teams -- lessons learned : LUSENET : Court Ops Exchange : One Thread

Please share the most salient benefits and/or pitfalls that you experienced when moving from a traditional organization to one using self-directed teams. Please include information on how long it took, how long you've been doing it, what you would do differently, what you would change.

-- Celia Strickler (, September 28, 1999


We adopted self-directed team organization in 1994-95. We have thus about four years experience with the process. From the perspective of the unit executive, the process has been very satisfactory. There is not much that I would do differently if we were beginning the process today, even with knowledge gained the first time around. We thought when we started out that we would have two operational teams, one for each judge. This initial idea was abandoned when the then chief judge directed that all operations deputies would be required to handle his work, on the grounds that he didn't want any possibility that his cases would not be adequately handled. First lesson: Make sure that your judge(s) are sufficiently on board so that you can make the step from hierachical management to teams. We soon recognized that if an office is going to migrate to team based organization, that the process goes beyond operations per se. We now have four recognized teams here, Operations, Courtroom, Automation, and Administration. Each team is self directed. There are no true supervisors intervening between the unit exec and staff. Instead, we do "coaching" and keep things informal. This is possible because we have low turnover and all employees are well experienced and know their jobs. Probably the most significant issue during transition was that the operations staff were accustomed to a hierarchy and tended at first not to believe that they were not going to be able to complain about each other to "higher-ups." Lesson Two: The unit exec and his administrative team must firmly insist that other team members handle their own issues. The first year, I found myself saying "That's a team problem" to complainers. Repeated consistently, this "hands-off" principle forces the former "supervised" to become self-directed. Finally, the teams conclude that when they agreed to this model they made a committment, and have to follow through. Another key issue connected to this model is what we call "the soft issues" a phrase I stole from Rich Heltzel. Soft issues are those non-work related issues of peer interaction which lead to ill-feeling and animosity, as well as actual work related differences involving allegations that some staff may not work as hard as other staff think they should, for example. The team model must accomodate these issues, or they will end up back with the former hierarchy in disguise. Again, team members must be required to handle these issues internally rather than elevating them to another level. Since most of us are by preference non-confrontational, teams would rather have someone else deal with these issues. Our rule is that the unit exec is the local last resort only after the team has tried to work things out among themselves. If I am to be involved, the conflicted parties have to be ready to meet together with me to air the differences. This option is very rarely exercised, since team members will usually either solve issues on their own, or decide that the soft issue problem is not that important. Since I have an open door policy, team members know that they can see me most any time. In my opinion, the team organization at the bankruptcy court for the District of New Hampshire is "mature" at going on five years. It works well for us and the judges like it. It is not perfect, like any system created by man, but it is a lot better than what preceded it. This is not just the clerk of court's opinion. The teams like it too, and I don't believe anyone would want to revert to a heavy supervisory structure. Perhaps some team members may add their comments at some time in the future. For anyone who looks toward adopting this model, I recommend reviewing materials from other courts who have gone this way. I also recommend two management books that meant a lot to us, Cohen and Bradford's "Influence without Authority" and Belasco and Stayer's "Flight of the Buffalo." The last book also has an accompanying video of the same name available from the FJC's video library. If you haven't seen it, waste no time in getting it!

-- George A. Vannah, Clerk (, September 29, 1999.

Representatives from our court attended a Total Quality Service and Team Based Managementseminar sponsored by the FJC in Washington, D.C. in 1994, visited several courts who were in the stages of implementing TBM, and presented the plan to the remaining court members. A representative from the FJC trained the Austin Division before it was rolled out to the remaining divisions. Over the last few years, the teams have received Leadership Training, Leadership 2000 Training, and Conflict Management training. It was not an easy transition, but with the support of the Clerk and the Judges, and the training they received, the case managers have overcome any of their initial fears. Last summer team members, selected by their peers, attended a NATIONAL WORKSHOP FOR TEAM MEMBERS program in San Diego. Upon their return, each team presented a report to the Clerk and managers regarding the information they gathered. Their conclusion was that they were ready for the next step which is Peer Evaluations. In November, 1998, a PET team (Peer Evauation Team) was formed consisting of a representative from each team, one Deputy-In-Charge, and our Human Resources Manager. The committee worked very hard and presented their proposal to the Clerk and Operations Manager this month. The Clerk has approved the program. One team will be selected to pilot the program and the results will be presented to the PET. If there are any necessary adjustments, they will be addressed by the PET before the plan is rolled out to the remaining divisions. The role of the DICs today is that of a coach and is not expected to change with the exception of Employee Appraisals. The teams will be responsible for conducting appraisals among their team members which will be new to them. Our teams have been self-directed fo so many years, that we anticipate the transition will be very seamless.

This is but a brief synopsis of what we have undertaken during the past several years and while it was not easy in the beginning, it has been well worth the time and effort. I could go on and on about the success of our teams, but I am anxious to hear from someone else who may have additional ideas.

-- Peggy Craig (, September 29, 1999.

We began an experiment in self-directed work teams about two years ago in Los Angeles. The initial team established was in the Human Resources Department. The creation of several other teams soon followed. Guiding these employees/teams through the set-up, guidelines, goals process was done by a temporary member of the Human Resources staf who had had experience in establishing and nurturing teams.

The concept in L.A. was generally poisitive. The HR team consisted of people who were eager to have a say in the direction of their department and was composed of a group of people who genuinely enjoyed working together. This team flourished almost from the beginning. Through good, open communication the team followed the process and set forth paramenters, guidelines, temporary team leaders and section goals within 4-6 months. This team continues to do well and has not had any major or interpersonal problems in the group that the group itself has not solved. Initially, weekly meetings were held with the unit executive to keep her apprised of the team's progress and direction. These meetings are now held about every six weeks.

I think the main approach in creating self-directed work teams is hat it be presented to staff members in a positive light so they will buy into it at an early time and begin to WANT to make it work. The benefits and opportunities of the team concept should be explained and, if possible, a facilitator (perhaps someone from HR) should be assigned to work with the fledgling team so that they get a good grounding when they establish the team, that they are aware of the parameters of the team and the duties and responsiblities of team members, how problems in the team should be approached and solved, when team meetings might be held, how to set goals and interaction guidleines among the group. When this foundation work is done at the beginning, it gives team members a "manual" to fall back on as they progress. If any problems then arise, the team has the know-how and guidelines for addressing and solving them.

This method was used in L.A. and it proved to be very successful with the HR team.

-- James Kimball (, October 05, 1999.

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