ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - September 2000

Issue Highlight - Remembering What Matters
-  Peter Block explains the need to look deeper than fashion and technological trends to find meaning in our homes and workplaces.

 In This Issue...
Living Impossible Dreams
Ouch! Is it Time to Redesign Your Systems?
Searching Ourselves: Avoiding Office Boxing Rings
Believe It or Not— Workplace Bias Still Exists

Bedtime Stories for Your Organization
Economy Breeds Short-Sightedness

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Heard on the Street

Ouch! Is It Time To Redesign Your Systems? Feeling Pain Can Signal Teams to Identify Better Processes, Even For County Governments

Cross functional teams are certainly not new to the majority of American businesses. But to government agencies, particularly on a local level, they can be downright original. For close to 18 years, Thomas Barber, of Mecklenburg County, of which Charlotte, N.C. is the county seat has used teams to make the county's service some of the most benchmarked in the nation.
His approach to installing and managing teams is simple: if people are in pain, if a process is not working-change it. He helps keep his teams on track by asking, "What is or isn't working? What are the barriers and how can we improve?" These four basic questions, while old-hat to some, certainly help keep Barber's teams on track, and ease the pain for the citizens of Charlotte.

 Thomas Barber has spent 18 years serving residents of North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County, home to the growing city of Charlotte. He began as a caseworker, but over the years he’s applied his people skills in many different departments. His instincts and training made him a natural for involvement in client advocacy. That opened up new avenues: He applied his experience toward establishing employee advocacy and introducing the concept of quality circles. “I moved from there to a resource management position with the county that looked at redesigning functions,” he says.

 That redesign of functions was a quality initiative that led to the restructuring of some of Mecklenburg County’s core service activities in several county departments. “We looked at layers of management and then did actual redesign of some flagship projects,” he explains. “We started five redesign projects in five departments, and I was assigned to one in the department of social services.” Barber worked as an internal consultant, looking at current processes with an eye toward making changes for efficiency, quality or timeliness.
Barber says those experiences prepared him for his latest set of activities. “We had a major redesign in the economic services division, handling the ‘Work First’ payments, commonly known as welfare checks, and the food stamps and Medicaid for families and children.” Federally mandated welfare reform in 1996 necessitated the redesign of the payment and dissemination process.

  As a result of these changes, Barber says, “We have a lot of teams and committees working because it takes forever to get these things implemented fully, especially when we have changes coming in every day. So you’re always checking to make sure everything you’re doing is appropriate. That’s what I’m here for: To make sure they don’t forget and let things go. Then you have a crisis situation and have to determine how to deal with something.”

  Barber strongly believes that the necessity for teams depends on the organization. “With our organization,” he points out, “our outputs within certain groups of people, although their jobs may be different, were basically the same.”

  The overall goal of his department was to get families to be self-sufficient. “There may be people (county employees) who can do that by helping families deal with food stamps,” Barber suggests. “Others may help with employment, but they were all focused in the same area. That was a generic team approach. We had different people with different disciplines working on a team together.”

  He cites another example of when teams proved to be important. “We needed applications for people applying for services. We had presumed that one person needed to take all that information for all those programs, and they could either pass it on to people with program knowledge or keep it themselves and process the whole thing. But their output was going to be basically the same. Whether the application was approved or denied, they needed to get it processed.”

Teams May Not Always Be The Answer

  With such examples in mind, Barber says, “That’s pretty much where organizations have to determine if they need to be team-based. If their outcomes are not related, if they have no overall outcomes that relate one area to another, if they work within their own division, or if they’re just looking at output of singular things, then they may not need to be team-based.”

  Once teams are in place, however, making sure they are operating at peak efficiency is crucial. Barber developed a simple rule of thumb to identify when a process may be in need of redesign: whenever someone is starting to feel the pain of having to do certain things. As soon as that pain is felt, it’s a good indicator something needs to be changed. “You start having a lot of morale problems. You may even start having a lot of turnover.” Customers can feel pain too, he adds, and that will often take the form of complaints. Organizations need to be attuned to such warnings and ready to respond.

  The best way to keep things on track is working through the team process and asking a series of key questions. In Mecklenburg County, Barber implements staff forums annually, where four basic questions are asked:

 What’s working well?
What’s not working well?
What are the barriers to getting your job done?
How can we improve?

  After the forums, Barber and his small staff gather employee feedback into a document that’s divided into categories. “These areas tend to pick out those things that are causing pain, where problems are occurring and points where we can focus our energies to make some changes.”

The Old Bugaboo: Getting Management Buy-In

  Once problems are identified, the biggest challenge Barber has identified is getting management buy-in. “The most important thing you have to have is supportive upper management. You’ve got to have that. You’ve got to have unwavering support. They have to be in it for the long haul, knowing that they’re going to have dips in productivity, and they’re going to have low morale after it’s implemented.” He’s quick to add, they have the foresight to know things will be better eventually.

  It’s also essential, Barber maintains, for workers and teams to be involved in analyzing the processes they are asked to carry out. “You need to have the people that do the work determine how it’s rethought. They’re the only ones that can tell you the things that are going to work and are not going to work. If you get managers in there who are out of the work lines, they’re not always aware of those things that change. The population they deal with changes, and they’re not aware of those changes as much or as quickly as front-line staff.”

  When working with teams and process design, Barber cautions, it’s important not to push for change unless the need is obvious. “We don’t form teams if we don’t need teams. We don’t use Total Quality Management if we don’t need Total Quality Management. Don’t use a cookie-cutter approach on anything. Design or implement something that reflects the business or what your interests are and what your outcomes should be.”
When the department of social services for Mecklenburg County began to redesign the crucial processes by which clients were served, there were two completely different divisions, Barber recalls. “We were separated by programs that had their own program directors. There were thick brick walls between each program. You didn’t cross over, although you were supposed to. Our clients had to duplicate information to each different program.

  Barber says teams working together made the process better for everyone. “We think about it now and say, ‘How could we have ever been set up that way?’ It just seems so logical this way. But if it’s not working, and you start feeling the pain, the first thing you do is get up and do something about it.” That familiar maxim about needing to suffer—“No pain. No gain.”—isn’t exactly what Barber means. But he sure knows that when you start feeling or hearing the scratch of inefficiency, you need to make a change. And that can assuredly be a gain for your organization.

         September 2000 NFC Homepage


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