September 16, 2018

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Effective Teams…To Be or Not To Be

I recently taught a group of individuals from various business units of a service organization about how to facilitate teams through continuous improvement efforts, known as Kaizen events. It was during this session that I was reminded that having the technical skills of conducting continuous improvement activities are usually not as difficult, but the people-related aspects of leading a team are usually the bigger challenge for a leader or facilitator.

Mastering technical skills doesn’t cut it when it comes to effective team performance – maintaining a people-focused mindset while working in and leading teams remains most critical.

We all know that working in teams is a fundamental necessity for accomplishing goals in any organization. For example, in a hospital the nurses on an inpatient unit/floor have to work as a team to ensure their patients are receiving a consistent quality of care from every member of the team – from admission, checking vital signs, administering medications, through discharge. This blog outlines the key elements of an effective team environment that, when adopted, can boost team effectiveness in your organization.

Before discussing elements that are critical for effective team performance, let’s first define a team – a team is a group of people working together to achieve a common purpose for which they hold themselves mutually accountable (source: The Team Handbook). A team also has to exhibit the characteristics highlighted in Figure 1. Furthermore, we’ll distinguish between two basic types of teams:

  • Ongoing work teams Teams perform processes and/or functional tasks in an ongoing manner, with no defined beginning or end. For example, an IT application support team performs ongoing enhancements, updates, maintenance, and supports activities for critical business applications.
  • Project teamsTeams perform tasks to achieve the desired outcome with a defined beginning and end. For example, an improvement project team tasked with reducing customer calls related to taking payments for auto insurance policies to reduce costs and free up capacity.

Whether your teams are co-located, or virtual, the following is a list of key elements for effective teams performance:

A clearly documented and visible mission and purpose for the team. For a project team, this is usually done as part of the project chartering process. The mission should be able to briefly describe why the team exists, and the use of empowering words can invoke a greater sense of engagement and alignment with that mission. A team’s purpose may be multi-faceted but should be more specific in terms of how the team will achieve its mission. As an example, for an IT applications support team, their mission and purpose might be:

  • Mission: Provide exceptional support to our business customers.
  • Purpose: Provide 90% availability of critical business applications. 

Defined roles and responsibilities for the team leader and team members. For a project team, this should be done during the project chartering process. For an ongoing team, the team leader may naturally lie with the team’s supervisor or manager. It may also be important to identify additional roles within the team, for example appointing someone to document the team’s work and progress in the appropriate places (i.e. shared drive, knowledge management system, project management system, etc.) In addition, leadership should decide who will coordinate communication between the team members. Leadership should consider rotating the appointments to different employees to keep team members engaged and prevent members from being overwhelmed with a particular role. A RACI chart can be helpful in documenting a team’s roles and responsibilities.

  • An environment of trust where members are encouraged to express their thoughts, opinions, and potential solutions to problems. People should feel as if they are heard out and listened to by others who are attempting to understand. There should be no punishment for disagreement – and in fact, disagreement is expected and appreciated. Creating this environment starts with the team leader, but all team members have a responsibility to exhibit the appropriate behaviors to establish trust amongst the team.
  • Agreed-upon decision-making norms that guide how the team makes decisions. While it might be ideal for a team to reach decisions by consensus, this may not be the most effective method for all situations. Teams should consider other decision-making methods such as voting or individual which have benefits for different situations. A team should agree on what methods will be used for various decision-making scenarios.
  • Agreed-upon conflict resolution strategies that guide how the conflict will be handled within the team. In a highly functioning team environment, disagreement will occur and is welcomed because it may lead to more creative ideas and engagement from the team. A recommendation is to have team members use the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI) to assess their conflict modes, so appropriate strategies can be employed based on individuals’ results.
  • A method for problem-solving and continuous improvement that provides a framework for how the team will continually improve its operational capabilities. Increasingly, teams are expected to identify and address problems that inhibit their ability to effectively carry out their mission and serve their purpose in an organization. In order to do so, teams should be equipped with tools and methodologies that allow them to assess and minimize (or eliminate) these barriers. Methodologies such as Lean Six Sigma (DMAIC), PDCA, or root cause analysis techniques should be utilized to enable teams to continuously improve. The nature of the problem being addressed should guide which methodology is most appropriate.

Enhancing team effectiveness takes time and effort.

Organizations should be patient while adopting these elements to experience the benefits.

Contact us to learn more about how we can develop and execute a plan to help your organization boost its team effectiveness!