More companies are getting serious about teamwork

April 17, 1995|By Michelle Santos | Michelle Santos,Knight-Ridder News Service

Teams are changing the way your children's classes are taught and the way airplanes are built.

You probably know someone who works on a team instead of in a department. If you're not already working on a team, you probably will be within the next 10 years, according to industry forecasts.

What is a team? And why are so many companies taking this route?

Teams are a way of structuring the workplace so that people work less as individuals -- putting the wheels on a toy truck, for example -- than as a group -- working with others to put the entire truck together.

Though that sounds simple, it's not. It means, many times, forcing people to learn about areas they're not familiar with, reducing levels of management and giving more control to more people.

Cross-training is often involved: In our toy truck example, each person on the team would learn how to put the wheels on, paint the truck and attach the decals.

Why do it? Companies may switch to teams to make themselves more efficient, more reliable or more innovative.

At Sullivan Higdon & Sink Inc., an advertising firm in Wichita, Kan., the goal of the company's recent move into teams was a better creative product, says Lynell Stucky, director of marketing services.

"All the things we're doing are set to move us in that direction," Ms. Stucky says. The firm has reorganized its entire staff -- copywriters, ad designers, account executives, managers -- into three large teams.

Before moving to teams, "a lot of inefficiencies within companies occurred between departments and between groups," says Gerald Graham, dean of the business school at Wichita State University.

Theoretically, teams are more flexible, more effective and more accountable than the departments, units or production lines that preceded them.

"The record of team performance speaks for itself," Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, management consultants, say in their book, "The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization."

A word of warning for new team devotees: Companies need to make sure they're not falling into the "teams for the sake of teams phenomenon," which Mr. Smith says he frequently sees. That approach is useless, he says, because what matters is having specific performance goals and reaching them.

One of the "teams" he and Mr. Katzenbach worked with while researching the book was the executive committee of a large financial services company. The team's job was to make the company competitive again. However, for a number of reasons -- no real sense of direction, no common goal, and very individualistic members -- the team failed.

Companies "assume that team and teamwork are the same thing. Teamwork is very important but it's not the same thing as a team," Mr. Smith says.

Is it difficult? Yes, management experts say.

Major change -- including moving from departments and work units to teams -- "breaks the rhythm of the work group," according to Price Pritchett and Ron Pound in the handbook "Team Reconstruction: Building a High Performance Work Group During Change."

"People are confused, demoralized, angry, aimless and worried. Some employees throw up their hands and psychologically quit," Mr. Pritchett and Mr. Pound say. The authors recommend an energized team leader to rectify the loss of morale.

Employees at Sullivan, Higdon & Sink admit the switch hasn't been easy.

"It does take a tremendous toll on people," says Bob Hamrick, a senior copywriter for the agency.

People were very close to their co-workers in the old departments, Ms. Stucky explains. They were friends with those they saw frequently.

"When you move to teams, your support system goes away," Ms. Stucky says. "You have a new support system, that is your team. But that takes a while to build up to feel comfortable. I think that's something we're dealing with right now."

Mr. Hamrick agrees. "I don't think you can ever psychologically prepare for it. People were really fighting the stress. That's somewhat better now, though we have a long way to go," he said.

What is a successful team? Mr. Graham thinks two things are essential to the success of a team: having the right people on the team, and having a good team leader. Though that sounds very basic, it's a lot harder to achieve than it sounds, Mr. Graham says.

There are two ways a company can determine if it's made the right choice in moving to teams, says Janet Weaver, managing editor for the Wichita Eagle, which reorganized its newsroom to the team approach earlier this year.

The first is looking at the products or information that the company puts out. Obviously, a better product or clearer information means you've made progress. Central to team success are evaluations and clear-cut goals, Ms. Weaver adds.

Another way to tell if your change has worked is to look at your staff, Ms. Weaver says.

"Are you keeping the right people? Are you losing key people that you really need? Do people think the quality of their work life is improving?" Ms. Weaver says. If a company is happy with the answers to those questions after restructuring, then teams were probably the right decision.

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