Sunday, 13 April 2008

Steely resolve

Those who work in the most complex manufacturing environments have the most to gain from the use of problem-solving teams. This is a finding from a recent US study.

Using data from steel minimills, the study shows that teams had the greatest impact if they tackled complex tasks in these environments, enjoyed meaningful incentives, and knew that management listened to them.

Steel mills traditionally have focused on the quality and quantity of goods produced rather than how workers interact, and managers often resist the idea of taking rank-and-file workers off the factory floor or paying them overtime for meetings so they can become collaborators. Yet during the five-year study, the number of mills using problem-solving teams more than tripled and the practice became virtually universal on lines executing the most complex tasks.

Its not teams, per se, said Kathryn Shaw, the Ernest C. Arbuckle Professor of Economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, one of the studys authors. Its having an environment that supports teamwork. You need a group of experts coming together to solve a complex problem. Youre bringing people together because no one person can solve the problem as well as the group.

Minimills operate 24 hours a day, so companies cant increase yield by having people work longer. But rank-and-file employees can come up with ways to work smarter, from having more efficient training to reconfiguring production lines or finding faster ways to identify and reject unacceptable products.

This study might not surprise you - but the fact that such teams are still comparatively rare means that the point needs to be re-emphasised continually.

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