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Riddell: A Team or Just a Gathering?

John Riddell
Not Business As Usual

Virtually every single business organization today is pursuing or utilizing some aspects of work teams. From process improvement to customer satisfaction to employee interviewing, teams and all that goes with them are an integral part of today’s business culture and will continue to be so.

The rationale for having teams in the first place, however, oftentimes becomes lost by both the owner/managers as well as by the team members.

When business owners or managers are asked the straightforward question “Why do you utilize teams?”, a number of fairly predictable responses emerge. From “it helps to keep the employees involved,” to “a source for better ideas,” to “it gets everybody on the same page,” all of these sentiments and a host of others are true and applicable. Indeed, many new-to-the-workforce employees almost expect a team environment. But that is not why the business world has adopted teams. Simply put, teams are a staple of today’s business world because there is the widespread belief that by utilizing teams a company will increase its profitability. All these other activities are simply means to this end of profitability.

The reason that awareness of this connection is important is because this desire for teams, if not focused, can be a time trap of non-productivity in a world in which non-productivity is a killer. Consider for a moment the following absurd example, keeping in mind that this goes on every day at a myriad of organizations.

A production manager/owner realizes that the plant’s efficiency must improve. A group of line workers, supervisors, and maybe even sales people are directed to form a team to address this problem and “fix it.” The problem(s) here are very easy to spot. No one on the team has the skill sets to properly analyze the process issues and, even if they did, they don’t have the authority to implement the “fix.” So this really isn’t a team. This turns out to be either a formalized time for social “catching up” or a formalized time for frustration “venting.” In either case, neither the company nor customers will benefit and it is directly the result of inept management.

If you accept for a moment that management has the responsibility to put employees into opportunities for success, then clearly this whitewashing of a team approach makes no sense. In addition to a team needing the entrepreneurial owner/manager to set the direction for needed skills, there also needs to be direction on clarity of desired outcome, and what degree of control, if any, the team will have for implementation of the recommendations.

This last point is critical when you apply a simple litmus test of effectiveness for any organization professing to employ a team approach. If the members of the team have some component of their compensation program that rewards the successful output of the team commiserate with their ability to implement, then this is a team-based work environment that is focused on the resulting profitability. Lacking this financial connection to time spent, actions implemented, and results obtained makes it virtually impossible to achieve sustainable quality results.

And if you can’t achieve sustainable results, you really have to ask yourself why are we even doing this? Well intentioned, but nonetheless amateur and inept management is the unfortunate probable response.


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