So You Want to Implement TEAMS in Your Factory?

July 3, 2017

Getting started on the journey to team-based manufacturing is either a well thought-out move by insightful managers, or (most often) the direct result of having it forced down your throat by “Gorilla” customers.  You remember the old one, “where does a 600-pound Gorilla sleep?”

Typically, your plant has been around a while.  You have a unionized workforce and most of your line supervisors are “up from the floor” folks who used to be union members.  Strict adherence to work methods and quality instructions is rewarded – after all, manufacturing is by definition a disciplined, methodical business where variation must be eliminated at all costs.  You have already failed at implementing “quality circles” (or some such), and are now pressured into becoming ISO/QS9000 registered.

Ideally, the way to bring about a change of this magnitude is through TEAMS.  First comes the training for the people who will be responsible for making teams work in your factory.  Many great tools and methodologies exist – 8D, Seven-Step, 5 whys, FMEA, DFMA, Kaizen, etc. – for structuring the work of teams.  Usually, somebody from HR will put together some kind of “Team Norms” document that everyone is expected to adopt as their personal mantra while magically eliminating all hidden agendas.

There needs to be a plant champion for implementing teams.  Often this will be a quality or manufacturing engineering type who can actually make some sense out of all of those obscure problem-solving tools used by teams.  These are the same people that led you through the “quality circles” stuff.  With great fanfare management will announce their undying support of this individual who will commit to fully implement teams in 90 days or less.  Is there pressure?  Management already expects complete success in 90 days with huge bottom line benefits.  Perhaps there’s just a bit of pressure.

Everyone has heard of self-directed work teams.  The fun part is figuring out what this means in YOUR company.  This is critical.  Working in teams is not instinctive.  Failure to evaluate the impact of the inevitable changes will destroy a team through fear.  Consider the line supervisors, in my mind the least-respected members of any management team.  These people have struggled for years, working their way up into supervision and learning to get things done when shop floor folks want to do LESS and management types are screaming for MORE.  They have seen it all come and go, and secretly wish this “team” thing would die a quick death.  Get one to tell you what their job will be like after the teams are fully deployed.  My bet is you will get a different answer from each.  If you are getting too many responses like “I don’t see where I will fit in after teams”, look out.  These poor people see themselves in a no-win situation.  As a result, a huge repository of hard-won product knowledge and expertise is headed out the door.

Next, consider the typical rank-and-file workers who actually add value to your products.  What have you been pounding into their heads for the last 20 years?  Doing things, the same way, every time, right?  Requiring these folks to embrace working in teams using these obscure problem-solving tools runs against their grain.  Most have spent the last 20 years keeping their heads down, cranking out product, not engaging in disturbing discussions of how we will turn their world upside down.  Do you really think they will immediately grasp the benefits of doing business differently?  Or do you think their stomachs turn sour every time that dreaded “C” word is spoken?

You know, CHANGE.  Teams change how we do things, potentially affecting every business process.  To minimize the undesired consequences of making fundamental changes, a great deal of thought must be given to managing the process.  Think of it as transition management.  You have your known current state of no teams, and have a vision of the team manufacturing future state.  The transition is where you make or break the process.  You must fully understand what will be different for the people affected, and how to assist them in the transition.  Consider pilot cells or departments to build quick success stories.  Allow adequate time for the transition, resisting the “90-day wonder”.  The time it takes must be based on your circumstances and resources available to bring to bear on the process.  Depending on the size of the organization, it can take many months or even years to fully accomplish the scope of change needed.  A useful analogy is the docking of a huge ocean-going ship.  Maneuvering for a successful docking begins miles out at sea, not when you are a few yards from the dock.


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