1.2 Self-managed teams

Team members jointly decide how work is undertaken
Team members collaborate and support each other
Teams reflect on and review the way members work together

Of course, individual jobs cannot be examined in isolation. The ability to share problems and solutions with colleagues, to learn and reflect together, to provide and receive support in challenging times, and to celebrate successes plays a vital role in well-being and performance. The key concept here is teamworking, one of the defining characteristics of workplace innovation. Extensive research demonstrates that self-managed teams empowered to plan, organise, review and improve their own work are more productive in factories, plants and offices, provide better customer service, and even save lives in places like hospitals. They also offer much better places to work.

However, the word ‘team’ is increasingly used to describe such a diverse range of workplace situations that arguably the term is in danger of becoming meaningless. While teamworking may refer to a general ‘sense of community’, or a limited enlargement of jobs to enhance flexibility, these situations are sometimes referred to as pseudo teams. Self-managed teamworking involves a radical re-appraisal of jobs, systems and procedures. Real teams are more than groups of co-located employees; they share knowledge and problems, break down barriers and demarcations, and generate ideas for improvement, innovation and growth using the insight that day-to-day work experiences give them.

Teamworking takes many forms and is always shaped by the organisation itself. We may also be members of several teams in the workplace – functional teams, project teams, professional teams, improvement teams, and so on. Yet while teamworking is manifested in so many different ways, good teams tend to demonstrate common principles.

How self-managed teams work

We need to consider two dimensions:

Team design: the composition of the team and its overall place in production or service delivery within the organisation as a whole.

Team functioning: the scope of its responsibilities and the ways in which people work together within the team.

1.2.1 Team design

It is particularly important to define the scope of each team’s remit and its relationship to other teams. Traditional organisations divide the production of manufactured goods or the delivery of services into separate functional divisions; this is to allow each team to become highly specialised and to deliver the best possible performance in its own area, an aim usually reinforced by very specific targets. Research and experience over the last seventy years has shown that such specialisation causes delay, waste and quality problems for production or service delivery as a whole through lack of shared understanding and incentives to co-operate. Employees and managers are detached from the whole product or service and can be remote from the customer, often leading to disengagement and lack of job satisfaction.

Overcoming these problems means creating multi-functional, multi-skilled teams with responsibility for a complete part of the manufacturing or service delivery process, and with a strong emphasis on skills sharing, communication, customer focus and collaborative improvement and innovation. We explore this further in the Organisational Structures and Management Element, but for now the following questions offer a useful starting point:

  1. Can workflow be made to move more seamlessly between stages in the service or production process? A useful approach is to map the different stages and capture ‘stories’, good and bad, about whether the passage between each one is optimal in avoiding delay, waste and poor quality. This analysis can start an inclusive dialogue with those involved in each stage, a shared investigation of root causes and a participative approach to redesign based on a systemic view of service delivery or product manufacture. Read about our Mini-FabLab at DS Smith.
  2. Can we strengthen the team’s understanding of its part in the overall system and how its actions affect other teams? Co-operation and shared problem solving are very difficult if there are strong demarcations between different skills and functional tasks. Skill sharing, ‘task sliding’ and collaborative improvement and innovation are important practices in breaking down silos.
  3. ‘What you measure is what you get’, so are we measuring the right things? A team may be meeting all its targets while contributing to waste, delay or quality problems because it is not incentivised – or allowed – to use its discretion in helping other teams or those responsible for different parts of the workflow. The focus of expectation and measurement needs to be on a team’s contribution to the process as a whole rather than on separate segments.

1.2.1 Team functioning

Forum topic: Please share an example of a team whose members really work well together to create a great service or product. What makes it special?

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