Supervisors and self-directed work teams

Dec. 28, 2009
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, contributing editor, says setting a reasonable span of control is the most effective approach.

Establishing self-directed work teams is easy, but developing and supporting them doesn’t happen automatically. A work force is generally organized according to one of two models — traditional and self-directed work teams (SDWT). Traditional work structures are organized by function. Employees perform specialized tasks, there’s a high degree of top-down supervision and directives are aligned with the function. Under traditional work structures, people are viewed as tools to complete tasks, each of which has its own objective, sometimes working at cross purposes to other functions.

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The idea behind SDWT structures is that teams are organized around core processes. Team members are cross-trained and qualified to perform multiple tasks. There’s shared leadership within the team. The attraction of SDWTs from a business management perspective is that decisions get made at the point of action. The decisions are correct for the customer and speed up decision-making to reduce inefficiencies. The implication is that a layer of supervision can be eliminated.

Establishing a SDWT consists of communicating the concept to the people who are affected, designing the team, establishing a team charter, defining the core processes and establishing the team’s culture. A team charter details the customers, the mission, values and goals of the team, etc. You’ll develop a set of standards for the core work processes, roles and responsibilities, procedures, normal practices, and how to interact with other plant systems and teams. You might include statements about the team’s culture, how team members are to interact with each other, a discussion about trust and respect, communication, team cohesion, etc.


SDWT design is the easy part. Developing and supporting SDWTs are the challenging parts. Often, when corporate or plant leadership decides to implement SDWTs, they focus on reducing human resource costs by reducing the number of managers and supervisors. After all, self-directed implies the teams don’t need supervisors. Right?

SDWTs are comprised of people. Often, the number of people carrying out the core functions doesn’t change very much. The organization must consider its approach to developing and supporting both the SDWTs and individual team members. Successful programs follow a path from telling the participants what they’re expected to know and do, showing them how to do it, coaching them through it one or more times, and being available to clarify or correct them when they need support. In similar fashion, new systems require participants to understand what they need to be doing, be coached until they reach an adequate level of proficiency and confidence, and to have guidance on matters that need clarification or support.

It’s not likely that the charter, team design and culture initially developed will account for every circumstance the team will face. The team will stumble from time to time; they’ll need the support of a higher-level authority when they need resources or decisions outside their scope of responsibilities. When supervisory and management levels are gutted, the remaining development and support resources often are inadequate. Projected efficiency gains can evaporate if teams lack confidence in the organization’s ability to develop and support the team and its members.

What about accountability? There needs to be an entity that can monitor and require the team to implement corrective actions if things get outside of limits. Ideally, SDWTs take this responsibility upon themselves, and some do. In reality, especially during the early stages of team development (or if support hasn’t been adequate or consistent) the teams can’t drive performance from within.

Organizations also need to consider the support and development of individual team members. Whether a traditional or a SDWT model is in place, high-performing organizations encourage technical and professional development as well as leadership and management development among the workforce and staff. If the organization’s supervisory level is decimated, who’ll be the individual team member’s advocate for increasing job skills, who’ll be developed to be the next generation of supervisors?

If you’re considering reorganization towards the SDWT model, make sure you don’t handicap the program from the start by gutting the supervisory and management levels. In either team structure, there are practical limits to how many people a supervisor or manager can develop and support. In an industrial plant, the ratio of operations and maintenance personnel to first-line supervisors can be as little as 4:1 to as much as 40:1. The range varies relative to the complexity of the team’s work and the professional capability of the supervisor and team members in how they perform.

Recently, I had a discussion with a manager of a food product manufacturer who related how his organization implemented SDWTs and drastically changed the team member-to-supervisor ratio to something on the order of 80:1 or 90:1. In my opinion, there’s no way an organization can develop and support either the teams or the individuals very effectively with such a wide span of control.

Traditional organizational structures have weaknesses as well. My point isn’t to suggest that SDWTs are unworkable. My point is that if you have or are considering SDWTs, don’t underestimate the role of supervisors and managers in achieving business goals from the reorganization.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER Inc. Contact him at [email protected] and (321) 773-3356.

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