Team-Building in the Army Workplace

by Steven L. Butler

Teams and partnerships are revolutionizing the American work environment.  Fort Riley's Directorate of Contracting offers one example of an Army organization that has turned to teams to conduct its business.

On 1 March 1997, the Directorate of Contracting (DOC) at Fort Riley, Kansas, implemented a "team concept" approach to conducting its business. The plan called for restructuring the DOC from a traditional organization of two or more separate divisions, each assigned specific tasks to perform, into a work environment that uses three "teams," each with as many as eight members, to conduct all contracting tasks. Each team member will gain the skills and knowledge needed to handle not only his usual tasks but also tasks normally executed by other employees. DOC employees believe that this new method of working will improve the quality, efficiency, and timeliness of the support they provide to their customers.

The restructuring that is occurring at DOC is very similar to the changes in labor-management relations throughout the Government resulting from Executive Order 12871, which was signed by President Clinton on 1 October 1993. That order established the National Partnership Council, composed of several Government and labor union officials, to advise the President on labor-management issues. Among other things, it is responsible for "supporting the creation of labor-management partnerships" in order to improve flexibility in the executive branch. Even though the activities of both the labor-management partnerships called for under the executive order and the teams envisioned under the team concept are similar, they should not to be confused with each other because they are found at different levels within an organization.

My colleagues and I surveyed the views of management, employees, and union officials at the Fort Riley DOC to see how well teaming is working. We found that the outlook for establishing a team concept there is good.

Fort Riley Creates a Partnership

At Fort Riley, the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) and Local 2324 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) agreed on a partnership arrangement in 1994. The agreement called for new ways of conducting business and fostering new relationships among managers and workers, including mutual respect and understanding, cooperation, decisions based on consensus, and joint training. Establishing the partnership was expected to result in—

• A high quality of service and products as part of mission accomplishment.

• Training in alternate dispute resolution for both labor and management (defining disputes in terms of "win-win," rather than "win-lose," situations).

• Open lines of communication between management and labor.

• Elimination of barriers to enhance productivity.

• Recognition of employees as assets who deserve a worker-oriented workplace.

The Fort Riley DOC reorganized its partnership committee into teams in March 1997. The DOC's objective is to establish and streamline internal procedures and polices while simultaneously working with fewer personnel. In addition, DOC must reduce the time needed to process purchase requests and other acquisition requirements while ensuring customer satisfaction and work quality. Accordingly, DOC developed a reorganization strategic plan and submitted it to higher headquarters before implementation. The plan had the following components: the requirements for successful teamwork; the DOC vision; a revised DOC mission statement; development of initial team goals and objectives; and development of DOC operating principles and ground rules.

The DOC partnership committee now consists of one employee from each team, the team chiefs, the union steward, and the director of contracting. The committee addresses issues raised by the work force and distributes minutes of its meetings to employees by e-mail. Unresolved issues are addressed at the next month's meeting. Issues are resolved on the basis of what is best for the directorate, which is determined through a combination of the committee members' consensus and the director's decisions.

Implementing the Team Concept

According to Mark Sanborn, a team is an "energetic group of diverse individuals who are committed to achieving common objectives, who work well together, enjoy doing so, and who produce high quality results." The objective of team building is to establish and streamline internal procedures and policies while requiring the organization to work with fewer personnel. In addition, the organization must reduce the time consumed by specific processes while ensuring that customers are satisfied and the quality of work is sustained to established standards. "Effective teams," Sanborn notes, "strive to improve their performance, increase cooperation and morale, improve interpersonal relationships, reduce adversarial interactions, and successfully complete their missions."

The team concept at DOC is still in the formation stage of defining teams, coaches, and responsibilities. Separation, role clarification, unification, and, finally, maturation—the other stages in implementing the team-building process—will take place as team members get used to the new concept.

Formation

Formation is the briefest stage in implementing team building. During the formation stage, the coach (the team chief) leading the team-building effort needs to specify responsibilities and hold team members accountable for attending meetings and improving their productivity. It also is very important for the coach to encourage team members and facilitate a shift in their activities.

The primary purpose of the formation stage is to empower the coach so some responsibilities ordinarily held by first-line supervisors and technical support personnel can be assigned to team members. The coach, with the aid of various team members, should keep an activities log so that team members can track their progress. After a certain time has elapsed, the coach and team members will review the log to categorize their activities and, if necessary, shift some responsibilities to other team members. Some responsibilities that are commonly shifted include scheduling and, eventually, hiring of new personnel. Some duties and responsibilities often are shifted to other teams or team members in technical support positions, such as finance and accounting. Nonproductive or redundant activities are, with the consent of team members, eliminated altogether.

Separation

If an organization survives the formation stage, its teams then will venture into the separation stage. This is the most time-consuming, and perhaps the most difficult, stage in the entire process of team building. The separation stage—also known as the confusion stage—often mimics the early phase of human development known as separation anxiety, during which a child often feels lost and alone without a parent nearby to give direction and guidance.

With old beliefs challenged and new beliefs or techniques not fully in place or understood, there likely will be disputes among team members. There also may be added pressure on all parties because productivity may actually decrease in the separation stage.

Nonetheless, there is a positive side to the separation stage: Newly empowered work teams find they are becoming more willing to experiment with new techniques and tactics. These positive activities, coupled with the free flow of information, lead to team brainstorming sessions. These sessions can lead eventually to the emergence of a very cohesive, efficient team.

However, while this stage generally is positive, progress may still be an uphill battle for 12 to 18 months. During the separation stage, the coach needs to conduct comprehensive technical training and training in stress management and conflict resolution.

Role Clarification

In the role clarification stage, team members are fully aware of their duties and responsibilities. They realize that their job, basically, is to do everything. Even in such a late stage as clarification, problems can still arise. For example, team members usually tend to rely too heavily on one team leader. At this point, it is imperative that the coach implement an old formation-stage tactic: shifting responsibility from the team leader to the other team members.

In the clarification stage, problems are solved by means of multivoting, in which all team members listen to each other's workplace problems, identify potential causes, and then collectively arrive at a solution. Team members are infinitely more tolerant of the strengths and weaknesses of each other at the role clarification stage than they were earlier.

Team performance surveys are distributed to team members by the coach during this stage. In these surveys, team members critique other coaches, teams, departments, and suppliers on a scale of 1 to 10, based on communication skills, productivity, innovation, professionalism, punctuality, and other factors. These critiques will determine where team members need training (creative thinking, problem solving, advanced technical training, cross-training, etc.).

Unification

During the unification, or adolescent, stage, the team has developed into a cohesive, productive, intelligent, and very efficient unit. Incidentally, at this stage it is possible for a team to become too autonomous and seek to compete with other teams in the organization for leverage. Fortunately, teams have developed some sense of interdepartmental trust and mutual respect by the unification stage. The entire workplace culture has changed (or should have changed). Employees now expect, and often seek out, activities such as cross-training as new and greatly appreciated challenges.

The single greatest task for the coach at the unification stage is to maintain cohesion and trust by constantly integrating members from different teams. In order to integrate team members effectively, the coach must use methods such as shift overlap, cross-functional training, cross-functional problem solving, project groups, and special project days. Another highly effective method of integrating is to reward success on an overarching group basis: Instead of employee- or team-of-the-month awards, coaches should have a combined reward or incentive for all the teams. Instead of internal competition, teams will help each other with common goals, objectives, and activities.

Maturation

The fifth and final stage of implementing the team concept is maturation. During this stage, open communication is encouraged and expected. Information, ranging from work and vacation schedules to performance evaluations, is freely and openly exchanged among all team members. Clearly, in the maturation stage, most activities are "team oriented" and rewards are based on the efforts of the "team." These efforts should include detailed planning of the entire working day.

A workplace at this stage of team building should be experiencing an average productivity increase of 30 to 40 percent and an overall increase in quality of 50 percent or greater. In order to continue improving in these areas, coaches should encourage team members to continue developing and nurturing deeper relationships with suppliers, distributors, and customers.

The coach also combats the possibility of stagnation among team members by sending them on temporary or special assignments, where they can work directly with suppliers, distributors, and customers. Ultimately, if the team proves successful, the coach should consider placing its members throughout the organization as seeds for future success.

Survey Findings

In our survey of how teaming is working at DOC, we talked with employees, the union, and local management. Employees believe that the team concept has many advantages and few disadvantages at this point. Some of the advantages they see are—

• A more equal distribution of the work load.

• More backup people who have knowledge of projects, which helps in the event that one team member is unavailable.

• More timely completion of projects.

• Increased efficiency.

• Improved communication among workers on the same project.

• Cross-training for all team members.

• A more complete package presented to customers.

• A better quality contract (the DOC product).

AFGE Local 2324 is the local union for the DOC at Fort Riley. From a union perspective, there are no major concerns about the team concept. Though the teams can have a mixture of union and nonunion employees, all team members are represented equally by the union under law. The only difference between the union and nonunion members is that union members pay union dues and participate in union decision-making activities.

The Fort Riley director of contracting sees work teams as a natural match for other changes occurring within DOC. DOC has not received a specific legal requirement for teaming, other than Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review. However, changes in the acquisition field, such as the Federal Acquisition Simplification Act and reorganization of job series, have prompted the director to implement work teams in DOC. For example, Government downsizing in recent years has resulted in many agencies, including the Fort Riley DOC, having to accomplish the same or more work with fewer people.

During an examination of work processes, the director found that different tasks have different peak periods of activity. For example, more small acquisitions (under $100,000) were generated at the beginning of the fiscal year, while most contract administration work was done at the end of the fiscal year. The director envisions using work teams to maintain continuity and even out work loads. By sharing information and work within and between teams, more workers are employed on tasks that must be performed immediately. By having the individuals who make a procurement also handle contract administration, the work load can be spread among a greater number of knowledgeable individuals.

In our survey, we found the following positives to team development—

• Local directors totally support building work teams.

• Work loads are leveled among team members.

• Contract administration is distributed among team members rather than assigned to one worker.

• A mentoring program is developed.

• The team concept contributes to, and possibly enhances, upward mobility within a job classification series.

We also found some negatives to team development—

• Research suggests that building cohesive and effective work teams requires 2 to 4 years. However, Government organizations rarely are allowed that much time to make measurable changes.

• Research also indicates that committed management is requred to form work teams. The need to report measurable savings may interrupt the sustained commitment the team-building process needs over the long term.

• Current employees may not realize the degree of commitment they need to build effective work teams. Once they do, they may not be able or willing to give that level of commitment to the team.

• The Army and the Department of Defense (DOD) have developed software designed to modernize procurement and contract activities using electronic means. However, this software often is quickly outdated, and employees and contractors sometimes have trouble interfacing with it. Management at both the Army and DOD need to find solutions to software problems.

• Upper levels of management may decide to provide guidance where no guidance is needed and not provide guidance where it is needed. The commitment of local management to teaming may be undermined by other levels of management within the Army Forces Command, the Army, and DOD. Lack of current guidance also may indicate lack of understanding of how to build work teams. Higher levels of command either must give guidance that defines work teams or commit to a hands-off policy.

• Formation of work teams has been left to employees. Local management and employees must be guided to desired goals, if any goals are to be formulated. For example, will the work teams evolve into self-directed teams, or will they remain strictly as work teams controlled by a higher level manager?

• Incentives for team formation and interaction are missing. The only rewards for team performance at this time are personal, varying with the individual team member. Financial and evaluation incentives are not in place. Group performance is neither evaluated nor rewarded.

Based on our survey, we were able to determine that most members in the DOC were very pleased with the team concept. On very few occasions did we hear disapproval. What we found particularly interesting was the general positive disposition of employees and how well informed they were about the implementation process. It was apparent that DOC management took the proper initial steps to establish communication and circulate updated information throughout the different departments. This provided the employees with an easy and fluid transition for successful teaming.

The DOC was able to outline a vision that was developed through the general consensus of the work force. The DOC management agreed with the mission statement, which was developed by allowing the employees to participate in defining their concept of the overall organizational vision and mission. The DOC leadership also demonstrated an eager desire to embrace the concept by creating a positive atmosphere. Under these favorable working conditions, the directorate was further able to develop team goals and objectives as well as engineer the ground rules that contribute to defining the organization's personality.

Team input and interface contributed greatly to forming and implementing the concept. One development growing out of teaming is the evolution of nontraditional work schedules, such as a compressed work week that allows employees the flexibility to adjust their work schedule during business hours. This flexible schedule is widely appreciated and has contributed greatly to improved employee morale and loyalty to the organization. So far, the team concept has been well received by employees and management. ALOG

Steven L. Butler works in the Directorate of Contracting at Fort Riley, Kansas. He is pursuing a master of science degree in administration (concentration in human resource management) from Central Michigan University.

The author thanks Duffy Brown, Rene Caban, Jorge Padro, Don Peters, and Matt Stavros, all of whom collaborated in the preparation of this article as part of a group project in their master's degree program.