The importance of a clear and appropriate structure to team performance is well documented. Katzenbach and Smith (1993), for example, interviewed hundreds of people on more than fifty teams in developing their book The Wisdom of Teams. Their sample encompassed thirty enterprises in settings as diverse as Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Operation Desert Storm, and the Girl Scouts. They drew a clear distinction between undifferentiated “groups” and sharply focused “teams”: “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills, who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” (p. 112).
Katzenbach and Smith’s research highlights six distinguishing characteristics of high-quality teams:
• High-performing teams shape purpose in response to a demand or an opportunity placed in their path, usually by higher management. Top managers clarify the team’s charter, rationale, and challenge while giving the team flexibility to work out goals and plans of operation. By giving a team clear authority and then staying out of the way, management releases collective energy and creativity.
• High-performing teams translate common purpose into specific, measurable performance goals. Purpose yields an overall mission, but successful teams take the additional step of recasting purpose into specific and measurable performance goals: “If a team fails to establish specific performance goals or if those goals do not relate directly to the team’s overall purpose, team members become confused, pull apart, and revert to mediocre performance. By contrast, when purpose and goals are built on one another and are combined with team commitment, they become a powerful engine of performance” (p. 113).
• High-performing teams are of manageable size. Katzenbach and Smith fix the optimal size for an effective team somewhere between two and twenty-five people: “Ten people are far more likely than fifty to work through their individual, functional, and hierarchical differences toward a common plan and to hold themselves jointly accountable for the results” (p. 114). More members mean more structural complexity, so teams should aim for the smallest size that can get the job done.
• High-performing teams develop the right mix of expertise. The structural frame stresses the critical link between specialization and expertise. Effective teams seek out the full range of necessary technical fluency; “product development teams that include only marketers or engineers are less likely to succeed than those with the complementary skills of both” (p. 115). In addition, exemplary teams find and reward expertise in problem solving, decision making, and interpersonal skills to keep the group focused, on task, and free of debilitating personal squabbles.
• High-performing teams develop a common commitment to working relationships. “Team members must agree on who will do particular jobs, how schedules will be set and adhered to, what skills need to be developed, how continuing membership in the team is to be earned, and how the group will make and modify decisions” (p. 115). Effective teams take time to explore who is best suited for a particular task as well as how individual roles come together. Achieving structural clarity varies from team to team, but it takes more than an organization chart to identify roles and pinpoint one’s place in the official pecking order and layout of responsibilities. Most teams require a more detailed understanding of who is going to do what and how people relate to each other in carrying out diverse tasks.
One possibility is to use responsibility charting (Galbraith, 1977). Responsibility charting presents a framework and a language for hammering out how people work together. For a given task, responsibility is assigned to the individual or group with overall accountability. The next step is to outline how that role relates to others on the team. Does someone need to approve the actions of the responsible person? Are there people who need to be consulted? Are there others who must be kept informed? The acronym CAIRO summarizes the framework: C for consults; A for approval; I for informed; R for responsibility; and O for out of the loop, or not informed. Whatever form it takes, an effective team “establishes a social contract among members that relates to their purpose and guides and obligates how they will work together” (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993, p. 116).
• Members of high-performing teams hold themselves collectively accountable. Pinpointing individual responsibility is crucial to a well-coordinated effort, but effective teams find ways to hold the collective accountable: “Teams enjoying a common purpose and approach inevitably hold themselves responsible, both as individuals and as a team, for the team’s performance” (p. 116).
Teams have become the rage but are often thrown together with little attention to what ensures success. In an influential article, Brian Dumaine (1994) highlights a common error: “Teams often get launched in a vacuum, with little or no training or support, no changes in the design of their work, and no new systems like e-mail to help communication between teams. Frustrations mount, and people wind up in endless meetings trying to figure out why they are a team and what they are expected to do.” A focused, cohesive structure is a fundamental underpinning for high-performing teams. Even highly skilled people zealously pursuing a shared mission will falter and fail if group structure constantly generates inequity, confusion, and frustration.
SELF-MANAGING TEAMS: STRUCTURE OF THE FUTURE?
The sports team analogy discussed earlier assumed some role for a top-down team manager. But what about teams that manage themselves organically from the bottom up? Self-managing work teams have been defined as groups of employees with the following characteristics (Wellins and others, 1990):
• They manage themselves (plan, organize, control, staff, and monitor).
• They assign jobs to members (decide who works on what, where, and when).
• They plan and schedule work (control start-up and ending times, the pace of work, and goal setting).
• They make production- or service-related decisions (take responsibility for inventory, quality control decisions, and work stoppage).
• They take action to remedy problems (address quality issues, customer service needs, and member discipline and rewards).
Evidence suggests that self-directed teams often produce better results and higher morale than groups operating under more traditional top-down control (Cohen and Ledford, 1994; Emery and Fredendall, 2002). But getting such teams started and giving them the resources they need to be effective is a complex undertaking. Many well-known firms—such as Microsoft, Boeing, Google, W. L. Gore, Southwest Airlines, Harley-Davidson, Whole Foods, and Goldman Sachs—have stumbled successfully toward the benefits of self-directed teams without being overwhelmed by logistical snafus or reverting to the traditional command-and-control structure. A classic multidecade example is the Saturn division of General Motors.
In 1983, General Motors announced the launch of a revolutionary experiment: the Saturn project, which would produce automobiles in a new way. The Saturn experiment showed what can happen when you place people in a suitable structure of roles and relationships. After it was launched by its parent, Saturn quickly achieved levels of quality, consumer satisfaction, and customer loyalty that surpassed those of much of the U.S. automotive industry. What was the secret of the company’s success?
Credit has been assigned to its sophisticated technology and its enlightened approach to managing people and its unique culture. On the technology side, Saturn made extensive use of computers and deployed robots for many repetitive or dangerous jobs. Its human resource practices emphasized training, conflict management, and extensive employee participation. Its unique way of doing things and cohesion are legendary. Yet it is easy to overlook Saturn’s distinctive team structure as an important element of its achievements.
Company-wide, Saturn employees were granted authority to make team decisions, within a few flexible guidelines. Restrictive rules and ironclad, top-down work procedures were left behind as the company moved away from what employees call the “old world” of General Motors. Early in the company’s history, a new manager imported from General Motors was walking the line and noticed an assembly worker standing beside a pile of parts. He asked the employee why the parts were not being used. The worker replied that they did not meet quality standards. The manager told him to use the parts anyway. The worker refused. “Very quickly the UAW [United Automobile Workers] president and a top manager came to the scene. They flat out told [the new manager] that things aren’t done that way here at Saturn and that he’d better learn his job. To which the manager replied, ‘What is my job?’ The union president retorted, ‘That’s for you to discover’” (Deal and Jenkins, 1994, p. 244).
Saturn’s engineers and assembly-line workers worked together to solve problems and design manufacturing processes. Quality was everyone’s business, and any employee had the authority to stop the assembly line if something ran amiss. Relationships between UAW and Saturn management were cordial and cooperative, governed by an official agreement just one page in length.
Most of the actual assembly of the Saturn automobile was done by teams. More than 150 production teams of eight to fifteen cross-trained, highly interdependent workers assembled the cars on a half-mile-long assembly line. The traditional system of sequential, repetitive efforts by isolated individuals became a thing of the past. Saturn created “a work environment where people provide leadership for themselves and others. It is cooperation and self and team management that make Saturn tick. Problems are solved by people working together—they are not kicked upstairs for others to solve” (p. 230).
Saturn teams exemplified Katzenbach and Smith’s (1993) profile of successful teams. The design of the car, corporate values, and quality standards came down from the executive suite, but each team translated broad objectives into measurable performance goals. Teams were empowered to deal with budget, safety procedures, ergonomics, vacations, time off, and other matters. In effect, each team managed its own business within general guidelines. An employee in body systems described how it worked on her team: “The working conditions are like running your own business. We decide when the shifts are, who starts where, break and eating times, and vacation schedules” (Deal and Jenkins, 1994, p. 242).
Saturn teams designated their own working relationships. Prior to the beginning of a shift, team members conferred in a team center for five or ten minutes. They determined the day’s rotation. A team of ten would have ten jobs to do and typically rotated through them, except that rotation was more frequent for jobs involving heavy lifting or stress. Every week the plant shut down to let teams review quality standards, budget, safety, and the ergonomics of assembly. The level of responsibility teams assumed was illustrated by an interior design team that chose to eliminate sixteen team jobs. In looking for ways to trim costs, the team identified an inefficient practice: walking too far to pick up parts for the assembly. Moving the parts closer to the line eliminated the extra distance, but it also made the extra positions unnecessary. The team—including those who eventually moved to other positions at Saturn—made decisions about which positions to eliminate.
Group accountability became an accepted way of life for Saturn teams. Workers watched the numbers every day. At least $10,000 in salary was put at risk each year. If the company met its performance objectives, everyone gained. If it did not, the loss was also shared. Everyone at Saturn admitted that things were not perfect. But there was general agreement that teams were learning from mistakes and constantly refining the structure of teamwork.
Since its beginnings in the 1980s, Saturn has been through ups and downs. Today, the company is a division of GM and more closely aligned with the parent company. New presidents chosen in 1998 and 2000 both came from GM. Since 2004, Saturn vehicles have been designed to use parts from other GM divisions. Saturn’s original independence as a company has been reduced by GM’s rising control, and Saturn has struggled to achieve the market success and profitability its founders envisioned. But in spite of all the changes, the original team-based concept continues to produce a high-quality automobile assembled by self-directed employees. At last word, GM was still convinced that “Saturn definitely has a future.”