High Performance and Super Teams

Some groups today have characteristics of both formal and informal teams. Super teams or high performance teams – groups of 3 to 30 workers drawn from different areas of a corporation are example. Initially called “self managed work teams”, “Cross functional teams” or “high performance teams” these kinds of teams were dubbed super teams by Fortune magazines in May 1990, and the name has stuck.

At Federal Express super teams figured out how to solve a billing problems and wound up savings the company $2.1 million a year. At one of General Mills’ cereal plants in California super teams run the factory during the night shift without the help of a manager.

Super teams are also becoming important to small businesses such as advertising agencies. At one time it was technology that distinguished advertisers. According to Bill Westbrook, a judge for the One Show advertising awards, the advertising industry is now moving away from technology toward strategy. With the expansion of the entertainment and communications network to 500 channels Lee Garfinkel of Lowe and Partners explains that advertising is becoming a more appealing industry. Some agencies are therefore adopting strategies that include the creation of super teams comprised of top directors, copywriters and art directors.

What sets super teams apart from other formal teams is that they ignore the traditional “chimney hierarchy” – a strict up and down arrangements with workers at the bottom and managers at the top that is often too cumbersome to solve problems workers deal with every day. Well run super teams manage themselves, arrange their work schedules, set their productivity quotas, order their own equipment and supplies, improve product quality and interact with customers and other super teams.

Large corporations such as Corning DEC, General Mills, and Federal Express all use super teams. Super teams seem to work as well in the service and finance sectors as they do in manufacturing. They can be created to work on a specific project or problems, or they can become a permanent part of the company’s work force. The super team concept is central to the organization at Saturn where all employees participate in at least one self managed self monitored team that makes decisions regarding everything from budgeting to scheduling, hiring and training.

According to General MiIls, productivity is up by 40 percent in plants that use super teams. And at Johnsonville Foods in Wisconsin, super teams of blue collar workers helped CEO Ralph decide to proceed with a plant expansion. They also told Stayer they would be able to increase sausage production faster than he thought reasonable to ask. Between 1986 and 1990, productivity at Johnsonville rose 50 percent.

Super teams are not all “roses and rainbows” however. For simple problems such as those encountered in assembly line production, the super team may be too much. Super teams make the most sense when there is a complex probe not solved or layers of progress delaying management to cut through the key concept which here is cross functionalism. And super teams are not the right choice for every company culture. Middle managers can feel threatened by super teams because they leave fewer rungs on the corporate ladder to move up.

Organizing a corporation into super teams is a long, complex process that may take years. A Harvard Business School study found that it is easier to start a new plant with super teams (as GM did at Saturn) than it is to convert an existing plant into super teams. Still, some experts think that super teams may turn out to be the most productive business innovation of the 1990s.

  • David Doorstop

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