Self Directed Work Teams – How to Nurture Them

In a previous article I related the factors which encouraged the development and progression of Self-Directed Work Teams (SDWT). It is likely that part progress may have been made in your own company from other-directed to self-directed teams.

I haven’t yet been explicit in the benefits that SDWT bring to their parent organisation. These benefits include:
· Improved quality, productivity and service.
· Greater flexibility.
· Reduced operating costs.
· Faster response to technological change.
· Fewer, simpler job classifications.
· Better response to workers’ values.
· Increased employee commitment to the organization.
· Ability to attract and retain the best people*.
*Ron Williams

How many of these are achieved and to what level depends on how well functioning the team is, and how it is supported and nurtured by the company. Was the SDWT set up opportunistically; is it a partial implementation approach or was it born from a structural (re-engineering) approach? Which of these routes the SDWT came down has an effect on its stability. The truth is that SDWT are inherently NOT stable as I have both read in psychology books and witnessed in my own experience. Over a short time, generally more than 3 months but less than 1 year, an unofficial leader will begin to emerge in the team and the other members will begin to defer to their direction. If left alone a traditional supervisor – employee arrangement will result.

How can SDWT be given the best chance of success? The structural approach to developing a SDWT has the greatest likely hood of delivering the benefits described, and of having longevity. I can relate to this especially in that I was part of a 6 year journey from greenfield start up, to over 1,000 employees where we relied upon structurally developed SDWT, along with Zero defect and 6 sigma tools, with a skill based reward system.

Here are a few pointers:
· Silo mentality must be completely avoided.
· Psychological profiling is a must so the team members can more clearly see the different traits, habits, strengths and weaknesses of the other members and themselves.
· The profiling should be performed by the team itself.
· Team selection should be the responsibility of the team, not HR.
· At the end of a project, a closure meeting is held and another project started with the team members moving to different teams.
· Conflict management training is essential.
· A clear statement on acceptable and not acceptable behaviours must be established.
· Assertiveness is acceptable: aggression absolutely not.
· Win – Win conversations are welcomed: creating clear losers is not.
· Failure is treated as a skill gap and requires support; it is not an excuse to punish.

If you have your own experiences of SDWT, I would welcome you sharing them with us here in this blog. If you need support to move your company towards self-direction then we would be pleased to help.


I am an expert in team development, facilitation, and change. Over the past two decades I have been steeped in change with the I.A.M. workforce. Unionize workers have a tradition and culture all their own. They are extremely whole and capable as contributors to the business. This is where I would like to comment.

The theme I have found recently in shop floor teaming is “Frustration.” I have been called in to share more about business and metrics at the team level. It always starts rough. Fingers are pointed and feelings seem hurt. At the end of four sessions facilitating and training these teams bonds are made and trust is improved. All the self directed work teams at a shop floor level need is someone to care, someone to help, and someone to honor their commitments to the team.

A key success factor I find with these teams as well as leadership teams is repetition. Weekly meetings creates the traction a team needs to move forward. Without this weekly traction a team can revert back to beginner status and a facilitator will need to do damage control.

In my honest opinion, self directed work teams are power. They have the ability to own the daily business through connections, communicating, and understanding and using metrics. This helps the team to run as a business within their own team and use the metrics to improve the business.

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