There have been a number of articles in Plastics News about teams and their potential contribution to companies in the plastics industry. Lately, there's been a rush by industries to assemble workers into teams. Where once the work was done by many people who owned their own piece of the pie, the new team structure divides employees into work cells that leverage off expertise and abilities.
While this type of organizational structure has benefits, it also has hidden pitfalls. Managers who leap into the teamwork breach without recognizing the risks as well as the rewards are in danger of finding something other than a pot of golden solutions at the end of the rainbow.
The concept of teams is often clouded by what it is that teams do. Consultants in the training field consistently find clients who ask for team-building training without a clear notion of what outcome is expected. Much of this has to do with how we define teams. A common definition is: ``A group of employees who can sit in the same room and effectively work a problem through to a conclusion.'' Or, ``A team is a group that has a shared vision or a shared goal.''
Effective problem solving and shared visions are indeed symptoms of good teams, but only cosmetically so. Twenty thousand people gather in the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., to cheer on the Lakers. They have a shared vision - seeing the home team win. They work together to support that vision. So, does that make them a team? Of course not. Most people don't even know the person's name sitting next to them.
The kind of team dynamics demonstrated on sports teams is often used as a model in industry, usually with less than stellar results. For instance, baseball has subspecialists on each team - pitcher, catcher, infielder and so on. But when boiled down to its basics, they all do pretty much the same thing - catch balls, throw balls, run around the bases, walk picket lines, etc. Teams in industry are often thrown together with people of vastly different backgrounds and training. So, a team comprised of an engineer, a warehouse person, a machine operator, a process technician, an inspector, a buyer and a customer service rep may have no problem coming up with a shared vision, but may have an enormously difficult time melding into a team.
Experts in organizational development are unanimous in their assessment that professionals are the most difficult to assimilate into a team structure. The reasons are many, but one common thread is that professionals have the most to lose. These are people who have made it through college, often at the expense of nearly every oth-er facet of their lives. Very few
people are so altruistic they would invest that kind of time and energy if they knew the team's accomplishments would overshadow their own. Now they are suddenly asked to pool their skills with the (usually) lesser skills of others and become an equal with the rest. If those exceptional skills and contributions are not recognized, bad feelings are likely to arise.
A classic example can be found in hospitals where efforts to form teams are resisted at every turn. Is a doctor, with 12 years of schooling and X number of years' experience, expected to collaborate as an equal with a mere nurse?
Before condemning that reaction, let's put the shoe on your foot and see how it fits. Imagine being in a group of people pooling their resources to buy a car. Everyone else brings pockets filled with pennies while you bring a pocketful of twenties. Might that not lead to a sense of resentment? A feeling of animosity? A perception of injustice?
In the plastics industry, certain disciplines simply do not lend themselves well to a team structure. Engineers are notoriously poor team members and for reasons other than professional training. Engineering is an individual activity. The last thing an engineer at a CAD station needs is a bunch of well-meaning team members looking over her shoulder. The same goes for accounting. CPA's just don't thrive in a crowd because the nature of their work is highly precise and ... well, solitary.
So before jumping on the team bandwagon, the savvy manager first asks a few basic questions.
``Is a team appropriate for this particular task?'' Teams take time to build, so they work best in areas of long-term planning, not quick fix situations. Sometimes the professional, with the resources of others available, is in the best position to affect the desired change, and usually in a much shorter time frame.
``What performance measures will I use to evaluate the team?'' One of the cornerstones of traditional management philosophy resides in the area of personal accountability. There is an entirely different dynamic involved in team accountability.
``What should the reward system look like?'' Virtually every team contains a mix of wage scales. If the team exceeds performance objectives, should the reward be the same dollar figure for each team member? Or, if not based on wages, then what, pizza?
``What will the consequences be for non-performance?'' Traditional business philosophy holds that nonperformers deserve the boot. That's easy to say when you're dealing with an individual, but applying that to a team can be disastrous. Keep in mind most teams are made up of people chosen for their expertise. Fire the entire team and those assets are lost. Pick and choose who to keep and destroy the concept of team accountability, and you're right back to the traditional management style. Add to that the organizational distrust such a move might create and it is likely no one will want to be part of a team ever again.
Teams have an excellent track record of helping plastics suppliers and manufacturers meet organizational objectives. But they look, sound and act differently than the traditional work force. Any amount of time devoted to up-front planning can do much to reduce downstream surprises.
Wickstrom teaches plastics manufacturing technology in Portland, Ore.