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Diagnosing Whether an Organization Is Truly
Ready to Empower Work Teams: A Case Study
Thomas J. Bergmann and Kenneth P. De Meuse, Professors of Management,
University of Wisconsin Department of Management and Marketing
his case study examined employee
perceptions regarding the level of
organizational readiness to move
toward team-based management. The
sample consisted of 11 managers, 18 team
leaders, and 123 team members in a
multinational food manufacturing plant.
Although all three groups indicated a
moderate level of readiness, the plant
experienced great difficulty implementing
the team concept. One-way analysis of
variance indicated that team members
scored significantly lower than team
leaders and managers on nine of 18 survey items. In-depth interviews with plant
mangers and team leaders revealed there
was widespread confusion regarding
what the team approach was, the speed
with which it should be implemented,
and the impact it would have on jobs.
Implications for the introduction and
implementation of the team approach in
an environment of mixed employee
support are provided.
Self-managed work teams, self-directed work
teams, high performance/high commitment
teams, employee involvement teams, employee
participation teams, quality circles, and total
quality management teams — all are names
given to an organizational approach designed to
empower work teams to make more decisions
affecting their work units. The introduction of
the “team concept” in the work place is one of
the leading strategies US corporations are using
in the 1990s to gain a competitive advantage.
Leading companies such as American Express,
Disney, Ford, General Mills, Hewlett-Packard,
and Shell Oil are using empowerment techniques
to increase organizational effectiveness and
employee morale. Recent surveys have reported
up to 70 percent of US companies are employing
some version of self-managed work teams
(SMWT) or high-performance work teams
(Dumaine, 1994; McCann & Buckner, 1994;
Ostennan, 1993). McCann and Buckner found,
however, that only about one-third of human
resource professionals believed that power and
decision making were truly being shifted to
lower levels within the organization. They questioned whether empowerment was being directed
from the top-down without the corresponding
movement of power. They called for additional
research to obtain a better understanding of what
actually is occurring in organizations empowering their employees.
unit (Case, 1995). Table I highlights the key differences between a traditional managementbased company and one employing team-based
The movement toward teams is a dramatic
change for most organizations and, as with any
significant change, organizational members face
many impediments and considerable reluctance.
A substantial body of literature suggests that
executives, managers, and first-level supervisors
frequently resist relinquishing their decisionmaking power and authority (Bruzzese, 1994; De
Meuse, 1994; Shipper & Manz, 1992; Stayer,
1990). For example, Harley-Davidson encountered difficulty at the executive level when it
began empowering work teams in the 1980s. Not
only did the employees and supervisors have difficulty adjusting, but the senior executives resisted as well. Mr. Vaughn Beal, Chairman of the
Board, declared “the percentage of senior management that survived the transition was pretty
Transitioning to Team-Based Management
Traditional Organizations
Team-Based Organizations
Man agement-driven
Isolated specialists
Multi-skilled work force
Many job descriptions
Few job descriptions
Information limited
Information shared
Many management levels
Few management levels
Departmental focus
Whole business focus
Transitioning to Team-Based Management
u s business has accepted the general concept of
empowering employees. However, there is considerable disagreement regarding what empowering employees and teams actually means
(Dumaine, 1994). There appears to be a high
level of agreement among managers that empowering teams is desirable but a great deal of disagreement on what it is they, as managers,
should do to implement it! The most common
definition of team-based management is that it is
an evolutionary process in which team members
eventually are “empowered” to make all decisions relevant to the functioning of their work
Selection-based ernployment
Training-based employment
Top-down performance appraisal
360-degree feedback
Autocratic leadership
Participative leadership
Change is temporary
Change is ongoing
Seemingly organized
Seemingly chaotic
Incremental improvement
Continuous improvement (“Kaizen”)
High management commitment
High worker commitment
The purpose of this case analysis is to exploi e
the perceived readiness of an organization to
implement the team concept. Both quantitative
and qualitative analyses are performed to examine the different perceptions of managers, team
leaders, and team members with regard to the
team concept. Suggestions are made on how to
more effectively introduce and implement the
team concept.
; Adapted from Weilins, Byham, & Wilson (J99]).
small…. You just get to the point where you can’t
tolerate people who are nonbelievers. They have
to go” (Bruzzese, 1994, p. 21). Likewise, at
Shelby Die Casting, the organization identified
supervisors as the barrier to implementation of
the team concept and terminated them. The company then trained employees to start managing
themselves (Caudron, 1994).
Likewise, lower-level employees often are
reluctant to accept the new responsibility required
of team-based management. Team members who
have been shaped over the years to make few, if
any, decisions may show a strong reluctance to
“latch-on” to newfound power when suddenly
cast in the role of team member. Employees
come to the work place with certain expectations
and beliefs that may lead them to question the
motives involved here. Americans have become
accustomed to accepting authority and often
question the underlying reason for expansion of
the employee’s role in the work place (Caudron,
1994). Employee reluctance may involve more
than just a reluctance to assume power; it may
involve a questioning of the team concept itself.
American Individualism is intimately interwoven
into the fabric of American life.
Americans have become
accustomed to accepting
authority and often
question the underlying
reason for expansion of
the employee’s role in
the work place.
The most important consideration when transitioning an organization is the evolutionary
nature of the team empowerment process
(Francis & Young, 1992). Too often management
has the unstated assumption that employee
empowerment occurs as quickly and easily as
turning on a light switch. All top management
has to say is “we are a team-based company”
and, presto, darkness turns to light. On the contrary, empowerment needs to be shared with
employees gradually. Lois McMurchy, training
director at Shelby Die Casting states “… it’s like
teaching a bird to fly. It takes a while” (Caudron,
1994, p. 43). She believes that it takes well over
three years to transform the work group into a
self-managed work team. The bottom-line is that
a partnership between employee and management needs to develop. Time is needed for the
team to clarify roles, to build relationships, and
to identify an effective process it can use to manage itself (Francis & Young, 1992).
A Question of Readiness
Effectively managing reluctance, clarifying
employee roles, providing training, and defining
the concept itself — all aspects are part of the
evolutionary process of team-based management.
But even an evolutionary process has a beginning, and there are points within the process
where revolutionary leaps occur. When is an
organization ready to move closer to team-based
The focus of the present study is to obtain a
better understanding of how different groups
within a company perceive the readiness of that
organization truly to empower employees. Such
an understanding may provide insight into manager, team member, and team member reluctance: Is it a resistance to change itself? A sense
of inadequate preparation? A distrust of motives?
A lack of confidence in one’s abilities? An uncertainty about expectations?
The Organization
The data in this study were obtained in a fastgrowing manufacturing plant of a large multinational food company located in a midsize midwestern city. The following three major product
lines were processed at the plant: (a) infant formula — both powder and liquid, (b) high protein
adult drink, and (c) high concentration dietary
drink. The nature of the manufacturing process
requires a high degree of interdependence
between work units. The plant is unionized, but
management and labor relations are stable.
During data collection, management and the
labor union negotiated a new contract without
labor disruption.
The plant employed approximately 40 people
four years earlier, increasing employment to
more than 150 at the time of the study. The basic
organizational structure consists of three managerial layers. The “plant manager” has overall
responsibility for all facility operations. Ten
functional “managers” report directly to the plant
manager. Eighteen “team leaders” largely serve
in the role of supervisors, reporting to the respective functional managers.
Data Collection
The collection of data occurred in two phases.
Phase I was a two-hour personal, structured
interview with each manager and team leader in
the plant. The participants were asked such questions as: (a) What does the team concept mean to
you? (b) What additional training (skills) do your
team members need to implement the team concept effectively? (c) What do you personally see
as the greatest drawback of the team concept? (d)
What do you personally see as the greatest
advantage of the team concept? (e) Do you feel
the employees here generally understand what
the company means by the team concept? (f)
What barriers currently exist that prevent the
team concept from being successful? and (g)
What can top management do to facilitate the
implementation of the team concept? Overall, the
purpose of the interview was to solicit general
perceptions of how successfully the team concept
was being implemented, where there were problems, and how to correct them. At the end of the
interview, each respondent was asked to complete a survey which was returned directly to the
interviewer. The interviewer knew the identity of
the respondent but the respondent was guaranteed anonymity.
all expressed a moderate level of team readiness.
However, the results suggested that team
members were significantly less ready than were
managers or team leaders.
The data revealed little consistency in perceptions across the three groups of respondents in
terms of highest and lowest ratings. Managers
gave their highest readiness rating to Question 3:
“The nature of work in the plant lends itself to a
team-based approach.” They gave the lowest
rating to Question 2: “Front-line employees can
suggest improvements without going through
several levels of approval.” In contrast, team
leaders rated “management’s willingness to
invest money in training employees” the highest
Phase II of the data collection occurred duriiie
(Question 17), and “the adequacy of the plant’s
a plant-wide activity day. The plant closed down
team support functions” the lowest
for the day and all team members
(Question 13). And finally, team
anonymously completed the employmembers gave their highest rating
ees’ survey as part of the day’s activi- All interviewees
to Question 16: “Front-line
ties. The Team Culture Readiness
declared that they
employees have the skills needed to
Survey is comprised of 18 common
preferred the team
take greater control of their jobs.”
questions designed to measure the
They rated “team leaders’ willingperceptions of respondents of the
concept over the
ness to adjust responsibility
readiness of the organization to move
traditonal managerial downward and radically change
closer to team-based management.
their own roles and behaviors” the
Three unique questions were designed appro Kh.
lowest (Question 20).
for team members only, which meaThe results from the qualitative analysis of the
sured how they perceived their team leader’s
data obtained during the interviews with the
management of them as team members. The
managers and team leaders revealed the following
questions on this survey were developed from
points. First, all interviewees declared that they
review of the literature (e.g.. Fisher, 1993;
the team concept over the traditional
Vamey, 1990), as well as preliminary interviews
approach. Interviewees anticipated
with a small sample of plant employees (see
concept ultimately would lead to a
Table 2). In total, 152 employees completed the
positive work climate with improved communisurvey: 11 managers, 18 team leaders, and 123
cation. Second, they believed that the team
team members.
concept meant all employees are working toward
a common goal. However, beyond that meaning
of “working toward a common goal,” there was
The mean scores on the Team Culture Readiness
much confusion regarding a useful definition of
Survey for the managers, team leaders, and team
the team concept. In addition, there was little
members are presented in Table 2. A one-way
agreement regarding the speed and tactics that
analysis of variance was used to determine if
should be used to implement the concept.
there was a significant difference in perceptions
Because of this lack of vision, nearly all
among managers, team leaders, and team meminterviewees expressed frustration with how the
bers. Results show the team members have sigteam concept was functioning at the plant. Third,
nificantly lower scores on nine of the 18 comthe amount of time needed to incorporate the
mon survey items (ps < .05). For those nine team concept, the rapid plant growth, and the items, managers had the highest scores on five, inability of individuals to change their past and team leaders had the highest scores on the behaviors were common concerns expressed by remaining four items. On only one survey item the interviewees. Fourth, both managers and (Question 16) did team members have the highteam leaders believed the 24-hour shift schedule est mean score (albeit it was not statistically sighad a negative effect on application of the team nificant). Overall, the grand means for the 18 concept. Finally, and surprisingly, neither the items indicated that managers (M = 4.3), team presence of the union nor inter-team competition leaders (M = 4.4), and team members (M = 3.9) HUMAN RESOURCE PLANNING 41 Comparing Manager, Team Leader, and Team Member Responses to the Team Culture Readiness Survey Note: Figures represent means computed from a six-point rating scale, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree). The managers and team leaders were not asked to respond to Questions 19 to 21. 42 Statement Manager Leader Member I. Management believes that front-line employees can and should make the majority of decisions that affect how they do their work. 3.8 3.9 3.4 2. Front-line employees can suggest and implement improvements to their work without going through several levels of approval. 3.5 4.3 3.3* 3. The nature of the work in your plant lends itself to a team-based approach rather than to individual effort. 5.2 4.9 3.9* 4. The technology and physical design of your plant are flexible enough to permit restructuring based on the needs of the team concept. 3.9 4.4 3.9 5. It is possible to organize your work, so that teams of employees can take responsibility for entire jobs. 4.1 4.1 4.1 6. There is enough complexity in jobs to allow for initiative and decision making. 4.7 4.8 4.2* 7. The union is likely to agree to renegotiate traditional work rules and job classifications to permit greater flexibility and autonomy. 3.8 3.9 3.7 8. Overall, employees are interested and willing to organize into teams. 5.0 4.9 4.5* 9. Your company has a history of following through on initiatives such as employee empowerment. 4.0 3.9 3.3' 10. Your overall company culture, vision, and values support team-work and empowerment. 4.7 4.5 3.8* 11. Plant management is willing to adjust responsibility downward and radically change its own roles and behaviors. 4.2 3.9 3.2* 12. Your company Is secure enough to guarantee a period of relative stability during which teams can develop. 4.5 4.2 4.1 13. Your plant has adequate support functions, such as human resources, engineering, and maintenance, that can help teams by providing information, coaching, and training. 4.4 3.7 3.9 14, Plant management understands that developing teams is a lengthy, time-consuming, and labor-intensive process, and is willing and able to make the investment. 5.1 4.7 4.4 15. Your plant has systems in place to provide timely information to front-line employees. 3.6 4.2 3.7 HUMAN RESOURCE PLANNING TABLE 2 (Continued) Comparing Manager, Team Leader, and Team Member Responses to the Team Culture Readiness Survey Statement Manager Leader Member 16. Front-line employees have the skills needed to taJie greater control of their jobs. 3.8 4.4 4.6 17. Management is willing to invest the money in training all employees to be able to move toward a team-oriented company. 5.0 5.2 4.3* 18. Team leaders are willing to share control and authority as the plant moves tovi^ard team decision making. 4.1 4.7 3.2* 19. Team leaders believe that front-line employees can and should make the majority of decisions that affect hov/ they do their work. — — 3.3 20. Team leaders are willing to adjust responsibility downward and radically change their own roles and behaviors. — — 3.1 21. Team leaders understand that developing teams is a lengthy, time-consuming, and labor-intensive process, and are willing and able to make the investment. 3.6 *Denotes mean score is significantly lower than other(s); were cited as barriers to implementation. In addition, the interviews revealed that the skills required by the team members in a company needed to change as the organization empowers work teams. For example, the role of the team leader (supervisor) now becomes one of a coordinator, facilitator, negotiator, communicator, and listener. Consequently, the skills the team leader needs are different than those of the traditional manager. The team leader should have basic job knowledge but does not have to be the technical expert all members rely on to deal with issues as they develop. In contrast, interpersonal communication and coaching activities become the dominant skill-set required of the effective team leader. Likewise, the skills required to be an effective employee are quite different from those needed to be an effective team member. Organizations in the past have provided employees with the technical training required to perform their jobs. However, the team approach mandates an additional set of skills. Skills such as solving problems, conducting meetings, communicating nondefensively, listening, performing statistical and mathematical analysis, and resolving conflict now are needed. In organizations that empower teams, management has to allocate both the money and time to adequately train employees in areas beyond the technical. Further, management has to be prepared to view such training as an ongoing activity, not a one-time expense. DISCUSSION The implementation of team-based management has been widely embraced by the academic literature as a useful strategy for improving organizational performance ... Purchase answer to see full attachment

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