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Why move to teamworking?

Key Points:

Teamwork can increase competitiveness by:

  • improving productivity
  • improving quality and encouraging innovation
  • taking advantage of the opportunities provided by technological advances
  • improving employee motivation and commitment.

To remain competitive organisations need to make optimum use of equipment and people if they are to thrive or even survive. Research carried out by Acas in conjunction with the Tavistock Institute suggests that teamwork is used by organisations for improvements in four key areas: productivity, quality, the use of new technology, and motivation.

Improving productivity

Teamworking can make more effective and efficient use of labour and can improve productivity by:

  • maximising the different strengths and skills of team members so that a greater variety of tasks may be tackled
  • delegating the order and allocation of tasks to the group, thus avoiding day-to-day problems such as bottlenecks
  • devolving some managerial control to the work group or the team leader and so reduce the number of levels of management
  • encouraging employees to undertake a wider range of tasks
  • making team members more directly accountable to customers - whether external or internal.

Teamworking will also present difficulties as traditional promotion paths and demarcation lines are threatened. These difficulties are sometimes compounded when the pressure to drive down costs to maintain competitiveness leads to the need for reductions in the workforce at the same time as teamworking is introduced. If the full benefits of teamworking are to be gained, its introduction must be carefully handled and this is dealt with in a later section.

Improving quality and encouraging product innovation

The establishment of quality and customer satisfaction at the top of the agenda of most companies has been the driving force behind many teamworking initiatives. The involvement of employees and their representatives, which is an essential element of teamworking, can make a major contribution to improved quality. The temptation to regard quality as a management only issue still continues in many organisations - and means that many opportunities to improve quality are lost.

A survey (2) by the Institute of Personnel Management (IPM) found that about two-thirds of organisations in the United Kingdom well advanced in the introduction of Total Quality Management (TQM) programmes, had identified various kinds of teamwork as vital tools for its implementation.

Increased autonomy together with training in diagnostic and problem solving techniques, such as statistical process control, allows teams to take more responsibility for quality. This can lead to reductions in waste, a move towards continuous improvement and product or process innovations. Where teams develop their own recommendations for improvements or solutions to problems, they are much more likely to implement them successfully.

The increased knowledge of the process or service that goes hand in hand with successful teamworking will encourage teams to take a broader perspective. This can help teams to appreciate the wider implications of ideas they may have for changes or improvements.

Technological advances

Traditional mass production techniques required large numbers of identical products to be produced to achieve economies of scale. New technology enables production to be quickly tailored to customer requirements - often on an individual basis.

Mass production techniques, where jobs are broken down into simple tasks, are not suitable for the new customer focused manufacturing nor the expectations of an educated workforce. Organisations need workers to be more flexible, to co-operate with other workers, supervisors and managers throughout the organisation, to operate sophisticated technology and to be more adaptable. In addition, the sheer complexity of operations in industry, commerce and the services place them beyond the expertise and control of any one individual. In these circumstances some form of teamwork becomes not just desirable but essential.

Motivation

Production line work has traditionally been characterised for many by monotony and boredom. Jobs were broken down into small repetitive tasks which required little skill and provided minimal job satisfaction. Consequently motivation levels tended to be low and there was a need for close supervision. Many production lines still operate in this way.

Modern production and service industries require workers who, apart from being multi-skilled and well trained, are able to take many of their own decisions. To do this properly, it is better if workers are motivated by the desire to do a good job and be recognised for their contribution to a successful organisation. This has led to a new emphasis on redesigning jobs to provide greater job satisfaction and improved quality of working life.

The organisation of work into teams provides an opportunity to fulfil many of the principles of good job design identified by researchers (3). These include:

  • Variety of tasks - requiring the use of several skills
  • Autonomy - of the operator in deciding the order or pace of work
  • Identity - the task forms a whole job or larger part of the whole job
  • Responsibility - individuals accountable to each other for what is produced
  • Feedback - constant information on how the operator is performing
  • Social contact - constant opportunity for interaction with colleagues
  • Balanced workload - team members can help each other to even out peaks and troughs in their work
  • Minimal role ambiguity or conflict - the team has the opportunity to deal swiftly with any problem of 'who does what'. With the modern emphasis on quality, teams are required to ensure quality standards are given higher emphasis than simply reaching output quotas. It is important, however, that the team is not given an unrealistic idea of the extent of their authority (see under 'Team development')
  • Achievement - with the finished product often in view and with their responsibilities for quality in mind, team members can be satisfied with a job well done
  • Development - the general increase in the required level of skills, and particularly interpersonal skills, provides good opportunities for learning and development.
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