Free web resources for team building

July 20, 2005
Teamwork may be the last bastion of efficiency improvement in maintenance departments. Read this article to find some free web resources that'll strengthen your team.

For years now, maintenance professionals in manufacturing plants across the country have been immersed in a nasty do-more-with-less world that can be frustrating. They might know the plant needs a piece of hardware or an upgraded tool, but they know they’re not going to get the requisition past the bean counters. That’s fine, they can deal with it. They’re engineers, after all. They have ingenuity, they’re clever and they have an established track record of implementing workarounds to mitigate the lack of hardware. They solve that problem and move on to the next biggest one.

Downsizing has become an endemic feature of the plant landscape. Those relentless budget cuts start eating into the intellectual capital that keeps the maintenance department one short pace ahead of the steamroller. Now, it’s a case of do-more-with-fewer, where it’s harder to find an acceptable workaround that compensates for a lack of people.

Pretty soon, the only asset you’ll have left will be a few personal interactions, and those had better be effective. Yes, my friends, teamwork may be the last bastion of efficiency improvement. Let’s take a dive into the morass we call the Web in search of practical, zero-cost, noncommercial, registration-free Web resources that will help stack the chessboard in your favor. Remember, we search the Web so you don't have to.

Light reading
The good folks at Brandeis University try very hard to make it easy for a student to become a leader while on campus and after graduation. A section of the school’s Web site is dedicated to the proposition that a student can get out in front and make things happen in a variety of activities and venues. A relevant page of this training manual is titled “What makes a team a team?” and it resides at www.brandeis.edu/studentlife/takethelead/workshops/handouts/workshop3a.doc. The main takeaway is a listing of the characteristics of an effective team and the five stages in a team’s life cycle. Hey, we’ve got to start somewhere.

The library
OK, so the last staff meeting laid another burden upon your already full work day. You’re now in charge of turning a bunch of people into a team. Now what? You do a literature search, that’s what. This month’s explorations uncovered a great page that you can use as a starting point. Send that literary mouse to www.managementhelp.org/, then scroll down to click on “Group Skills.” When that page opens, scroll about half way down and click on “Team Building.” This takes you to Carter McNamara’s link-rich page that lets you hit the ground running. If nothing else, you’ll be able to dazzle them with jargon at the next progress review. Nevertheless, this is where you can pick up information about the basics of team building, building informal work teams, being an effective team member and ensuring team effectiveness and performance. This site, owned by Authenticity Consulting LLC, Robbinsdale, Minn., is a keeper.

Team power
Once upon a time, there were two struggling chemical plants in the United Kingdom. These poor old plants got shuffled from one owner to the next several times, and each new owner tried cutting back everywhere in an attempt to make the facilities profitable and producing at nameplate capacity. As you probably would guess, a succession of financial hatchet men got around to targeting plant maintenance. The results, as you probably would guess, were predictable. But teamwork saved the day when someone finally realized that uptime and reliability are worth their weight in pounds sterling. Let your mouse drive down the left side to www.dti.gov.uk/bestpractice/assets/cssabanci.pdf for the details in this case study that highlights team-based maintenance efforts.

Give it a sporting chance
Long before industry started exploring the power of teams, athletes had been getting together to stomp on the rabble they faced across the playing field. The sports track record is probably longer than industry’s. That’s why I’m recommending “Spotlight: Team-Building Wisdom from the Ottawa Senators,” an interview that the Industrial Relations Centre at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, conducted with John Phelan, the mental skills coach for the Ottawa Senators hockey team. According to Phelan, there are striking similarities between the organizational aspects of the industrial world and the way hockey is played. He highlights the importance of role clarification among team members as well as the value of team conflict and its resolution. Skate over to www.industrialrelationscentre.com/infobank/articles/team-building_wisdom_from_the_ottawa_senators.htm for the pep talk.

Better practices
The people at the Center for Collaborative Organizations at the University of North Texas spend time studying, as you would guess, teams and teamwork in a variety of forms. Among the tools they use is the venerable case study and they have a few of them, each of which provides more insight into mankind’s inherently cooperative nature. These pearls of wisdom have been collected into “Abstracts and Lessons Learned from Case Studies,” a document that discusses some of the real-world findings of 39 case studies from several sources. Team up with your trusty mouse and pay a visit to www.workteams.unt.edu/edu/caseindx.htm, where you’ll be able to examine some of the Center’s work output. Look at this site as another source of ideas for best practices when trying to develop your in-house dream team.

Mixing it up
It would be nice if someone could explain how we can justifiably claim to have difficulty fostering teamwork among a given workforce, the members of which live in the same geographic area, speak the same language, are approximately the same age, share a common culture and, five days a week, share space under the same roof. Developing a team under these circumstances is nothing compared to what the United Nations must have to face when it tries to field a successful ad hoc team. Seeking less reliance on hierarchy and centralized control in favor of a contemporary flat, cross-functional organizational structure, at least one UN entity has documented parts of its team-building efforts. You’ll find “Team Building at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization,” by John Bing and Sergio Gardelliano from ITAP International, Princeton, N.J., waiting for you at www.itapintl.com/teambuildingatunido.htm.

A few best practices
Every team leader is concerned with getting the job done. Good leaders, though, step back for a better perspective of the mechanisms and interactions taking place within the team environment. Great leaders, on the other hand, are concerned with the teamwork’s strategic elements. If the shoe fits, you might want to mouse your way to http://ianrpubs.unl.edu/Misc/ for a trio of articles from the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension. The first, “Team Building: Organizing a Team,” by Arnold Bateman, is where you can learn about the five preconditions that must be present for a team to be viable, the characteristics of a productive group, the four personality types that every effective team must have among its membership, a discussion about the role of the team leader, and the predictable phases in a team’s development.

The second, “Team Building: Developing a Productive Team,” also by Bateman, discusses the 12 conditions that maximize the probability of successful team-building, the nine guidelines for evaluating whether team members are working together well and the seven characteristics that differentiate a proactive team from a reactive one. This article also comments on the role of the team leader and offers a questionnaire for team members to evaluate their own effectiveness.

In the third article, “Becoming a Servant Leader: Do You Have What It Takes?” Daniel W. Wheeler and John E. Barbuto Jr. discuss the people skills that effective team leaders possess.

From one of your own
Every once in a while, we stumble across a maintenance professional who broadcasts the importance of the maintenance function to audiences far and wide. One example is found at www.tpmonline.com/articles_on_total_productive_maintenance/management/13steps.htm. Go there to read “A 13-Step Program in Establishing a World-Class Maintenance Organization” by Bruce C. Hiatt, a facilities engineer at Anesta Corp. in Salt Lake City. Teamwork is a concept that figures most prominently in Hiatt’s philosophy of excellence in asset care. As you might expect, training is the next most important aspect he mentions. The idea is that a well-trained maintenance team can make headway in the struggle to not only justify its existence, but make a measurable contribution to overall corporate health.

The practitioner’s approach
If you’re seeking credibility on this subject, why not turn to your engineering brethren who have led the way? The American Society of Mechanical Engineers is offering its online professional practice curriculum to one and all. The module that relates to the operation and maintenance of your team can be found at www.professionalpractice.asme.org/communications/teambuilding/index.htm. The course includes an introduction and 10 chapters. Each is an easy, airy read that avoids the ponderous writing one sees in many engineering documents. In fact, you should be able to complete the entire session during lunch. It won’t give you heartburn, and you might even go back for another course.

Team doctor
Early in your team’s development, you’ll probably discover the many opportunities for things to go awry. We’re dealing with people, after all, and conflicts and misunderstanding can derail the best efforts and lead to a finely honed sense of cynicism about the whole venture. When that happens, the team won’t accomplish squat. Even established teams can be infected with this difficulty. Finding a cure for these maladies might require the services of the digital doctor you’ll find at www.teambuildinginc.com/teamprobsolv.htm. The Team Problem Solver is the brainchild of Teambuilding Inc., a consulting firm in Chadds Ford, Pa. Start your session by answering a few diagnostic multiple-choice questions to get on the right track. After that, it’s a matter of reading sequential pages of advice and either clicking on options or the “Next” icon at the top of each page. When you’re done, give your team a dose of the prescription you found and, if all goes well, cure what’s ailing you.

From the Ivory Tower
There’s a limit to what one person can accomplish flying solo. Our propensity for cooperating with others in a quest for mutual benefit probably is hardwired into our psyches. Forming capable teams was, and is, a valuable survival skill that helped us evolve from the luxury of living in caves to the current state of affairs in the world. To further our development, the Team Engineering Collaboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has developed a project it calls Teamworks. According to the published Web pages, its purpose is to help with understanding and overcoming those pesky issues that prevent us from achieving communication and coordination among groups involved in a problem-solving process. So, jump in at www.vta.spcomm.uiuc.edu/sitemap.html. The site starts off with a bang, but starts to fizzle less than halfway through the menu. Only the first four modules are active, and those aren’t fully so. Below that, the content starts getting pretty sparse, although several of the links are functional. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of food for thought here.