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Self-directed or Mis-directed Work Teams?
Harvy Simkovits, CMC

Are you considering creating self-directed work teams in your organization? Studies have shown that self-directed teams are more effective than Quality Circles and Total Quality Management in generating high performance from employees. Self-directed teams result in:
  • gains in productivity and quality,
  • greater commitment from employees,
  • better, more innovative solutions to problems,
  • increased likelihood of implementing decisions.

Nevertheless, making the shift from a traditional hierarchical organization into a team structure is not simple, nor easy. Proper planning, preparation and education are needed to make empowered, self-directed work teams successful.

Case of a Problematic Team

The case of a small, 75 employee low-tech manufacturer in New England (fictitiously called MANUFAC) illustrates some of the difficulties when self- directed work teams are created without the necessary pre-work, which includes thinking through all the implications for everyone involved.

At MANUFAC, the Plant Manager, who had spent both a year educating himself in the concept of teams, and months working to get the company owners and production employees interested in this concept, spearheaded the effort. Over the course of several months, and with good intentions, MANUFAC, switched from traditional production departments into separate product-oriented teams (with each team made responsible for production functions for different product categories).

A year after team implementation, plant performance (based on objective measures of productivity, efficiency and quality) had improved somewhat. However, MANUFAC's plant was troubled by conflicts both within the teams, and between many team members and the Plant Manager. There was very little inter- team communication and collaboration, which was necessary for team learning. Also the original production supervisors, who were now team members, did little to help the teams get their work accomplished.

So what happened? The answer as to why these teams were experiencing problems lies in lack of company preparation for self-directed teams.

Prerequisites to Team Self-Direction

My experience (supported by the research and work of Harvard Professor D. Quinn Mills ), suggests that four conditions need to exist before a company can consider moving towards self-directed teams:

  1. Team members must have the competency to manage their independence and their team's work,
  2. The team must have access to information in order to make good decisions and achieve its goals,
  3. Management must have tolerance for errors and not fault the teams for their mistakes as they learn to improve themselves,
  4. Trust must exist both within the teams and between the teams and management if they are to take risks, openly share information and be ready and willing to accept change.

In the case of MANUFAC, the Plant Manager had done a good job in providing abundant information to the teams and positively encouraged the teams to learn from their mistakes. However, conflicts arose because the teams did not yet have the capability to sufficiently manage themselves. Being accustomed to having decisions made by their previous supervisors, the teams were not proficient in either making their own group decisions, or in solving new production problems as they surfaced. Also, the old supervisors had never been trained to act as coaches in order to help the teams through their difficulties. Often they just stood by as the teams floundered.

When the teams took their issues to the Plant Manager for his guidance, he turned the problem back to the teams by saying "You work it out yourselves in your team." Unfortunately, this response led to further frustration among many team members.

Also, trust became an issue. Not everyone within the team or within management believed that the self-directed team concept would work. Some team members, including the old supervisors, actually undermined the team's work in the hope that the company's owners would revert to the previous hierarchical structure.

Thus, two of the four conditions above were lacking at MANUFAC, i.e., competency and trust.

Reinforcing Team Self-Direction

Even if the above four conditions are met, five other requirements need to be addressed while implementing self-directed teams:

  1. Employees need to be made clear of the organization's mission and vision, and be able to identify their work in the context of that mission and vision,
  2. The teams must be properly structured and staffed such that appropriate people are working together around the relevant work processes,
  3. Employees must be made clear of their unit's performance goals and objectives, which becomes the basis for their daily work,
  4. There must be a system of measuring and communicating team and whole unit performance such that the teams can monitor and learn from past results, and work to improve those results,
  5. The company must install an appropriate team appraisal and reward system in order to evaluate and reinforce team performance.

The Plant Manager of MANUFAC had done a reasonably good job in structuring and staffing the teams and in outlining overall productivity, delivery and quality goals for them. Also, he had performed an excellent job in measuring and communicating performance results by both charting performance measures on the plant's bulletin boards, and then continually making these results a topic of discussion in team problem-solving meetings.

However, the Plant Manger was somewhat undermined by the company's owners who had not clearly communicated the company's mission and vision to all employees. Also, the company was still trying to use its old appraisal and reward system which worked to motivate and compensate employees individually rather than as a team. For the teams to have a proper incentive, a new system was required that would appraise and reward group performance in addition to individual players. Group productivity and quality incentives, when properly combined with individual incentives for skill mastery, work to heighten collaboration and decrease competition among employees.

Making a Successful Shift to Greater Self-Direction

As you may gather from this discussion and example, the shift from a traditional organizational structure to self-directed teams can be complicated. You can, however, make the transition easier by keeping in mind the elements discussed in this article. It is extremely important to prepare for and think through the implications of this change before implementation. Every major organizational change required good planning and preparation. It also involves ongoing communication and follow-up to ensure a successful transition. Evolutionary changes, rather than fast, revolutionary ones usually yield better results.

Don t despair! The move to self-directed teams is worth the investment. It can lead to exciting gains in productivity and quality. It can generate innovative solutions to problems and greater organizational commitment from employees. (Presently MANUFAC, with its new learning, is moving forward to correct its problems and make big gains in its investment in teams.) Making wise and mindful changes can enhance the resources you already have within your company - your employees - and create new highs in your company's performance.

Harvy Simkovits, CMC, President of Business Wisdom, works with owner managed companies to help them grow, prosper and continue on by offering innovative approaches to business development, company management, organization leadership and learning, and management education. He can be reached at 781-862-3983 or .

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