The team challenge: Setting teams up for success in manufacturing environments

On an early January morning, Dana Berry, the director of distribution for Powers Manufacturing, studied her Outlook calendar with apprehension.

In the next two weeks, her schedule listed a quarterly business review with the division’s most important supplier, two half-day process improvement team meetings and an all-day team-building exercise.

Since a new director of corporate training was hired in August, the walls at Powers Manufacturing were covered with posters proclaiming:

  • “T.E.A.M. = Together Everyone Achieves More!”
  • “Teamwork divides the task and multiplies the success.”
  • “Teamwork: it is less me and more we.”

Teamwork posters were everywhere: in the hallways, the cafeteria, the locker rooms and the break rooms. Even the smoking shelter at the far end of the parking lot had a poster. The big questions for Berry were, how was this going to work, and could this really pay off?

Facing challenges
All levels of management at Powers Manufacturing were encouraged to form a project team or join one of the many teams involved in process improvements or cost reductions. Berry was appointed to lead the production services team and be a member of the capital equipment allocation team.

As the team leader for production services, Berry was responsible for recruiting the team members, scheduling the meetings, finding the open conference room (almost impossible) and securing conference lines for team members calling in.

Recruiting new team members was difficult. Most of her first choices were already on team overload and had no room in their schedules to take on another assignment. Berry scoured the ranks of the engineering and production planning departments, searching for volunteers.

During a production staff meeting, Berry asked the other directors whether they were encountering the same resistance filling the team ranks. The room exploded. All of the directors expressed complete dissatisfaction with the lack of planning and direction since Powers Manufacturing introduced the project team management concept.

Identifying issues
After the staff meeting, Berry met with her staff and invited the project and procurement managers to evaluate the project teams affecting the distribution operations and to resolve the outstanding issues. After four hours of meeting (and in some cases arguing), the staff listed major issues preventing the project teams from successfully changing the culture at work:

  • Clear objectives for the teams were not identified
  • Teams lacked authority to change company policy
  • Team meetings rekindled old interdepartmental conflicts rather than address solutions
  • Team leaders were not experienced in facilitating a team-driven project

Berry quickly realized that her production services team was not prepared to conduct the quarterly business review with the supplier. Not only did the team members not identify a clear objective for themselves or the supplier, but they had not even drafted a meeting agenda. Berry called the supplier and rescheduled the meeting for the next quarter.

Planning for team success
Several staff members urged Berry to meet with senior management at Powers Manufacturing. They hoped she could resolve the issues and change the direction of the team process. After reviewing pages of notes from her staff meeting, Berry focused on four major issues to present when meeting with senior management:

  • Do the teams have support from senior management?
  • Is senior management planning to review and approve the team objectives?
  • Are the teams directed to focus on the business issues, or were they created to cut costs?
  • Were the teams created with a time schedule to meet the objectives, or were project dates left open-ended?

While scheduling the review meeting with senior management, Berry reflected on how the project team concept had failed. Professional managers, many at the vice president and director level, miscalculated the amount of time and effort it takes to plan, direct and complete the assigned project tasks.

Berry also realized project teams could succeed if senior leadership:

  • Supported the teams and established a direction for the teams to follow
  • Demonstrated a willingness to address the real issues confronting the project teams, including cost-cutting vs. operational improvements
  • Announced they have complete confidence in the value of the project teams and that the accomplishments of the teams could positively change the company’s direction

It was now the middle of March, and when Berry searched her Outlook calendar for open meeting times, she realized there was still time to reverse the negative atmosphere that almost doomed the project team experiment. By identifying the issues and planning for success, there was an opportunity to make positive change.

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