Operational self managed teams need to be carefully setup so they are desinged around the characteristics of the service as a system. They also need a new management style to allow them to thrive
Since the early promises of great teamwork from Japan, like many others, I am searching for something that allows for employees to truly contribute and be create a positive work environment. Over the last few years, I have worked with teams that have been able to work in a very different way to the past. Individuals have become motivated, effective, and collaborative. People coming to work to do something they want to do, and do it well.
Good teams don’t not exist, they are visible in pockets of parts of organisations. You come across them now and again, seemingly by accident. ‘I wished they worked for me!’ is a thought that might pass through a managers mind, as they envisage their service filled with people like that.
From working with teams over the last 12 years, and with other colleagues, here is some learning that may be useful for others who are wanting to create a more participative work environment.
What is a self managed team? It is a work environment - the work system, that is designed to allow anyone in that system to work with some autonomy and with others in the workflow, and make decisions to achieve a goal.
The manager working with such a team is doing less of the administration of micromanagement and firefighting, to making sure the team can work well, and developing the rest of the employees. The managers role is also transformed in terms of their motivation and contribution; it feels like doing the job the manager should always have been doing.
What does it look like watching people in this system?
They are able to adjust procedures to suit the situation that presents itself. They talk to anyone in the organisation that they need to, without requiring permission. They freely share knowledge, and seek knowledge from others. Work cooperatively. The support others and accept work from others. They give the best service possible to the customer. They are motivated to do a good job, and you can see that they are enjoying their work.
A good place to start to set up a self-managed team
The first place to start, when working with a group from different parts of the service, is to help them to start to change their culture of how they work with themselves:
Step 1 - everyone in the new team has skills and experiences to bring to the group. However, we do not recognise any formal job roles here. This avoids the team defaulting to the original positions that would traditionally do certain tasks. It allows them to experiment with who is best positioned to do that activity. You as the lead the change with the team, need to ensure that when they keep falling back to their old ways, you remind them that they are doing this, and ask others to undertake that task.
Step 2 - creating a safe space where people are free to achieve step 1 is critical to setting up and new culture. I find that this takes time, and I have to ensure that people, when they are behaving in the old ways of heirarchy and dominance, are then asked to hear what others have to say. I find the 'talking stick' a very useful tactic with some teams.
Creating a safe space is not some touchy-feely good deed. It is simply the removal of those things that create fear in our command & control teams. It allows staff to behave from a position of authenticity. It does not mean that everyone has to have a view, or that everything is democratic. I find myself having to ensure that the team moves in a direction of a safe space quite quickly, and have one-ones with people if I find they are uncomfortable. I reassure them and the whole team what we are trying to do - this is not some hidden tactic.
A real case study
Example of the old system: A very irate and possibly aggressive member of the public come in, with no money, and the worker is faced with a myriad of rules that guide them to tell the person to go to another department. At that other department, the person has to queue for an hour, repeat the whole story again, fill in a form, and go to another place to eventually get some money.
The same situation in the new system: The person was listened to by a worker. That worker made a phone call, and then dealt with the person. They then gave them funds to take them through two days of buying food. It took ten minutes and the one worker was the only one the person talked to. No violence from the person, no rules needed to be broken, and no forms needed to be filled in. —————————--
What are the outcomes?
This creates a work environment, where front line workers are enthused to serve the customer.
Functional barriers within the organisation break down.
Participation happens between departments and people - teams form.
Many decisions are made at a low level, with more difficult decisions being escalated.
Employee motivation and work life becomes positive at an individual level for most people.
Most can contribute directly and positively to future strategic development and change.
The work flow is adjusted in such a way as to minimise the cost of doing the work to the organisation.
Who is working like this today? Very few organisations truly operate like this, Toyota in Japan being one of the most well known. Despite decades of time, and a gaggle of ‘experts’, we seem to be moving very slowly in truly realising this approach in work environments.
An self-managed team environment does not just happen, it needs to be created. Then, when its created, it needs to make happen. All things that are difficult, especially when there will be some who don’t want to participate, or who cannot work in such a system. Its the manager as a leader that must be the creator.