Starving your organization’s teams of systems, structures, and resources is like cutting off the power or blocking roads to an otherwise successful city, and virtually guarantees team failure. A full implementation of the team concept includes much more than putting people into groups called teams. It requires that all of the organization systems and processes reinforce the team concept.

Any democratic system requires certain infrastructure to survive. Constitutions declaring common values, fair and open voting processes, democratic systems of governance, a free press, unfettered economic systems and structures, power checks and balances and other institutions, laws, and practices are important for the sustainability of any democratic society. Do democratic work cultures require less? I don’t think so. Teams will not survive long in a work culture that is fundamentally autocratic. They have the same life expectancy as a small democratic enclave encircled by a totalitarian regime.

Important to team support is information infrastructure. When training and communication are insufficient, team effectiveness erodes, just as it does in aristocracies that control and withhold information. Teams need real facts and data – not corporate propaganda, untested opinion, stale news, or incomprehensible jargon. Information systems, training and learning processes, employee monitored goals and metrics, team meetings, and other methods for the gathering and interpreting of real time data are important. The old saying about computer programming – “garbage in, garbage out” – is particularly applicable to teams. They can be no more effective or sustainable than the quality of the information they receive.

A chemical plant had an explosion during the startup of their first team based organization. Although serious, the problem wasn’t caused by the team concept. The corporation put strong pressure on the plant to reinstate the traditional foremen eliminated during the redesign, suggesting that foremen would have kept the explosion from happening in the first place. The corporation was nearly able to re-impose a foreman-centered control process because the plant had no way to maintain team control without good information structures. The plant was able to stave off the “corporate help” by committing to an intensive training effort which taught individual employees the technical aspects that previous foremen had known. Without this training, the teams would have been incapable of responsibility for portions of the self-directed team concept, and the organization would rightfully insist that the traditional organization with foremen be reinstituted.

Good information and training, although vital, are not profitable unless members of a team have the ability to take action on their information. Without team governance designed into the workplace, the organization will revert to the comfort of the norm, a hierarchy, sometimes in spite of the early success of the teams.

When non-institutionalized employee processes operate parallel to a traditional hierarchy rather than in substitution to it, they are doomed to be temporary experiments. High performance work systems require a fundamental shift in the management paradigm. To see if a shift has taken place, ask the following questions.

  • Is there a constitution or document declaring shared team values in place of autocratic values?
  • Are there public measures to allow people other than management to determine when an operation is suboptimal?
  • Are there employee governance councils to substitute for hierarchal decisions?
  • Is there evidence of true shared accountability?
  • Do paternalistic leaders buffer the teams from the consequences of their mistakes?
  • Are there institutionalized systems for information sharing?
  • Are there viable investments in the education of company members?
  • Are there democratic structures for making the core decisions of the organization?

When corporate policies, the performance appraisal system, or the pay system are in conflict with the team concept, the lack of alignment generally causes the team to fail. In one organization in Tektronix, the performance appraisal reward individual time at the work station and unintentionally penalized things like meetings or cross training because those were deemed “non-productive” time. Although that may have been true in a traditional operation where employees didn’t need to concern themselves with making decisions together, it was important time for the teams. Until the performance appraisal system was redesigned, the sustainability of the team system was in serious jeopardy.

What are some of your experiences with team sustainability?

Leadership Value-driven Purpose People Processes Systems High Performance Culture