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Empowering People Through Self-Managed Teams Published: Monday, March 15, 2010 1:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Recently, several organizations have approached us with interest in implementing a Self Directed Teams Strategy. Although the idea is not new, over the past few years, there has been a lot of attention to this methodology. In the early 21st century, organizations seem to be re-discovering the benefits of self-managed teams (also known as self-directed teams, or semiautonomous work groups). A combination of factors explains that interest: environmental pressures push for leaner organizational models, technology enables real time information exchange, and the nature of jobs has changed significantly in the last ten years.

Even though the terms "self-managed" and "self-directed" are used frequently, they are rarely defined. As several authors have noted, there is no such thing as a typical self-managed team (Holpp, 1993, Shonk, 1992). Yet, it has been our experience that having a common definition can serve as a framework for discussion and dialogue on this topic. We define a self-managed team as "a group of people who have day-to-day responsibility for managing themselves and the work they do. Members of self-directed teams typically handle job assignments, plan and schedule work, make production-related decisions, and take action on problems.

Members of self-directed teams work with a minimum of direct supervision. These teams are characterized by:

  • Face-to-face interaction in natural work groups;
  • Responsibility for producing a definable product or service;
  • Responsibility for a set of interdependent tasks; and
  • Control over managing and executing tasks.

Although we recognize the potential value of self-managed teams, it is also important to keep in mind that self-management is not an appropriate objective for all work groups in all organizations. Autonomous work group designs are best suited to situations in which there are no major barriers to sharing knowledge among all group members and tasks are routine. This kind of environment allows group members to acquire skills from one another and to gain mastery over task performance.

Tasks which are unstable and require the application of a wide range of highly specialized skills or knowledge are not usually conducive to group self- regulation. Self-regulation cannot occur effectively since each group member has little influence over the others and little knowledge of the others' specialties.  What these statements imply is that temporary teams, committees, or task forces that come together briefly to address a specific issue, problem or challenge are not suited for self- management. These include flight crews on an aircraft, surgical operating teams in a hospital, and emergency response teams that respond to a disaster situation.

Self managed teams perform three (3) main roles in organizations: Accomplishing the team's work, organizing the team's work environment" and "managing the team's work processes. In order to effectively carry out the first role (accomplishing the team's work), team members need to have a common understanding of the team's work processes and the activities within each process. Examples of responsibilities that are a part of this role include:

Identifying what work the team needs to do; Prioritizing the work so it can be accomplished within agreed-upon timelines; Deciding who does the work; Scheduling the work; Obtaining the necessary resources to do the work; Doing the work within agreed-upon timelines while meeting identified customers' requirements; Collecting data about the work; Interpreting data about the work; and Taking appropriate action based on that data.

"Organize the team's work environment" is the second role to fall under mission-directed work. It promotes a systematic approach for effectively organizing and managing a team's total work environment and is based on the Japanese "5 S" methodology. Examples of responsibilities that fall under this role include: "Sorting" the necessary from the unnecessary within the work environment; "Simplifying" access to ensure there is a place for everything and everything is in its proper place; "Sweeping" both visually and physically to ensure safety, order, cleanliness, and routine maintenance has occurred; "Standardizing" the organization of the work area within and across groups to make it easier to visually sweep and recognize where everything is; and "Self discipline" in the ongoing study and reorganization of the work environment, as well as following through on all 5 S agreements.

"Manage the team's work processes" is the third role that falls under mission-directed work. Examples of responsibilities that fall under this role include: Identifying the work processes that are the responsibility of the team; Creating a standard method for carrying out each work process, based on customers' requirements, that includes a plan for monitoring process performance over time; Continually improving how the work is done; Addressing problems that arise; Identifying opportunities for innovation; Sharing work process information with others throughout the organization; and Training team members on the team's work processes and related topics.

Your team and or organization may have already made considerable progress in the arena of empowering people. While it takes a sound organizational architecture and support systems, one cannot deny that employee involvement plays an important role in the workplace of the future. As organizations struggle to survive and attempt to be agile, decisions about mission-directed work need to be made as close to the customer as possible. To date we know of no other way to obtain daily employee involvement and move decisions closer to the customer without self- managed teams.


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