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Teaming To Win

Teaming can reap a competitive advantage if it is implemented within an accommodating culture and compatible with broader business strategies.

While visiting one of Rockwell’s automotive-component manufacturing facilities, I had a chance to observe firsthand the benefits of our emphasis on teamwork. As I watched a production worker operate a complex piece of equipment, she smiled and said, “I like being part of a team because it makes my job more challenging.”

Employee satisfaction and empowerment are vital concerns to any company. But they cannot be the only reasons to adopt a team-based environment: Other factors include whether teams will speed time-to-market, drive down costs, and improve quality.

Through teams, and the individual initiative they encourage, Rockwell constantly improves its manufacturing and management processes. By relying on people closest to the front lines, we strengthen our ability to provide service and quality to our worldwide customers. Of course, teaming isn’t a quick fix: It must be compatible with broader business strategies and implemented within an accommodating culture. When properly implemented, however, the strategy can provide a distinct competitive advantage.


There is no single definition of a self-directed team, just as there is no one formula for running a business. At Rockwell, we generally define teams as groups of employees who have ongoing responsibility for virtually all aspects of a product or process. Team workers usually are multiskilled, able to perform most, if not all, of the tasks required to manufacture a product or to complete a process. They have far greater decision-making power than is typical for their traditional job description, and they are held to a high-but reasonable-level of responsibility for those decisions. These employees are not “clock-punchers.”

Of course, teamwork is not new. At Rockwell, we recognized almost a decade ago that increasing global competition demanded a team-based approach to improve performance. This realization coincided with other significant changes occurring within the company. By the mid-1980s, we knew we had to shift our business away from defense sales-which at that point comprised about 60 percent of total sales-back to the mix we maintained before the defense buildup of the early 1980s: about 60 percent commercial sales and 40 percent defense sales. The transition began with the $1.6 billion acquisition of our automation business, Allen-Bradley.

Teaming thrives at Allen-Bradley. One team worked with other companies and vendors to hold a first-of-its-kind “Automation Fair” to showcase products and services. It organized the first fair in only six months and generated at least $8 million in sales. When surveyed, 99 percent of the attendees indicated they would return to the following year’s event. The fair now is expected to be an annual event to showcase Allen-Bradley’s varied capabilities to a diverse audience of distributors, customers, and automation specialists.

Other examples of teaming success abound. Last year, Rockwell was awarded a large contract to produce handheld precision lightweight Global Positioning System receivers for the Department of Defense. GPS is a family of 24 satellites that sends signal enabling soldiers equipped with receivers to triangulate their position anywhere on Earth within an accuracy of 33 feet. The system also is gaining popularity among commercial aviation, navigation, and trucking enterprises. The Rockwell receiver weighs less than four pounds and can easily be held in one hand.

Although the company was confident of its ability to meet the customer’s technical requirements, it faced a variety of other challenges. We had to lower significantly our initial per-unit price of $10,000. In addition, we established manufacturing processes that would help our Collins Communications and Avionics Division maintain a high-productivity level.

We decided a teaming structure could provide the environment we needed. A cross-functional team was established that included employees from manufacturing, design, purchasing, engineering, and other departments. Engineers, for example, participated in the marketing department’s customer meetings, learning firsthand the Defense Department’s design specifications. This enabled them to better-integrate customer-driven capabilities during the design process.

The team’s results were nothing less than phenomenal. Its final per-unit cost to the government was less than half its anticipated $4,000 cost and one-fourth the cost of the nearest competitor. Such cost-effectiveness enabled the Army to outfit all of its units in half the originally scheduled time and restructured the market for military handheld GPS receivers. In addition, the team established Rockwell as the U.S. market leader and positioned the company to pursue vigorously international orders.


To meet customer requests to provide a Rockwell-built drivetrain, the company in the late 1980s decided to expand its heavy-duty automotive components business to manufacture truck transmissions. Teams play an integral role in the transmission business, based in Laurinburg, NC, because of the large number of components required in the manufacturing process and the high level of interaction among production technicians.

Because this was a new venture, we had the opportunity to tailor our hiring process to offer employment to those who had a solid potential for performing well in a team-oriented organization. As part of this effort, Rockwell established a partnership with a local community college to enable all newly hired employees to participate in an on-campus training program that included six weeks of study in blueprint reading, statistical process control, math and metrics, and transmission design.

Once on the job, employees learned new technical skills such as transmission assembly, material and inventory control, and product testing and repair. A trainee was paired with an experienced technician for part of each workday. The social training-conflict resolution, leadership, and group decision making-that is so important to teaming was provided in a classroom environment, primarily through situational role-playing.

One important distinction of our training system at Laurinburg is that employees are rewarded for their commitment to learning. Typically, workers’ weekly pay is increased by more than $20 for each new task they master.

For executives seeking quick solutions, it should be noted that it takes an average of three to five years for this type of process to produce mature, high-performing work teams. This relatively long ramp-up time is due in part to the fact that plant start-ups often have a higher number of new workers entering the teaming process, which slows the rate at which teams “gel.” A mature organization with a well-trained work force; a proven, stable process; and a supportive culture could make the transition more quickly and with less cost, but there are no guarantees.

Our technicians have shown, however, that the result is well worth the wait. For example, the technicians who assemble transmissions also are highly skilled at a range of supporting tasks, such as quality assurance and safety. The team also is responsible for scheduling overtime and vacations, as well as other administrative functions.

Perhaps most important, Laurinburg team members now are increasing their contact with customers, handling everything from site tours to customer concerns. Complaints now are screened by one manager and referred to the appropriate team for action. Using a product tracking strategy, a team can identify those who worked on a particular transmission and include them in the problem-solving process.

For example, the business once received a complaint from a customer who had a transmission with severe gear damage, which occurred when a bolt loosened and fell into the gears while the transmission was operating. We replaced the transmission and directed the complaint to the team responsible for securing the bolt. Team members assured the customer that they would correct the problem immediately, and they maintained communication while they developed and completed short- and long-term corrective actions.

The power of teaming also is exemplified by a Laurinburg technician who recently received a late-night call from a supplier, who informed her that a shipment of parts had been delayed and the only way to get them to North Carolina was via air freight-at a cost of $12,000. The employee, who held an entry-level position, approved the shipment to ensure that Laurinburg would meet its delivery deadline.

Her actions demonstrate two key benefits of a teaming system: She understood the manufacturing process well enough to know that the right decision was to approve the overnight delivery. Moreover, she did not delay the decision, because she was empowered to make it herself.

The teaming system has been a key catalyst in the success of our transmission business, helping to move it from ground zero to a healthy 15 percent market share in less than four years.


Perhaps the reward. I value most related to our teaming effort is my participation in Rockwell’s annual Chairman’s Team Award program, which was initiated in 1992 to honor outstanding team contributions to corporate performance in such areas as continuous process improvement and enhanced customer satisfaction. Every year, I travel to Rockwell businesses and present awards to the winning teams. It is an outstanding opportunity to listen and learn, and I am constantly amazed at the level of innovation employees bring to their jobs, and their commitment to doing their best.

For example, a team from our telecommunications business-the leading producer of facsimile and data modems worldwide-was honored for its efforts to improve packaging, test yield, and the productivity of modem chip sets. A cross-functional team based in Mexico and Southern California worked together through a weekly teleconference to monitor every major device and to correct or eliminate processes that limited optimal yield. Not only did their efforts boost yield by 8 percent above expected levels and save more than $2 million in capital spending, their processes were used in other areas of the business to improve device yields.

Another example is a team from our Graphic Systems business, which last year was honored for designing-under strict deadlines-a new printing press. This press not only meets critical international requirements but also has 20 percent fewer parts and 30 percent less hardware, and requires less assembly time than the product it replaced.


Of course, team-based systems are fluid, and thus periodically need adjustment to ensure proper alignment with business goals. For example, the skill-based pay system we instituted at Laurinburg required employees to rotate jobs, which meant that at any given time, there was a certain level of instability in the system as employees moved from the lower to upper end of the learning curve. We have had to adjust this system periodically by slowing job rotations or redesigning criteria for pay scales and skill levels. These adjustments have allowed technicians to grow and develop within one team, thereby improving overall plant stability and also balancing the dual necessities of flexibility and productivity.

We also learned that while we devoted adequate resources to our manufacturing teams, we needed to do a better job preparing managers for various responsibilities that had changed drastically-from strictly supervisory to those of a coach or facilitator.

Front-line workers, too, may require a higher level of interpersonal skills. For example, in one of our manufacturing facilities, team members on one shift habitually neglected to clean certain pieces of equipment, leaving the “dirty work” for increasingly irritated team members on the following shift. Instead of immediately turning to a manager to mediate the conflict, the entire team-using their extensive social-skills training-met and agreed to rotate equipment-cleaning assignments among all team members.

In addition, teaming systems require an adjustment at the corporate level. Specifically, when considering the use of self-directed teams, senior management has to look inward with a clear, objective eye and to judge whether its culture-the sum of its values-contains the components necessary for success. For example, is there a commitment to employee empowerment and the leveling of the management hierarchy that must accompany such a commitment? Are communication and creativity priorities? These are examples of tough but important questions that simply must receive an emphatic “yes” if teamwork is to succeed within an organization.

At Rockwell, a value statement we call the Rockwell Credo affirms the company’s commitment to communication, customer satisfaction, and employee empowerment.


Senior executives must attempt to determine the strategic implications of teaming. The CEO, in particular, must understand the implementation methods and long-term performance measurements linked to the approach. He or she must be willing to provide sustained financial support, as well as the infrastructure and processes necessary for successful implementation.

The CEO must summon the patience to ride out initial bumps that are sure to accompany the transition-including the possibility of a temporary dip in productivity as employees adapt to a new environment. Perhaps most difficult, executives must tenaciously reinforce the team concept at all levels of the organization.

“Throw away your cookbooks,” I tell Rockwell executives and managers. “Break down the walls of bureaucracy, and empower your people. Ask yourself-and your employees-to think as if each were the chairman of the company and were accountable for its success, then use teamwork to implement the ideas necessary to make that success happen.”

Donald R. Beall is chairman and chief executive of Seal Beach, CA-based Rockwell International Corp., an $11 billion diversified, high-technology company holding market leadership positions in automation, avionics, aerospace, defense electronics, telecommunications, automotive components, and graphic systems.

About donald r. beall