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Presented March 29, 1995
The University of Houston
College of Technology

This paper was written by Grady McAllister. It was completed as a research project for a class in Occupational Technology at the University of Houston. The ideas expressed do not represent the views of the University of Houston or the College of Technology.

© 1995, 2007 by Grady McAllister. All Rights Reserved.

The main "work to be done" is actually the movement of information. The mere interrelating of people by selected information is now the principal source of wealth in the electric age. . . such speed-ups of information have ended the divisions of delegated authority in favor of the "authority of knowledge."

— Marshall McLuhan,
Understanding Media
, 1964

Pacing about on a speakers platform, voice booming, Tom Peters tells his audience that he can boil his entire management philosophy down to one sentence: "Crazy times call for crazy organizations ."

The new marketplace in one word is "fashion." Every market is becoming a fashion market. "That means: fickle, fleeting, ephemeral, faddish, and unfair." Peters says you can thrive in the marketplace if you'll:

Free the human imagination . . . Get close to and serve the customer. . . Customize products and services . . . Abandon everything; continuously reinvent yourself.. . Access the brainware around you. . . Know the front line . . . Demolish the monolith. . . Create teams that allow people to express their personalities.

Peters says a corporation today must be "curious." Don't expect the personnel in the personnel department to hire curious people. Peters says they operate by this unwritten rule:

"Thou shalt not hire a person who has an unexplained nanosecond in their life past the age of three."

They want the person who maintained a 4.0 grade average through graduate school and "has not had an interesting thought in their entire life."

They don't want any people who drop out of college, spend a year and a half in Europe, and offer no explanation. That, says Peters, is just the kind of behavior to look for when you're ready to hire curious people. He adds: "Hire a few genuine off-the-wall types. Collect weirdoes."

Peters says he is totally serious about this: "This is coldly logical stuff." Nobody disagrees that markets are weird, "but how are you going to conquer weird markets with stuffed shirts?"

The pressure to conquer weird markets (and to re-conquer world markets) has led to teams as a way to focus on quality, encourage innovation, and empower the workforce.

According to Jack Gordon, editor of Training magazine, the vogue for teams grew out of the quality circle idea, "the lone Japanese import actually welcomed by American manufacturers."

Because of their related origin, total quality management (TQM) and self-directed teams (SDT) are two strategies that are often talked about in the same breath. Yet, they are very different ideas. Lawrence Holpp, of Quality Partners, a Pittsburgh consulting firm, writes: "It's one thing to replace capital equipment, introduce a statistical process control system, or train everyone in customer service. It's quite another to empower workers to decide questions of cost, quality, vendor relations, and administrative practices."

Holpp says that TQM is "a performance management system" based upon a "Gold standard of Customer First." It means "continuous improvement" throughout the organization. The organization provides the vision and the values.

SDT's are relatively small, functionally focused units which manage their own affairs. Typically, they manage work hours, work inputs and outputs, quality, productivity, and costs. Pure SDT's set budgets, pay, and bonuses. They hire and fire team members.

Holpp says that one difference between SDT's and TQM is clear: "You can not have SDT's without an obsession with quality, but you can throw your resources into the quality ring without swearing allegiance to SDT's."

The very popularity of "teams" means that a "team" can now mean almost any kind of work group. These groups might have little to do with total quality management or SDT's. Jack Gordon writes:

These days the word "team" might be referring to a group of production workers in a radically restructured company. On the other hand, the term has grown so fashionable that the speaker just as easily could be talking about a department that functions no differently than it did in 1962: "That's right, J.B., our sales team really got out there this month and kicked some—

To find out what teams are really doing, Training surveyed organizations with 100 or more employees.

Over 82% reported that they had at least some employees working in a group identified as a team. Of those, 45% were classified as permanent work teams, 30% as temporary project teams, and 18% as permanent or long-term cross-functional teams.

On the question of "self-directed" work teams, only 42% of the organizations with teams claimed to have teams of that type. The survey also found that the autonomy which a team enjoys can range from setting work schedules (a full 69%) to firings (only 21 % overall, 10% in companies with 10,000 or more employees).

Richard S. Wellins, co-author of Inside Teams (1994), says a manager should do the following to create self-directed work teams:

1. Design the team "for success." Learn about the SDT's and decide if teams "are right for your culture." Give employees the organization's ideas on empowerment and teams. Enter a "workplace redesign" process and "take a hard look at the work and its systems." Launch the SDT's and keep track of their progress.

2. Select the "team players." Identify people who are "most likely to succeed" in the new system. Be sure the process is fair, legal, and efficient.

3. Train the team to succeed. Besides their regular job skills, training should include "team interaction skills" and "skills for identifying and implementing improvements."

4. Initiate "leadership transitions". The team begins to control and schedule work, appraise and discipline employees, and even hire and fire. The manager coaches and trains the team. The manager helps the team deal with suppliers and work with the other parts of the organization.

5. Reward the team members after they (1) learn more about a specific process , (2) learn another job on the team, and (3) learn leadership skills.



\Typically, a team leader is someone who had been a supervisor. This person forms the link between the team and the rest of the organization. The leader may also be a facilitator, conducting meetings and teaching group process skills to the team members. How well leaders handle these roles depends on how well the organization prepares them.

Team management consultant Harlan R. Jessup says that the best arrangement may be "shared leadership." These leadership assignments can include:

· A "moderator" who conducts the meetings

· A schedule coordinator

· A recorder who keeps minutes, attendance records, and overtime and vacations schedules

· A goal-tracker who measures and posts performance

· A training coordinator

· A "cheerleader" who schedules celebrations and seeks recognition from management

But who is responsible for the entire team? Houston Consultant Neill Carson says, "You can obscure the issues around accountability, but you can not avoid them."

Accountability, he says, tends to take on a different meaning when applied to a team: "Have you even heard of a team being fired for doing a poor job? Ever heard of a team being promoted for doing an outstanding job?"

Sometimes a manager has to explain a team's poor performance, but there is no one in particular to explain it to the manager.

Carson recommends these guidelines for managing teams: (1) Don't let the team choose its own leader.(2) Help the leader form the team and get the required resources.(3) Assign overall responsibility to only one person in the team. (4) Conduct reviews and make any needed adjustments in deadlines. (5) If the work is unsatisfactory, counsel and redirect the leader.

Carson concludes: "The fear that individual leadership and accountability will somehow suppress or destroy team effort is groundless. In fact, the opposite is true. Ambiguous accountability destroys morale and leads people to seek political solutions to problems instead of business solutions."


For people to work as a team they must exchange information, communicate, and reach decisions. The person who manages this process is the facilitator.

Rebecca Sisco, a contributing editor for Training magazine, says, "The group is only as good as its facilitator." By their very nature, teams call for meetings lead by rank and file employees. That, she says, is "part of what empowerment is all about.

"How well the meetings go affects the team's decisions: "The leader must ensure that the group dynamics present no barriers to finding a good solution."

The facilitator lets the group make its own decisions but keeps it away from disasters----such as violating a contract.

Sisco makes a case for splitting up the roles of team leader and facilitator. The team leader can still conduct the meeting, but the facilitator sees that group makes a systematic decision.


According to a study at Cornell Medical College, the jobs with the greatest stress are those which combine high demands with a low level of autonomy. When organizations empower people to make their own decisions autonomy is the result---one of the ingredients for a self-directed work team.

Writing in Training & Development Journal , Clay Carr points to what management can do to empower a work force. He says: "Self-managed workers, especially in self-directed work teams, are a lot like gyroscopes: The system empowers them and sets their direction, and then they function on their own."

Carr says empowerment is not a one-dose event but a continuous process. This process needs help from each of the managers above the team in the organization. The manager supports. guides, and coordinates the work teams. There is less focus on the manager's power and more on the manager's influence.

Carr describes five roles for the manager of an empowered work force:

1. The manager assures that the goals of the workers line up with those of the organization.

2. The manager coordinates the teams so that their efforts support each other.

3. The manager helps teams learn decision-making processes and guides the decisions to fit the goals of the organization.

4. The manager provides an environment of "continuous learning" and acts as a "learning agent."

5. The manager creates and maintains an atmosphere of trust. Empowerment, says Carr, "exists only where there is trust."

Writing for the Training and Development "Training 101" series, Don Kirkpatrick asks, "How much empowerment is too much or not enough?"

He offers these factors to consider: (1) the culture of the organization; (2) the need for assistance; (3) the amount of risk involved; (4) the qualifications of the employees; (5) training and decision making--how well the employees have been trained to make their own decisions; (6) the urgency of the decisions.

Writing for the same "Training 101" column, Frederick Betof and Frederick Harwood suggest these principles for empowerment:

(1) People are part of the management and can improve the organization.

(2) Good ideas they have will be implemented.

(3) Suggestions they make will be appreciated and rewarded even if they are not accepted.

(4) People can be trusted with responsibility.

(5) They are respected for their ideas and judgment.



The variety of management and human resource material which might be taught to teams is virtually endless. It can range from traditional topics like time management and meeting skills to such politically charged areas as training. Most team training can apply to any work group, not just the self-directed variety. The following example applies only to work groups which are switching to SDT's.


When one has been hurt by new technology, when the private person or corporate body finds its entire identity endangered by physical or psychic change, it lashes back in a fury of self-defense.

— Marshall McLuhan,
War and Peace in the Global Village
, 1968

When an organization converts to SDT's, its employees often resist the idea must be sold on the idea of a team job structure.

Video: A Team Leader's Day . Description and summary:

Meet Jackie Ewer. Jackie works at a Tylenol factory in Ft. Washington, Pennsylvania.

Her supervisor job evaporated when the facility switched to self-directed work teams. Jackie now acts as team leader and facilitator for a group which packs Tylenol in blister packs.

At first, Jackie found the change threatening. Team members received responsibilities that had once been hers. But now she is pleased with her new role. Her role now is to empower the Blister Team to "think and act for themselves."

We see the team performing tasks once performed only by supervisors and staff specialists. We see the former supervisor Jackie leading meetings once considered the exclusive right of upper management. We see her meeting with outside venders, engineering and purchasing people, and other production teams. She manages "the boundaries and future of the operation" while the team handles the day-to-day events.

Early in the day, the team votes to shut down the line when an oil leak develops. Fifteen minutes later the team has an opportunity for "continuous learning" when they resolve a type of problem they had never seen before.

Later, we see a disagreement between team members and venders. Jackie reinforces the team's decision to go against the venders' advice.

As the end of the shift approaches, Jackie focuses on a long-time problem with the second shift. If she was still a supervisor, Jackie might have brought the complaint directly to the supervisor of the other shift. Acting in the role of team leader, she coaches the team on how they can all confront the people on the second shift.

The video ends with this observation: "Rather than fragmenting people at the bottom, the people at the bottom are responsible for the job as a whole."


There is nothing new about participative management or the idea of allowing decisions at the lowest possible level. What is new is the emphasis on work teams as such.

But teams may not be right for every situation. Brian Dumaine writes in Fortune : "You don't use teams with insurance salesmen and long-haul truckers." Even when they are appropriate, he says, they are often launched in isolation without proper support or training. If that happens, the team can "turn around and bite you."

In the final analysis, any work group is just a collection of individuals, and -- for a work group to really work --- it must allow each person to contribute as an individual.

The Vasthead is the professional web site of
Grady McAllister of Houston, Texas.


Betof, Edward and Frederick Harwood. "Raising Personal Empowerment." Training and Development Journal , September 1992, pp. 31-34.

Carr, Clay. "Managing Self-Managed Workers." Training and Development Journal, September 1991, pp. 36-42.

Carson, Neill. "The Trouble with Teams." Training , August 1992, pp. 38-40.

Dumaine, Brian. "The Trouble with Teams." Fortune , 5 September 1994, pp. 86-92.

Cowley, Geoffrey. "Dialing the Stress-Meter Down." Newsweek, 6 March 1995, p. 62.

Gordon, Jack. "Work Teams: How Far Have They Come? " Training , October 1992, pp. 59-65.

Holpp, Lawrence. "Making choices: Self-Directed Teams or Total Quality Management?" Training , May 1992, pp. 69-76.

Jessup, Harlan. "New Roles in Team Leadership." Training and Development Journal , November 1990, pp. 79-83.

Kirkpatrick, Don. "How Much Empowerment Is Too Much or Not Enough?" Training and Development Journal , September 1992, pp. 29-31.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964

McLuhan, Marshall. War and Peace in the Global Village. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.

Peters, Tom. Liberation Management: The Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties (Video recording). Schaumburg, IL: Video Publishing House, 1993, one video cassette with training guide, VHS, 60 minutes

Sisco, Rebecca. "What To Teach Team Leaders." Training , February 1993, pp. 62-67.

A Team Leader's Day (Video recording). Philadelphia: Blue Sky Productions, 1990, VHS, 60 minutes. Shot on video.

Wellins, Richard S. "Building a Self-directed Work Team." Training and Development Journal , December 1992, pp. 24-28.

Wellins, Richard S., William C. Byham, and George R. Dixon. Inside Teams . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

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