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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: Teamwork is not “work teams”

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I had in interesting experience about fifteen years ago when we were doing research for a book about Japanese manufacturing in the U.S. (called Remade in America).  We were studying a Japanese auto supplier with overseas plants in the U.S.   One question we had was how the Japanese would bring teamwork to the American culture.  At the time there was a lot of discussion about the use of work groups in Japan–work groups that were part of quality circle programs, natural work groups on the shop floor with team leaders, collocated cross-functional teams in product development and so on.  In Japan we asked them about this based on a series of questions we had formulated in a semi-structured interview schedule.  We quickly found out our carefully designed questions made absolutely no sense to the Japanese we interviewed.  “Work teams?   Work groups?  I do not understand.  Do you mean teamwork?”  They were even having difficulty translating work teams into Japanese, but teamwork they understood.  We eventually figured out that they did not think in terms of the formal structure of work groups as we did.  They have some, such as the concept of a han.  But their perspective was that they all worked for the same company and needed to work together with whoever, whenever depending on the situation to achieve the objectives.  They quite naturally move between individuals taking responsibility, individuals going around person by person to get feedback and build consensus, and groups meeting to discuss an issue. They have an intuitive feel for what is appropriate depending on the problem.  So creating fixed structures seemed far less important than in the U.S. where if we do lack a formal structure people simply will not work effectively together.  Actually a fixed work group to work through a problem and meet regularly is full of waste as only some people need to know about any particular topic and be involved in that topic and there is a lot of work best done by individuals, such as detailed research.  So I would say in lean the definition is people working together to keep the process in standard condition and achieve a defined improvement objective.  Whether a particular task is done by an individual or by the group meeting depends on the task.

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