it preaches. “HR can’t just assume control of the process. You need to work with the teams, allow the ideas to come from them, point out boundaries and facilitate the effort. This can be time-consuming, but it beats having to retrace your steps later.”


Trip Wires

While teams absorb new roles and responsibilities, some developmental trip wires often snag teams at certain times:

At the start of operation after implementation. Some senior employees, comfortable with traditional, autocratic management and jaded at management fads that come and go, may resist or undermine a team approach. “Companies need to be mindful of resistance that comes from ‘elder statesmen’ in the workplace, the minions who feel protected whether or not they go along with change,” says Grazier. “Their adverse impact can be subtle but significant.”

During the first crisis. Echoes of “I told you so” are likely to be heard at the first significant difficulty. A frequent problem scenario: how to meet a difficult production deadline. If team members don’t rally around an agreeable strategy, team spirit will take an early and potentially long-term hit.

“At this time, the role of an external facilitator is indispensable,” says Royce Campbell, a York, Pa.-based work team consultant. “The facilitator brings objectivity to the table and can help to mediate a solution, something that the company may not be able to do using internal staff.” After successful resolution, the quiet resistors of work teams will start to buy into the team process and appreciate the company’s investment in outside expertise to help them succeed. “This is the moment at which the ‘whole’ of teamwork starts to become greater than the sum of its parts,” he adds.

Equally important is senior leadership’s reaction to the crisis. “The senior leader may initially have ushered in the work teams and understand them intellectually, but deeply ingrained habits die hard,” explains Grazier. “The leader probably has spent his career being rewarded in command-and-control workplaces and … may snap back to more familiar ways of doing things.”

During crises, teambuilding experts say, company leaders should keep a stiff upper lip. SMWTs fluctuate like stocks—even the best long-term ones experience short-term troughs.

Twelve to 18 months after implementation. According to some organizational psychologists, this is the approximate timeframe in which the novelty of teaming wears off, boredom sets in, and former managers are prone to try and reassert their authority. For example, some employees on slower-maturing teams may “cherry pick” their responsibilities and resume kicking problems back to a former manager for resolution.

HR managers and outside facilitators can help teams through such slumps by suggesting new areas for training, mini-projects the team can initiate, and new long-term goals for the team to work toward. At the same time, members should be reminded of the importance of sticking to the good habits and practices that have made the team successful up to that point.

About five years after implementation. A convergence of problems at this time often forms “the classic brick wall that organizations hit,” says Darcy Hitchcock, president of Axis Performance Advisors in Portland, Ore. For example, the team may have recently hired new people who aren’t yet indoctrinated to self-management and simultaneously may need to reassess its role in the company, causing confusion about the source of problems and their solutions.

During a reassessment, Hitchcock says that teams need to ask themselves: “Does our process still make sense in the organization or does it need to be tweaked?” Periods of introspection, she says, can lead to sudden “growth spurts,” a more sophisticated team structure and the emergence of inter-team projects.


Common Obstacles

In addition to critical times in their lives, teams face more subtle, continuing hurdles.

Employees who say, “I’m not paid to think.” Almost anyone who has worked a production job has heard someone utter these words. On the surface, the statement sounds like us-versus-them defiance of management, but underlying it is insecurity about doing any task not accomplished by rote.

“I’ve seen a lot of companies struggle with this problem,” says Celina Pagani-Tousignant, head of Normisur International, a San Francisco-based consulting company. “Let’s say a person has a high school diploma and little training. It was fine in the 1980s, but a decade later, most jobs were considerably more complicated. On top of all that, you are asking them to do their thinking in a team format. Without providing them with some support, that’s asking a lot.”

Two remedial steps may help. The first is allowing some time, perhaps six months, before implementing new SMWTs to allow people to get used to the idea and to acquaint them with new behavioral expectations, such as required attendance at daily meetings and voluntary information sharing. Second, training on “sustainability skills” will help to break down resistance from employees “who are used to protecting their turf and feel as though something is being taken away from them,” says Pagani-Tousignant. Such skills include effective communication, active listening, problem-solving and conflict resolution.

Managers who feel displaced by the new team. Employers also need to find new roles for managers who previously had authority to solve problems for subordinates, mete discipline and do one-directional performance evaluations.

The manager’s “role on teams usually evolves over time. It may start with helping to transition problem-solving responsibilities to the team, filling miscellaneous requests for the team and doing ad hoc tasks,” says Hitchcock. “Later, the team may develop into a ‘mini-enterprise’ and the former manager becomes externally focused—a sort of account manager for the customer. Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all job description you can give the managers; they have to adjust what they do based on the sophistication of the team,” she explains.

Bullies who take charge. Artful rogues are ensconced in many companies. They are people who seize power and use physical or psychological intimidation to hold onto followers and dominate others. By contrast, teambuilding experts advocate that organizations encourage “natural leaders” to emerge.

These are consensus builders who have a knack for innovative thought, creative dialogue and like-ability. They are said to be “skillful followers in disguise.”

Keeping the way open for natural leaders to emerge, as well as keeping would-be bullies at bay, is accomplished by consistently promoting respectful dialogue on teams, allowing team members to intellectually challenge each other, and introducing a strong policy against violence, aggression, threats and menacing gestures.

Rumor mills. Conjecture, personal opinion and outright lies—commonly called the “rumor mill”—are destructive horizontal communication resulting from poor leadership communication. Rumor mills can go into overdrive in an SMWT organization gone awry. After all, who’s to stop them?

In an effort to head off rumors when starting “semi-autonomous” high-performance work teams seven years ago, Shurflo, a Santa Ana, Calif.-based manufacturer of small diaphragm pumps, started a “President’s Council on Quality.” Incoming President Russ Phillips took a “diagonal slice” out of the company and “articulated the boundaries and ‘non-negotiables’ of its work teams, such as a mandate for no production shortcuts in order to push cheaper product out the door faster,” says Lorene Houser, advisor for Innovation, Quality and Services (or IQS, Shurflo’s version of total quality management). “Within these parameters, employees have been liberated in their thinking and are able to pursue special projects within their teams.”

Shurflo found that rumor mills, which often run rampant during organizational transitions, were largely nonexistent. The company’s 425 employees so appreciated the opportunity for communication with top executives, and the meetings were so effective in promoting open and factual communications, that the President’s Council meetings continue today.

Infrastructure challenges. Virtual teams, whose members work via long-distance and rely heavily on communications technology to do their jobs, face special challenges in building trusting relationships, according to Benson Rosen, Hanes Professor of Management in the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. “Face-to-face trust is built more on the quality of interpersonal relationships while long- distance trust is based more on dependability,” he says.

Networks that crash, incompatible software and unreliable Internet connections can destroy the confidence of members of a virtual team. “The infrastructure of virtual teams should be tested and problems resolved before the teams become operational,” notes Rosen. “If this doesn’t happen, the finger-pointing may start and trust may erode before the team ever has the opportunity to succeed.”


Problem-Solving Apparatus

Team problems, safe to say, are more complicated than individual problems.

A useful tool to diagnose SMWT problems is the “critical incident analysis,” Hitchcock says. “One of the best services I can provide to a team is to help them identify the problems, look at contributing risk factors, determine trigger events and see how members reacted to the situation. This is especially valuable when someone is ready to withdraw from the team,” she says. “Once they’ve gone through a critical analysis, the next time they’re enthusiastic about taking on problems.”

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) and other external consultants can conduct group interventions for team members whose quarreling has become deeply personal and coach them on how to handle situations differently.

According to John Seager, who worked for years as a plant training manager for a pharmaceutical maker in Meyerstown, Pa., “Our team concept included a team of managers who met biweekly to discuss how they should handle behavioral and interpersonal problems they have with employees differently” during the transition period. Such facilitated meetings should include open discussions, role-playing, use of behavioral assessments of leadership style, and other problem identification and resolution activities.

What’s in It for Teams

An SMWT gels when its members see that what they collectively gain is greater than what they personally sacrifice. Rosen says the key benefit members gain is team empowerment, composed of four “dimensions”:

Potency, the team’s belief that it can be effective.
Meaningfulness, the team’s understanding that its work is important, valuable and worthwhile.
Impact, the production of outputs important for the organization.
Autonomy, the independence and discretion that teams have in their decision making.

Interestingly, in a 1999 study of these dimensions that was co-directed by Rosen, the first three were associated very highly with team members’ feelings of team empowerment, while autonomy—which is implicitly assumed to be the linchpin of SMWTs—lagged far behind.

“We found that autonomy, by itself, means little without the other three,” says Rosen. “In an ideal workplace, favorable outcomes for potency, meaningfulness and impact make a solid foundation on which the team can enjoy its autonomy.”

Despite the challenges they pose, SMWTs probably will continue to ride a growth curve of popularity among employers and new generations of workers. Not only are organizations getting better at harnessing the collective brainpower of employees, many school-age students are being primed for group work.

At the Charles F. Patton Middle School in Chadds Ford, Pa., for example, students spend half of their day in “cooperative learning groups” whose curricula and instructional techniques emphasize teamwork, collaboration and group problem solving.1 “These students will enter the workplace with team and collaborative skills that their predecessors did not have,” says Grazier. Chances are, they’ll be welcomed with open arms.