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Natural Work Teams, the Untapped Resource

Leveraging the latent knowledge of the workforce—through its natural work teams—has made the difference for world-class organizations and can do the same for your company.

Many people think the concept of using small groups or work teams was developed by Toyota, but in truth they were in use in America long before Dr. Edwards Deming, Philip Crosby and others introduced the concept in Japan. Unfortunately, in the late 1960s we began to move away from using them and today few organizations recognize the power and benefits that these teams could provide.

In my generation, as managers we relied on the workforce—through the natural work teams—to help us achieve and sustain optimum performance. We transferred responsibility for day-to-day activities and decision-making on the factory floor to the workers on the floor. In return, they accepted accountability for their performance as individuals and work teams. Their inherent pride in workmanship and ownership never let us down. Most bottlenecks, problems and conflicts were resolved without the involvement of middle and senior management.

As senior managers we constantly monitored the pulse of the organization by regular visits to each functional group—especially the factory floor. Today it’s called Gemba, but in the early 1960s it was management by walking around and it was and is the only way to really know what is happening within the organization. The visits were not “big brother” in nature, but rather a genuine quest for knowledge and what was needed to support the natural work teams.

Natural work groups exist in all organizations, especially on the manufacturing or production floor. These are the operators, tenders, material handlers and maintenance technicians who must work together as part of their day-to-day duties. In today’s environment, the effectiveness of these groups ranges from very poor to exceptional depending on the personalities within the group. In most cases it is only as good as its weakest link. The latent talents within these groups can make the difference between a reactive organization struggling to survive and a world-class organization. However, to leverage this talent the organization first recognize the true value of its workforce and then convert these natural work groups into natural work teams.

Why the value of natural work teams goes unrecognized is unclear. Perhaps it is because of the misinterpretation of small groups in Lean, the Toyota Production System, and Total Productive Maintenance. Too many people believe that these small groups diminish management’s role and that all decisions must be a consensus of the workforce. In reality, none of this is true. It is true that natural work teams or an individual within the workforce can stop production should they encounter a safety or quality issue, but that is as it should be. So what is the true role and value of natural work teams?

We all know that inconsistency and variability throughout the organization is the primary cause of poor performance. The natural work teams, and natural leaders, can eliminate most of that variability by developing and following standard procedures. They are the only ones who truly know what their current practices are, what should be changed, and how to police themselves so that the entire team adheres to the procedures. In addition, when they develop the new procedures, ownership is automatic. If you have ever tried to mandate or deploy new procedures, you know that the immediate workforce reaction is resistance and even with constant supervision not all will follow them. By using the natural work teams to develop the future-state processes and procedures, resistance problems are resolved before they begin.

Don't Confuse Natural Work Teams with Cross-functional Teams

Too often natural work teams are confused with cross-functional teams that are, and should be, used for root-cause failure analysis and other problem-solving efforts. While both rely on an empowered workforce, there are major differences. First, natural work teams are permanent and must work as a team day in and day out for extended periods. Cross-functional problem-solving teams are temporary, pulled together to resolve a particular problem and then disbanded once it is resolved.

As the name implies, cross-functional teams are made up of people with different backgrounds, work experience, and job responsibilities. An RCFA problem-solving effort would include members who have first-hand knowledge of the problem, subject matter experts and others who have knowledge or viewpoints that are relevant to the problem. A typical team would include operators or the operating team where the failure occurred, maintenance technicians who responded to the failure, material handlers, operators from upstream systems and a reliability or maintenance engineer. Why this mix? Consider what each position brings to the problem-solving effort. Engineers will look at the problem solely from an engineering perspective and most likely will not consider how the system was operated, tended or maintained. They also have an inherent desire for the perfect solution—and while it may solve the immediate problem, it will be expensive. Operators know what led up to the failure and often hold the key to what and why the failure occurred. On operator-induced failures, they also know what can be done to prevent recurrence. Maintenance technicians are masters of the quick fix. Their input on contributing factors and the fastest way to return the system to services softens the engineer’s desire for perfection.

Cross-functional teams are also very effective when trying to break down silos or to build synergy between functions or along the value stream. Empowering a team comprised of respected members of the different functions to develop future-state standard processes and procedures that ensure effective cooperation and coordination will yield exceptional results. As the development process evolves all participants gain a new insight into the interdependence between functions. This insight enables them to resolve conflicts, improve communications and generate standard processes and procedures that work for and are acceptable to everyone.

To be effective both natural work teams and problem-solving cross-functional teams need strong facilitation—a leader who can harness their latent talents. One common mistake is to insert a front-line supervisor or an outsider as the team facilitator. While this might work for a problem-solving team, it will not in the natural work team environment. It is also unnecessary. Even in organizations where the value of natural work teams goes unrecognized, most of the natural work groups have an unofficial leader. This is normal team or pack mentality—there is always an alpha. Take advantage of these natural leaders in your organization.

Leveraging the latent knowledge of the workforce—through its natural work teams—has made the difference for world-class organizations and can do the same for your company. But a word of caution: there is one right way and many wrong ways to do so. Do not let modern interpretations of proven methods guide you down the wrong path.

Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of organizational performance optimization, reliability engineering and effective change management. He has more than 50 years of direct experience in corporate management, process optimization, and reliability engineering. For the past 25 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].      

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