If you were selecting a basketball team, what criteria would you use to select the players? What about if you were selecting an academic team? If the selection of a process improvement team were the objective, what criteria would you use?

The answers to these questions may seem simple, but Belts can sometimes make things complicated. For example, too much attention to politics and control can spoil a team’s chemistry. There are some standard rules, though, that can make the team-building process less painful and more successful for Six Sigma professionals.

Three Simple Rules

1) Don’t be too rigid. The makeup of a team will need to change a little as it moves through the process improvement phases. There should be a core group of members all the way through, but often there will be a shifting of other members depending upon what the team needs at the time.

There are three main types of team members: regular, ad hoc and resource members.

  • Regular team members – They attend all meetings, unless advised otherwise, and participate in all team activities.
  • Ad hoc team members – They participate only when the team requires their expertise.
  • Resource team members – Their meeting attendance is at the discretion of the team leader. These team members are sources of information, coaching assistance or resources (time, money, etc.).

2) Match talents to specific needs. A process improvement team should include a process owner, a process expert, a budget and accounting specialist, someone from engineering (if applicable), and maybe even a stakeholder (customer). It also can be helpful to place people on the team who may work against you if left out. Being a team member will give them buy-in.

3) Determine a common purpose. The purpose of the team should come from building a common identity. The team should know what the business expects from them, as well as the known roadblocks and limitations.

Respecting the Team

The three rules are a good starting place, but team leaders still face many challenges. For instance, what should a team leader do if a team member is trying to sabotage the team’s work? The answer begins and ends with respect.

Positive team member behavior revolves around respect, built upon a willingness to show consideration and appreciation for others. With respect, there is progress and synergy (alignment). Without it, there is stagnation and disintegration. The team environment is a micro-society. A team that is respectful of others, and the team as a whole, will have the best chance of success.

The appreciation of diversity of opinion is the starting point of positive team dynamics. The point of putting a team together is to have a diversity of opinion. All opinions and ideas have value and contribute to developing a best solution or result. To be successful, team members should recognize and celebrate diversity of opinion. This means looking for the useful and positive in everyone’s comments and questions.

Agreeing to disagree is the adult method of dealing with conflict. This is how a team gains consensus. It also is a means to allow diversity of opinion to exist and drive the team forward. By agreeing to disagree, team members do not have to let go of their opinions to move forward.

Another important aspect of respect within a team is attendance. Team members have to be present in both body and mind in order to contribute toward the team’s success. If a team member is absent, that person does not contribute and slows the team’s progress. A team member who is present yet unengaged in discussions presents a similar problem.

Attendance ties in with the completion of action items. Because teams use tasks and timelines to move a project forward, action items become the vehicle for team progress. The team assigns action items to a responsible person and a due date is set. This makes the team’s progress predictable and the distribution of resources easier to control. When team members do not take action items seriously, the team cannot function.

When a team is functioning correctly, everyone is contributing –participating, voicing their opinions and adding their collective brainpower to the team’s efforts. One moment you’re giving information, the next you’re listening, and the next you’re negotiating. The resulting high energy level speeds the team’s progress. It’s also more fun.

Team Leadership

The team leader plays an important role in making sure that all team members contribute. This role may include asking someone’s opinion or slowing down a team member who is too dominating. In either case, every team member’s dignity is important.

The responsible person on a team is called a leader for a reason. A leader is expected to manage, not supervise the team effort. This implies that exceptional leadership skills are necessary for those responsible for overseeing an improvement team. Leader are more effective than supervisors, in this case, because leaders get their power from people being willing to follow while supervisors get their power from higher levels of management. In fact, a supervisory approach (a command and control environment) to team management may even prevent success. Process improvement is a “What do you think?” activity, not a “Do as you’re told” routine.

Team Member Behavior

Some types of team member behavior can hinder a team’s progress. An example might be team members who are there because it is part of their performance evaluation. These people aren’t there for the team, they are there to service their own needs. Such team members will usually find pleasure in hindering team progress with arguments that have no substance or by being unhelpful with action items.

The “card player” is another example of an ineffective team member. These people quietly pay attention to the ebb and flow of power. They align themselves with the winning side on issues and rarely express their real opinions. For them, it is all about keeping themselves on the “correct side” (the prevailing point of view) of issues. This kind of participation is more political than constructive. As a result, their contribution can bias the results of team activities, such as scoring matrices, brainstorming and multi-voting.

An especially dangerous attitude is associated with team members who are there to represent their bosses. These people follow orders. They will express the views of their bosses rather than their own opinion. If this behavior becomes a means of controlling the team, there will be problems. This boss’ opinion can be valuable as long as it is not subversive. The danger for the team is when the truth is suppressed or conclusions are biased because someone in a position of power is protecting the status quo or attacking something that the team is working on.

When Conflicts Arise

Dealing with conflict is an important team function. Not only is conflict unavoidable in a team environment, it is desirable. The team should cherish conflict that results from diversity of opinion. However, the team leader will need to intervene when the conflict becomes personal or destructive. The bulk of the responsibility for this job lies with the team leader, but some responsibility lies with the other team members as well. A set of ground rules will help the team prevent conflict from dragging it away from its mission.

The first rule is that conflict will be taken offline when it becomes a problem. During a meeting, this may mean taking a break, changing the subject or both. This strategy allows the conflict to be isolated from the rest of the team. Before reconvening, the warring parties must agree to disagree or to develop a plan to address their differences at another time.

Another rule is to obtain an agreement from all team members to assume a team-oriented perspective during conflict situations. The point is that the team’s focus is not on individuals. At an adult level of understanding it should be clear that, in most cases, what is good for the team is also good for the individual. It is not, “What’s in this for me?” Instead, it should be, “What’s in this for us?”

A team also needs ground rules for conflict outside of meetings. Conflict outside of meetings can derail the efforts of the team as effectively as conflict during meetings. Undermining teammates, or the team’s work, with people who are not team members will weaken the team’s efforts in favor of individual goals. Team issues are the team’s business, unless the team leader feels that the situation is becoming unmanageable. Then the team leader can go outside the team for help.

Dealing with conflict is all about respect. If a team has individuals who do not show mutual respect to their teammates, it will not be effective. From a team-leader perspective, there may come a time when a team member must be removed from the team. This is a severe action and is a last resort. Making an enemy of a former team member will create internal and external repercussions for the team.

Above all, the team must keep their eye on the ball and control the pressure to spend time on individual or political concerns. A team that maintains this focus has the best chance of success.

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