Empowered Employee Teams:
The New Key to Improving Corporate


Truly empowered teams help their organizations create better quality products and services and increase customer satisfaction.

Natasha Calder
and P C Douglas


As many organizations begin restructuring their corporate cultures with empowered employee teams, employees across the organization will be involved in the decision-making process. Truly empowered employee teams can help those organizations improve customer satisfaction, increase employee productivity, increase quality and lower costs.

So what should be expected of empowered employee team members?

To start, taking on more responsibilities and being vocally assertive and decisive. Ultimately, team members will have the final authority and responsibility to effectively implement goals. This may include anything from developing a new training program, to creating new software, to solving corporatewide problems. Additionally, as part of a team, purchasing and supply managers may determine what tools the team needs. Senior management will entrust its team-appointed employees to make decisions with little or possibly no involvement from middle management.

The key to any successful company is, first and foremost, its employees. There is no substitute for a knowledgeable and productive work force. Creating empowered teams--people working with all the direct information, power, recognition, reward and training they need to satisfy their customers and meet the company's business goals--is one way a company can build on that foundation.

 "The synergy resulting from a properly structured and empowered team is incredible," says Howard Berg, a senior applications consultant for Motorola University. When implementing teams in the companies he works with, Berg sees firsthand how teams help companies achieve better quality. "Teamwork is very important to increased productivity and value in employees," he adds.

Teams in the workplace are not new; however, truly empowered teams are few and far between. "In theory, it is easy to use the word 'team' to describe groups in your workplace, but creating true empowered teams is not something so easily carried out," says Merrily Mazza, vice president of editing, design and production for McGraw-Hill Higher Education Group--the third largest college textbook publisher in the nation, located in Burr Ridge, Illinois.

Creating empowered teams

Empowered teams are self-sufficient groups of people working together with specific goals. They have the corporate authority, experience, responsibility and skills to enact their own decisions for the organization. The highest level of management stabilizes the team's direction, which drives the empowerment process by connecting it to the organization's business needs and metrics. Management focuses on developing employees and supporting the organizational goals. The employees are committed to and responsible for organizational goals. Many times, employees find their job descriptions redefined and broadened, usually adding some tasks formerly performed by others. The object is to maximize the use of everyone's talents.

Empowered teams can fall in these three categories:

Qdbullet Project Teams--These cross-functional teams work on a project for a given time period. A project example would be a new product development team. This type of team--comprised of employees from engineering, finance, management, manufacturing and marketing--is typically selected by an engineering manager.

Qdbullet Total Customer Satisfaction Teams--These teams address customer and business issues. They work from the premise that creativity, intelligence and perspective exist in all employees, not just among managers. Not only can employees do more than their daily assignments, they also can improve on all the organization's products and processes.

Once a problem is identified, team members are selected--usually by the person who has determined the problem--based on their level of experience and skill. This can include many functions, and involve customers and suppliers. The team members aren't necessarily together in one location. Global teams can be formed to focus on solving problems and then disband upon institutionalizing the solution.

Qdbullet Work Unit Teams--These teams work together on a day-to-day basis. They focus on the primary output of their work unit.


Organizations that wish to build teamwork skills in their employees have many program options, including team and leadership training courses like the popular ropes courses and retreats that incorporate team-building skills. These programs try to create teamwork and camaraderie among employees, which will help them to better work together back in the office. In the long term, however, no amount of teamwork training alone will create the truly empowered work force organizations desire when they enroll their employees in such programs. In order for true teams to be fully implemented and successful, seven key characteristics must exist:

Qdbullet A need, purpose or objective

Qdbullet Changes in culture

Qdbullet Communication

Qdbullet Empowerment authority and autonomy

Qdbullet Management support

Qdbullet Time

Qdbullet Training


Determining a need

There must first be a reason for teams to form. Teams must be built around a task with a purpose and a goal that requires employees to work together. Without a joint project, there will be no joint involvement. Objectives like better quality and greater customer satisfaction provide good starting points for teams. From there, organizations must implement more data-oriented programs to provide more concrete goals, as well as provide a gage for progress.

In 1996, the implementation of teams throughout General Electric's Aircraft Engine division's suppliers worldwide grew out of a corporate initiative that called for better product quality and service. In order to achieve these objectives, GE implemented a Six Sigma methodology, giving GE and its suppliers a quality goal to work toward. (The Six Sigma goal means that a product or service will have no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities for a defect to occur.)

To help implement its supplier initiatives, GEAE hired a Motorola University consultant. "Motorola University was chosen for GEAE's supplier training services because it is well-recognized and respected in the corporate world for its services," says Eric Sakurai, master black belt in charge of driving GEAE's supplier Six Sigma initiatives. "We did not want to take a chance with some ABC consulting service since our initiative involves companies outside of our organization, both locally and globally."

As a result, Motorola is helping to implement teams throughout GEAE's supplier base so that Six Sigma methodologies at GEAE can achieve maximum results. "We are placing a large emphasis on our supplier companies because a large percentage of our parts come from suppliers," explains Sakurai. "If we are to reach GE's business goal of achieving Six Sigma by the year 2000, we must have supplier support."

GEAE is initially focusing on key processes and parts in the formative stages of the initiative's implementation. Results of the teams using the Six Sigma methodologies in these areas are already showing signs of quality improvement and defect reduction, notes Sakurai.

"Teams are bringing different functions of the business together to improve the company as a whole, addressing all company aspects from manufacturing, supplying and engineering to service and beyond," states Sakurai. "Our critical suppliers are doing the same. As a result, we are already seeing some improvement in the quality of products coming to us from the focus areas of this first phase of the initiative."

Training teams

One issue that organizations often overlook when implementing teams is the need for team training. To ensure that groups can maximize their abilities while working together, all levels of the organization are taught basic leadership and team skills. However, some employees may require more specialized project management skills training. Above all, individuals must learn to work together as one. "A lot can be lost in a team environment when people do not have the skills to work in a group or the assertiveness to speak up and have their ideas heard," contends Mazza.

Therefore, required skills courses should include assertiveness training, basic people skills, group dynamics and leadership.

Instilling such skills in a work force is one of the biggest challenges faced by organizations implementing teams. This is why GEAE has been teaching basic leadership and team skills to all employees and managers internally for some time.

"This supplemental team training is a very significant aspect to the success of teams and the initiative," observes Sakurai. "The team training ensures that we are able to implement the initiative to its fullest potential and allow the work force to guide it into the future."

This training must extend to all levels of a company. "Educating top leaders means they are more supportive and appreciative of the process, and better able to help in achieving the best results," says Sakurai. As of December 1998, 1,800 of GEAE's supplier executives have received a one-day supplier leadership training course emphasizing the importance of team skills along with an overview on the quality initiatives being implemented.

Time, change and management support

Inevitably, the comprehensive training and program implementation involved in upgrading an organization takes time. It also calls for change. Therefore, the organization must make a major commitment in order for team formation and program implementation to be successful.

"Creating true teams is a process that cannot be done overnight," maintains Mazza. "It is a process which can take years and needs a very supportive environment and upper management to create."

Organizations should develop a strategy for implementing change to ensure that everyone is involved in the process. That strategy should include upper-management support and all those who have the power to implement organizationwide changes. However, many organizations discover during team formation that acquiring organizationwide support is often the toughest obstacle to overcome. This obstacle is created because, inherently, empowered teams are just that--empowered. A fundamental shift in control must occur.

"In today's corporate world, middle management is the biggest obstacle a company must overcome if they want to form teams," says Diane Prange, consultant and team trainer for MU. "For teams to be successful, middle management has to let go of some of its power in order to empower the teams to get things done."

To overcome this obstacle, empowerment is nurtured by creating an environment conducive to creativity and innovation--a process that flows from the top down. Middle managers also must believe that they, too, are empowered in their positions. That allows empowerment to spread through the organization. In some cases, the solution may be to eliminate middle managers altogether or change their role into that of team aide or coach. As corporate cultures change, so will job descriptions.

Outside team trainers can facilitate a smoother transition in the corporate culture. They have no ties to anyone in the organization nor to the department receiving team training. This detachment gives trainers an unencumbered perspective that makes it easier for them to recommend changes and courses of action.

For McGraw-Hill, the need to create teams grew out of the company's situation--an increased workload without an increased work force. "Managers could not keep tight controls and still meet the deadlines," recalls Mazza. "It seemed only logical to turn over some of that control to those who actually did the work. Since they had more direct familiarity with the processes, they could control production between themselves better and quicker."

The implementation of empowered teams at McGraw-Hill increased productivity and reduced costs within the first two to three years. Teams have nearly doubled the number of textbooks produced each year, notes Mazza. "For the customized production of our company's product, teams have been incredibly valuable and are a bottom line for companies no matter how you look at it," she adds.

Today's corporate culture centers on the individual. Accountability, career paths, compensation, performance evaluations and the like are all geared toward individual performance rather than team performance. With empowered teams in the work force, a new order must be created in organizations because teams cannot survive in this type of culture. Attempting to change this corporate culture is no easy matter, especially in upper-management levels where these ideologies remain heavily ingrained.

"A new order which provides a looser working structure with a budget and perhaps some guidelines regarding methods to use to achieve a goal is usually the result of team formation and the change in a company's culture," asserts Berg. "Teams need more power and autonomy to make the everyday decisions needed to get their projects done."

Therefore, many organizations are discovering that all policies, including reward and recognition, must switch their emphasis to the whole rather than the individual. Such policy changes usually involve the human relations department. Some examples of recognition and reward changes include:

Qdbullet A common framework for discussion

Qdbullet A consistent approach to measuring teams' progress

Qdbullet An established feedback system

Qdbullet Linking team performance with employee appraisal

Qdbullet 360 feedback for empowerment


Recognition and reward is not always about money; often, teams simply want to be recognized for their contributions.

Empowerment obstacles

The real strength within teams is the empowerment aspect itself. While this element alone makes the team so successful, it can become an obstacle as well.

"Some employees don't want to be empowered," imparts Prange. "With empowerment comes accountability, challenges and added responsibilities which are not always welcomed."

With these added job dimensions, some employees may perceive their jobs as becoming more stressful in a team environment because they no longer have someone else making the decisions. But empowerment more often cultivates higher job satisfaction for the same reasons. With added power, many employees feel more valuable to their organization, especially when they see dramatic results stemming from their actions.

Other obstacles to overcome include cynicism and fear. The fear of dramatic changes and losing a job coupled with cynicism about the successes and benefits of any new program are not uncommon. It's important to work with employees, making sure they understand that, even when job descriptions are reworked or even eliminated, jobs will not be lost; employees will simply be relocated to another position. Teams and empowerment will not work without trust. Employees must trust the organization's management as well as each other. The same philosophy held true for McGraw-Hill.

"The transition at McGraw-Hill was gradual and easy to make with no wrenching changes, no firing of employees to get to the team environment," remembers Mazza. "The process was not painful because the transition was allowed to progress slowly in a supportive environment."

Fostering communication

A healthy working environment requires communication; it must be open among everyone and working well to promote the free exchange of ideas between all team members. Today's technology helps promote team formation with its increased communication options. The most valuable communication tools are e-mail, voice mail and meeting rooms. "Our teams have become so involved with each other that if a communication system like e-mail goes down, people go nuts," declares Mazza. "E-mail has become one of the biggest productivity factors helping team environments."

Meeting rooms also are a valuable communication resource because they allow and encourage people to work together and exchange ideas without disturbing others. While working together is essential for a strong empowered team, sometimes teams can't physically come together. So virtual teams are established, which lack the face-to-face meeting aspect.

Cross-functional team formation

Cross-functional teams link all areas of a business together. Linkage develops from the front to the back end of an organization, providing co-workers not only the chance to learn about other departments, but about each other as well. This cross-functional element also creates more educated and knowledgeable employees with enhanced skill sets because of the broader exposure to all processes. Working in cross-functional teams also makes problem solving quicker and easier, allowing employees to see things from new angles and perspectives.

"Cross-functional oftentimes means cross-educational," says Berg. "It is critical to have people from different skills/ backgrounds contributing in a group."

With differing viewpoints, much more creativity is brought to the solution process. "Having too many people thinking in similar ways makes it harder for the team to think 'out of the box,' " adds Berg.

The ability of cross-functional teams to better communicate across the board and with their customers greatly increases an organization's customer satisfaction as well. By eliminating the middle man and combining resources and ideas, cross-functional teams can better focus on a particular product to make it better.

"Teams have changed how business is done internally at GEAE, as well as externally at our supplier companies," says Sakurai. "We all have become more customer-focused and more data-driven. Projects are now being assigned to cross-functional teams and evaluated by GEAE and supplier management to determine success."


To fully implement empowered teams, the building process takes time and effort, but the benefits of a truly empowered work force are immeasurable. Many findings from organizations implementing the empowered team concept continually show that dramatic results occur with committed and creative teamwork. The team-building process produces more confident and motivated employees, resulting in a better and stronger organization.

Once implemented, empowered teams continue to drive performance improvement, often solving problems by making changes even before it's evident they're necessary. In today's work environment, teams help keep organizations one step ahead of the competition, with better products more tailored to fit their customers' needs.


For more information on empowered teams and other quality programs, contact Motorola University Consulting and Training Services at telephone (800) 446-6744 or (847) 576-0096; e-mail a10164@email.mot.com ; or visit MU's home page at mu.motorola.com/cs .

About the authors

Natasha Calder is a freelance writer from Houston, Texas, who writes about changes in industries' work force and workplace. P C Douglas is a research publicist who works for Motivators Inc., a Houston, Texas-based advertising and public relations agency that writes articles on a variety of business-related topics.

1999 Motivators Inc.

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