ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - May 2001


Behind the Teams: We've provided you with the tools and resources that will help you in your fight to keep team efforts alive, to build a greater sense of community and unity in your organization.
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  In This Issue...

A Purpose And A Place
Do Upper Managers Earn Their Keep?
Pageturners: Effective Training Strategies
Proof Positive
Brief Cases

 One From Column B —
My Kingdom for a Team

Peter Block explores the durability of teams and why they remain fascinating after all these years.

  Behind the Teams:

Just What the Doctor Ordered
In Support of Teams
Cynthia Minor and Mike Levenhagen

Highlights of Winning Teams
Views For A Change
Pam Walsh's Unofficial Quality Tips

Return to NFC Index

  Special Feature: Behind the Teams


Insights: Support and Dedication Keys to Team Success

Cynthia Minor is a manager in the Corporate Quality Department at Bayer Corporation. She also serves on the Corporate Quality Council and the Bayer Change Leadership Team.
Minor has discovered over the years that each new and challenging assignment has had similar requirements: evaluating processes and making changes, determining needs and redesigning training, creating and effectively disseminating communications and, most importantly, influencing others to achieve positive results for the organization.

In evaluating a team’s performance, what do you feel are the overriding characteristics that lead to the most successful teams?
As I think of the characteristics I see in our very best teams, the first one that comes to mind is clear goals linked to business objectives. The best teams understand how their work ties into the “bigger picture,” whether it’s the customer, community, environment or corporation. This keeps them highly focused and gives them ownership.

  The next thing is the use of problem-solving processes. One of our best teams was described as believing in the “purity of the process.” That team was formed to optimize a process that most people felt was already optimized, because there had been previous teams working on the process. However, the early teams declared failure too soon, whereas the victorious team relied on the “purity of the process” and pushed past the failures to achieve success.

  The best teams operate as tight, cohesive units with agreements they adhere to. Communication is open, commitments are kept, opinions are respected and members are held accountable for action items, which leads to the next characteristic: team ethic. I would compare this to the individual work ethic, but apply it to a team. It’s a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done and sacrificing for the good of the whole.

What have you noticed has the most power to hold teams back?
I would say lack of management support, management that rewards individual achievement over teamwork and people who won’t make teamwork a priority. For example, a supervisor who gives an employee grief for taking too much time to attend a team meeting or asks a team member to postpone a team commitment to fight a fire on the job—that message says, “Teamwork is not a priority”.

Are there some people who just aren’t meant to work on teams, or can anyone learn?
I believe anyone can learn. It’s like the question: “Are leaders born or made?” Some people seem to be inherently good team players, just as some seem to be born leaders. I believe that in both cases behaviors and skills can be taught, and then reinforced. Eventually the real change in behavior requires a transformation of the heart—that’s where the essence of the person abides. Reinforcement can come in a variety of ways. Don’t underestimate the power of a sincere “thank you.”

Do you feel the current unstable state of the economy will diminish teams’ effort or act as a rallying point?
If the purpose of working in teams is to make significant contributions to enhance business results, then in times of an unstable economy, certainly teams should be more important than ever. And I think management will stay with teams. From the employees’ standpoint, when times are tough, fear frequently causes people to worry about who’s going to get credit or blame. Especially if it’s a fear of downsizing. But I think management will continue to support teams and may even emphasize that area more strongly.

How can teams overcome this unsure time?
I think the best way is to realize what is necessary now, more than ever, is to make things work. The organization desperately needs employee support during tough times and as tough decisions are made. Teams need to become part of the solution by making their ambition for the corporation’s success. Instead of being overcome by fear teams need to work harder to make a difference. If management is as open and straightforward as the situation permits, that will contribute to the team’s ownership and help alleviate fear.

What do you feel is an effective way to deal with individuals who are more interested in their own fate than in that of their team?
I think the best way to deal with team members who hinder the team process is directly. If the team has a strong leader, then the individual should be privately confronted, while providing direct, honest and objective feedback and coaching. If not dealt with firmly, this individual can damage the entire team.

  Another good technique is to point to the team agreements. Good team agreements include open and honest communication and feedback. If the team operates according to its agreements, then members feel free to provide respectful feedback.

What is the key to a team-based culture?
I keep coming back to management support, and a system to reward and reinforce teamwork. That doesn’t mean that the individual is lost—but the system should reward the individual who acts with the good of the whole as a top priority—they’re not just looking to further themselves. Companies very often teach and preach teams while rewarding and promoting individual competitiveness.


Insights: Take One for the Team

Mike Levenhagen has been a Continuous Improvement trainer with the Oshkosh Truck Corporation, Oshkosh, Wisc., for eight years. In this time, he has also acted as a “Koality Kid” liaison between his company and a local elementary school.

  In this interview, Levenhagen shares his thoughts on teams and his opinion that through healthy skepticism and embracing diversity, any team can be a success.

In evaluating a team’s performance, what do you feel are the overriding characteristics that lead to the most successful teams?
  Resilience is one of them. Successful teams are able to take the bumps and bruises of corporate America and not be set back. Through moving personnel, losing personnel, moving jobs and not getting the support they need—they still hang in there and are committed to the process.

  Another big one is utilizing and celebrating diversity within the team—not just personal styles, but also tapping into members’ diversity of work experience, their background and different things like that. Instead of letting diversity become a barrier, explore the differences and appreciate them.

What obstacle has the most power to hold teams back?
 Letting healthy skepticism turn into cynicism. I encourage healthy skepticism on my teams, like, “Is this really going to work?” It’s good because they’re willing to try it. Some teams let their skepticism roll over into the cynicism and any time there’s a bump in the road they say, “There, that isn’t going to work—it’s another piece of evidence that says it’s not worth it.”

Are there some people who just aren’t meant to work on teams, or can anyone learn?
 From my experiences, everybody can learn team skills and work in a team environment. One danger with teams is that we have a tendency to label people as “non-team players.” I think there’s a healthy, valuable place for that person on the team. They can contribute a lot and help the team avoid groupthink. It is possible if people are properly managed, given the vision and told, “Here are the parameters and what is acceptable. You don’t have to participate, but you can’t be disruptive.” It’s like being a resident of the United States; you have to have your green card or be a natural citizen to be here, but at the same time nobody can make you vote.

Is there a necessary place for individuals who are more interested in their own fate than that of their team?
 Absolutely, bottom line is we all have personal agendas and to some degree, some are hidden even to us. When we enter a team meeting and start participating in a team setting, we all have agendas. I don’t think it’s a problem or that a team needs to be chastised for having them. The problem will come in if the individual is duplicitous and undermines what the team is trying to achieve. That needs to be addressed through conflict resolution and open dialogue within the team. One growth opportunity for the team is identifying that everyone basically came in with the same needs for security and respect.

What do you believe is the key to a team-based culture?
The first thing is top management seeing and buying into the bottom line of team-based activity, with an understanding that while there are definite investments upfront, the long-term returns are worth it. The second key is joint implementation in which the entire plan is initiated by the front-line employees and upper-management coming together from the start.

Why should companies support teams?
 I think being part of a teamwork atmosphere creates a sense of belonging. It gives employees the personal connection and commitment that creates loyalty—both within and outside of their department. It is better for employee morale and gives employees input about the needs and issues of the corporation. Employees can also develop more personal accountability and a greater responsibility for the company’s success.

 Are there any negatives or challenges for teams to be aware of?
It is important to realize that as you grow, you may have team individuality, a sense of identity that can break down or build walls between other groups and support groups. As your team grows and the camaraderie expands, be sure it is in a healthy way with others included.

 Overall, I think in order to have a good team environment, there needs to be a group that uses the tools themselves to oversee the process.


May 2001Homepage



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