Teams are “Us” – Part 4: The Nitty-Gritty

Teams are “Us” – Part 4: The Nitty-Gritty

“If you want one year of prosperity grow grain. 

If you want ten years of prosperity grow trees. 

If you want one hundred years of prosperity grow your people”

— Confucius (~ 500 BC)

In the previous posts in my Teams are “Us” series, I discussed some of my early experiences in discovering and forming teams and I tried to layout a philosophy of why you need to differentiate between individual and team efforts in an organization. I also stressed the need to have a clear vision as to what the organization’s definition of “improvement” entails so that this can be clearly communicated and ultimately owned by all team members as they create this “improvement”.

I would now like to spend some time outlining the various structures that teams can be formed around. This is not meant to be an exhaustive compilation of all the ways that teams can be organized, just those that I am familiar with and have had extensive experience with. There are probably many other formats for team structures, but I can only talk about what I know firsthand.

My experience revolved around three basic team structures:

  • Natural Work Groups
    • Membership – all members of a natural work group
    • Usually 5 – 10 members
    • 5 – 40% improvement target
    • Ongoing duration
    • Goals evolve (continuous improvement)
  • Cross-Functional/Breakthrough Teams
    • Membership multi-functional and multi-level
    • Usually 6 – 8 members
    • 50 – 90% improvement target
    • Several weeks’ to several months’ duration
  • Task Teams
    • Membership varies according to task scope
    • Usually 2 – 5 members
    • 1 week to 1 month duration
    • Specific task to complete

Natural Work Groups are the backbone of any sustained Lean transformation. Without them, the improvements from Cross-Functional and Task Teams can easily fade into the proverbial sunset. Without them, Cross-Functional Teams tend to create more “unintended consequences” mixed in with the real improvements. Without them, Lean doesn’t work. Natural Work Teams are where the twin pillars of the “Toyota Way”, Continuous Improvement and Respect for People, are meant to have maximum impact. I will give a real-life example of this phenomena a little later.

There can be quite a bit of overlap between the roles of Cross-Functional vs. Task Teams, but Task Teams tend to tackle “quick strike” improvements and Cross-functional Teams are primarily formed to accomplish “breakthrough”, “paradigm breaking” and large scope improvements. In my mind, Task Teams (and Natural Work Groups) are kaizen, while Cross-functional Teams are kaikaku (“radical change” in TPS terms). But the Task Team I described in my last post makes a very good argument against my generality here. Predictability is not a good descriptor for Teams – thank goodness!

But first I would like to lay out some structural differences between Natural Work Groups and Cross-Functional Teams (Task Teams are somewhat of a hybrid between the two):

Cross-Functional Teams



  • Best for Complex Multi-Functional Processes
  • Many People May Be Left Out
  • Dissolves Organizational Barriers
  • Buy-in May Not Transition Outside of Team
  • Relatively Quick Results
  • Team Members May Not Be Closest to the Process
  • Best for Breakthrough Results
  • Results Could Degrade After Team Disbands
  • Opinions Replaced with Facts
  • Team Size Ideal

Natural Work Groups



  • Involves People Closest to Process
  • Results are Relatively Slower
  • Complete Buy-In Likely
  • Larger Groups Harder to Form
  • Facts Vs. Opinion Not Biggest Obstacle
  • May Fail if Management Does Not Truly Empower the Team
  • Results Tend to Stick
  • Not Good at Complex, Multi-Functional Processes
  • First line of defense against entropy
  • Encourages Cross-Training/Learning Within Group



While the primary differences between these two types of Teams are in membership and goal scope, they are not necessarily always independent of each other. While Cross-Functional Teams are usually necessary to break down walls and destroy old paradigms that are inhibiting innovation, I have found that Natural Work Groups are sometimes the key to making those expansive ideas work in real time. The two types of Teams can actually complement each other. (I will cover this in more detail later).

But as I stressed in Part 2 of this series, just creating a team is not the “end-all” for achieving the “Respect for People” mantra. The goal or vision for the team must be clearly defined and these guidelines must be understood and accepted by all involved. Or as Joel A. Barker eloquently stated:

“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”

For Natural Work Groups, we achieve this via the visual management tools that make problems visible in “real time”. When something goes wrong (those pesky abnormalities which are the heart of Jidoka), the problem should be immediately visible so that appropriate problem solving steps can be taken to counter the problem and hopefully institute immediate corrective action. This is the primary responsibility of the Team Leader. This is where poka-yoke, andon lights, hour-by-hour charts, action boards, etc. play a critical role. The same applies when the Team has a Continuous Improvement challenge in front of them. The key parameters must be available and very visible at all times so that immediate action can be undertaken when appropriate.

For Cross-Functional and Task Teams, a well-thought-out Team Charter is usually the key driver towards maintaining the proper visionary focus. But what is a Team Charter? Basically, the charter is the initial attempt to define the “P” in PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act). It can also become the initial basis for the A3 problem solving tool. A good Team Charter should contain these basic informational components:

  • Team Mission (How Relates to Critical Business Issues)
  • Team Goal
  • Project Scope
  • How Progress will be Measured
  • How Baseline Measures will be Established
  • Team Members/Leader/Facilitator/Sponsor
  • Key Stakeholders
  • Team Boundaries
  • Team Duration and Time Commitment Required

The initial charter should be prepared by the Team Sponsor: the person (or persons) that is responsible for creating the Team and supporting the Team with adequate resources through-out the complete duration of the Team activities. The Team Sponsor must himself have the delegated authority to actually carry out these key responsibilities. So, if the Team is truly “cross-functional”, the Sponsor is usually a member of upper management – whatever that may represent for your organization. This requires an ongoing commitment from the top and is not to be taken lightly.

But this Sponsor created charter is just the first step. This charter must be sold to the Team itself. The Team (and Team Leader) must be given the power to negotiate the various charter components with the Sponsor. This means the Sponsor must have his/her act together when the initial charter is presented to the Team. Once the negotiations are over, the charter must be literally signed off by every Team Member before any Team activities can begin. This initiates the ultimate “teaching/learning” mode of Team dynamics. This is where the “Us” is formed!

Before I jump into the various component parts of the Team Charter in my next post, I would like to point out that Charters are not always used solely for Cross-functional or Task Teams. There is no reason that Charters cannot also be used for Natural Work Groups. They absolutely can be – and sometimes should be. But then the question arises – is this now a Natural Work Group or a Task Team? In the long run, it really doesn’t matter. Team Charters are a very powerful tool – use them wherever/whenever you need more vision and clarity in guiding the Team efforts.

Next: Team Charters and other stuff.

2 thoughts on “Teams are “Us” – Part 4: The Nitty-Gritty

  1. Many companies have rigid rules for forming teams, i.e. don’t give Team Leaders the flexibility to form team groups according to how they feel best.

    I worked for one that defined Team Formation and Conduct (among other things) under a program call Business Process Excellence. As a Team Leader the bulk of my job was to document that our team was adhering to team process and documentation requirements, i.e. these were the same for every team in the corporation. They actually had a central group of people to review this documentation to audit our adherence. They measured the effectiveness of the program based on how many teams had been formed and completed work according to those requirements. Sound similar to how some companies manage their Lean programs?

    When companies try to over-regulate anything, they defeat themselves. By the way, the Business Process Excellence program (as you might have inferred by the title) was brought in to our corporation by a consultant.

    1. A typical “Us” versus “Them” scenario! Neither the company nor the consultant understood the basic concept of a Team. But, unfortunately, this is fairly typical of today’s Lean environment. Want “Respect for People”? Tell them that they are a Team now and this is how they must do it. That’ll show them our respect – if they do it right.

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