ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

February 1999

Doctoring The Health Care Industry

A Toast To The Future

Business, The Final Frontier

Formula For Success: Balance Technology And People

Y2K Calling

by Peter Block

Have You Hugged Your Goalie Today?
by Bryan McGraw

Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

The Quality Tool I Never Use

Sites Unseen

Book Review

Views For A Change

John Runyan answers:
Beyond the changed focus and methodologies that have come and evolved, I believe that virtually every other characteristic of teams from their very existence to their composition, purpose, scope, processes and outcomes has shifted as well.

In the late 1980s, virtually all of the large company clients that I served had a plethora of task forces, committees and ad hoc groups aimed at improving the quality of their operations and outputs, and in some cases their work cultures and environments. These groups, for the most part, were comprised of a mix of cross-disciplinary subject matter experts, process specialists, supervisors/managers, representatives drawn from line operations and usually one or more outside consultants. Often their purpose was to translate highly-developed quality improvement processes and tools from well-known experts to the processes and products of their specific company. Their scope varied considerably, but usually they focused on the predictable and repeating processes of their enterprises. These groups worked with time frames that ran from many months to even years. Their processes often involved carefully planned information gathering, detailed data analysis, elaborate modeling and sophisticated solution testing. In many cases these committees and task forces generated elegant, integrated new models for various business
functions and processes.

Now in the late 1990s, I only know of a few task forces and groups with these same purposes and parameters. During the early 1990s many corporate leaders made the assessment that these multi- dimensional teams were too theory and method oriented, too costly in human and financial terms, and too slow to deliver their promised results. They came to the conclusion that their marketplaces were changing too fast—and that they and their workers could not productively sustain the major investment of time, attention and rigor needed to bring many full quality improvement approaches to fruition. This was especially true as changes in industries, technologies and marketplaces accelerated at breath-taking rates. Some of the slower developing, longer-term problem-solving and quality improvement groups saw their efforts become moot as they and their members were by passed and swallowed up by the very changes they were intended to manage.

Today, many of these companies are focused far more on short-term business planning and achievement of immediate results. As a result, these organizations are pouring their time, effort and money into direct action project teams and the systems that will maximize their networks, information flow and market responsiveness.
Here are some of the key characteristics of many teams as I see them constituted now:
- Managers, supervisors and workers are formed and re-formed into project teams with strict business purposes, tight time frames and strong performance demands.
- People embark on these teams with the explicit understanding that they will work together for a finite period on products and services that will have short lives in the marketplace.
- The purpose of these teams is to make and execute a targeted business plan, not necessarily improve the processes and products of the whole company.
- The teams are composed of just those people with the integrated expertises and skills needed to accomplish the tasks at hand, with limited attention given to other longer range education, development and cross-pollination purposes.
- The scope of these teams is usually circumscribed by specific market and product/service parameters. Their time frames are often measured in weeks and months with urgent mandates, incentives and consequences provided by higher management.
- Companies are investing huge sums in the technology that will connect their people electronically and provide them with the information necessary to monitor their marketplaces and respond to customers.
- Time and money that used to go into such longer-term efforts as leadership development, process research, and work environment improvement are now being spent on linking people to rapidly-developing external information sources and In-House/On-Site databases that will guide their efforts and work outputs.

While these ways of working have not yet been fully proven over time, they provide managers with the sense that they can direct and redirect their workforces with far more rapidity and flexibility than in previous years.

While I have mixed reactions to these developments over the past 10 years, I applaud two of the outcomes that I see from these trends. First, more employees of more company's are being drawn into an awareness and engagement in the core entrepreneurial endeavors of their businesses. Second, an over reliance on outside ideas and experts is frequently being replaced by a realization that “we have to do this for ourselves.” As a result, I believe that more workers are becoming more knowledgeable about and accountable for their part in their companies success or failure. No longer is it just "up to someone else” at a different or higher level to figure out what is the right way to proceed with products, services and customers.

On the other hand, the human cost of some of these shifts seems high. The combination of the short-term business focus of many teams and the characteristics of the “new employment contract” (with its emphasis on individual marketability and flexibility) make it ever more difficult for employees to find a solid, reliable base from which to learn, grow and invest in meaningful ways in their companies' sustained success.

I see the most effective leaders in companies now doing at least two things. First, they are applying the best of what they learned from the change technologies and longer-term quality improvement teams of this decade, even in the midst of this fast-moving, “just in time” era. Second, they are finding ways to balance their investments in short-term business and system needs with comparable investments in their employees on-going learning, skills and development as contributors.

H. James Harrington Responds

February '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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