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Natural work teams and the need for process

Posted by admin on June 12, 2016

Interesting article recently on Industry Week’s website about the benefits of natural work teams.  Unlike formal work teams, which are often based on organization structure and reporting relationships, natural work teams are very informal and consist of informal networks in the company that come together to resolve issues, often without the input and oversight of managers and supervisors.

While the article focuses on natural work teams in the manufacturing industry, these teams occur in just about any organization from services to non-profits to government.  A colleague of ours pointed out the heavy use of cross-functional teams in his company in the financial services industry.  Teams come together to work on specific client projects and resolve specific issues with decisions being made and agreed to at the appropriate level of the organization.

In the manufacturing industry we have seen the power of natural work teams at progressive companies that understand that managers and supervisors don’t know everything.  At some clients we train Process Coaches and they play a key role in facilitating natural work teams.

But all this “teaming” leads to one important question:  How do these teams work together to make sure they’re spending more time on resolving an issue, rather than more time working on a “process” to resolve the issue? The same colleague we mentioned above told us he spends a lot of time explaining a process for decision making up front so natural work teams he joins don’t get bogged down on the process piece.

The key processes that help natural work teams function effectively include:

Priority setting - This helps the team quickly answer the question: What are we trying to do here?  With this understanding, the team knows if it’s trying to manage a project, make a decision, solve a problem (people, machine or process) or inform management to take action.

Project management – Natural work teams might come together to contribute to some aspect of a project.  Having a process that explains the objectives of the project, the resources needed, key milestones, etc. can solidify commitment and avoid a lot of frustration.

Problem solving – A common process for facilitating problem solving avoids a lot of wheel spinning from the group so they can focus on the problem at hand.  Without this, natural work teams may focus on fixing the symptoms of problems rather than the root cause of the problem.  Or they might not consider the consequences of a fix they implement.

Decision making – Natural work teams may not work on the big decisions that are the domain of management.  But they may be asked to make recommendations for a decision and being able to explain the process that was used can give management higher confidence in the quality of the decision.

Natural work teams can be a tremendous asset for companies that use them effectively.  It allows employees to contribute their technical skills to an issue that interest them and will move the company forward. But to get the most from these teams, having common processes that the teams can apply improves effectiveness and efficiency and gives the teams a grater sense of accomplishment.