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Circle Teams at Work – Stories from the Trenches

July 3, 2017

International brothers and sisters in a circle

The good and the bad

I’ll share the stories of three circle teams that have been formed over the last year at a services organization that processes huge volumes of insurance claims. The approach and coaching provided to each of these teams were identical. Each had the benefit of a Kaizen team working on process improvements and then handing off the improvements, initial metrics, and open action items. However, the results and effectiveness of these teams over time was not consistent; some approached a “high-performing work team” status quickly while others struggled. Here are three examples, progressing from “struggling” to “performing.”

Contract Review Team

This team of about 20 people was initiated nearly a year ago after a successful Kaizen was conducted. Initial brainstorming for new team projects yielded two major ideas to improve upon. One was to identify and conduct cross-training with people in another department to eliminate the need for constant interruptions to answer repetitive questions. The other was to evaluate and implement a visual workflow system to control work coming into the department in order to eliminate a “feast and famine” condition for analysts and provide an easy way to monitor and control backlogs. Two smaller groups of people volunteered to take these on and report back to the team. Both teams were supported by the same facilitator and managers of their department.

The first activity went very well. There was good cooperation from the other department; after all, they were wasting a lot of their own time running back and forth between the departments for questions. An outline of all the problematic information and training was created. Small training sessions were conducted to inform everyone on what was happening. The level of teamwork and cooperation was very good. Wasted time and energy due to this problem were effectively eliminated.

The other activity went nowhere. Ironically, this group had a higher level of facilitation support but never could seem to reach agreement on what to do. Evaluating what happened uncovered the root causes: incompatible team members and passive managers. It turns out that two individuals who volunteered for the second team have never gotten along well. The managers and supervisors involved knew this but were neither adequately skilled nor motivated to address the root cause for inaction directly with constructive confrontation.

The managers of this area tended to be passive in their leadership style and were all reluctant to bring combatants together to come up with a workable compromise. As meetings continued periodically with this team, it became apparent that there were really two “camps” of people somewhat specialized in what they do. They have worked together on average more than 20 years and have great difficulty in seeing change as a good thing. We held special meetings with the responsible managers, and we discussed the fact that they must begin addressing these behaviors if they hoped to see results improve. Supplementary training in team building and empowerment was conducted for these and other managers and supervisors over the last nine months.

A very recent brainstorming session was chartered to help break through the resistance to cooperation in this group. By thinking creatively about which metrics would indicate departmental performance tied to company key objectives, they uncovered two things to focus on going forward that would be good indicators of overall departmental performance: through-time for policies being reviewed and the quality of the completed work. They are now tracking these metrics and have a defendable baseline. For example, an average turnaround for a policy review is currently 5.3 days–much better than the baseline the Kaizen team originally mapped out. That said, they know they can do better, and this is now shaping the nature of brainstorming ideas and action plans.

In their last meeting, the team decided to aggressively revisit the visual workflow system. The combatants demonstrated a new ability to discuss their differences in a constructive way during the session. Clearly, the efforts of the managers and supervisors have had a positive impact, though they would quickly agree they have a long way to go in fostering natural harmonious team relations.

Mail Processing Team

This team struggled mightily for a year to gel around the unified action. There were several reasons for this, including a lack of leadership, an average tenure in the workforce of some 20 years of doing the same jobs, a previous leadership command-and-control structure and a history of allowing certain vocal personalities to “have their way.” The original Kaizen team had a massive challenge to develop a plan to introduce new scanning technology for the mail and combine the work of people from three different departments into a new workflow. This went very well–the best-executed introduction of new technology in memory. From there was a “hand-off” to the department in a circle team.

A big point of contention was the introduction of modern mail sorting tables and pass-through workstations. Instead of folks carrying mail bins to desks in cubicles to open, sort and prepare mail for scanning, the Kaizen team had developed a cellular flow that stood the test of several time studies (at least 20% more productive!) performed with the union’s involvement. Still, there seemed to be endless excuses and resistance to the changes. After a period of time and many discussions with the supervisory staff, it became apparent that a very few vocal individuals were actively resisting the needed changes. After a few gentle, yet firm, confrontations, they uncovered the need to allow for some moves in the staff that allowed the team to begin to work more cohesively.

They are doing much better now. In fact, recent visits by customer representatives resulted in many kudos for the team as a great example of an organized and worker-friendly department. This was unprecedented and left them all feeling very good about themselves and what they could accomplish. Today, they have adopted an overall speed metric (average time from receipt to completing scans for mail) and an active measure of quality in the handling. The supervisors are now delighted to be able to do more leading and less managing. While they have a way to go to be considered a fully fledged, high-performing work team, they are on their way.

Toll-free call center

For most businesses that offer toll-free support to customers to resolve questions and problems, this group of about 60 people gets to deal with everything that goes wrong in other departments. Rarely are disgruntled customers calling or upset because of something these folks did. After several Kaizens to address some of these departments, a toll-free Kaizen team made up of members from toll-free and several other departments made great inroads in identifying and eliminating some of the root causes for 2nd, 3rd, 4th and even more calls from customers trying to resolve the same issues. That said, there were clearly many other things that needed to improve.

The Chief Operating Officer personally brought this group together and led a brainstorming session to identify ideas for improvement within toll-free and ideas that could be pursued jointly with other departments. These ideas were organized and multi-voted for priority by the group.

A steering committee made up of the department manager, supervisors, the union steward and analysts organized and kicked off several small teams to begin working on projects in April of 2006. They did a great job of identifying the what and the why, and then engaging the teams to figure out the how. Initial projects were chartered to close gaps in skills and begin implementing a department-wide versatility matrix. A versatility matrix is simple: on the left side is a listing of all employees. Across the top, working from left to right, are the specific skills that are required–using the various programs, phone forwarding protocol, how to research the system for answers, how to properly record action items and a bevy of other things. Getting a matrix put together is not all that hard; getting the training developed and conducted effectively is the hard part.

They identified who the best process experts were (no surprise – it’s the analysts who take calls), and asked for their help to develop and conduct the training. These were, in fact, a form of circle teams at work, as the training is now owned, maintained and conducted by the true process experts–the people who do the work. There have been many benefits to this approach, including:

  • Training is developed and focused to solve the real problems people encounter
  • Those conducting the training are subject matter experts in the process, so there is no gap in the transition that can often happen when a “training department” does training
  • The training is continually improved and updated by the “owners”
  • Changes to procedures and establishing standard operating procedures (SOPs) is no longer a contentious issue, as the team who does the work is responsible for working out the single best methodology
  • Lessons learned and issues that impact other departments are being “bubbled-up” by the circle teams for action in other groups
  • The circle teams have gratefully embraced the idea that supervisors and managers are great ambassadors to help gather information, involve people from other departments and provide support for team activities

The payoff from this and other team efforts over the last six months has been amazing. Morale is steadily improving. The number of calls resolved in a single call (versus two or more) is skyrocketing. Hold times for callers average 35 seconds or less on some days. This is unprecedented in the history of the company, considering 10 to 15-minute (or longer) hold times were the norm just a year ago. Measured customer satisfaction in ongoing; random surveys of toll-free performance is trending positively. Cooperation from other departments to pitch in during busy call volume periods is at an all-time high.

This company has been working hard to improve its service levels to give their marketing and sales group better stories to tell when seeking to enroll more customer company employees in their programs. The toll-free department is the number one “outward-facing” group in the business. By empowering them to make a difference, there has been a positive effect on sales, which are growing steadily for the first time in many years.

The toll-free circle team effort is setting the standard for this company in demonstrating the power of high-performing work teams built around the circle team approach that engages all employees at all levels. They will be the first to tell you it is a lot of hard work, and they are a long way from where they want to be... and also the first to insist the journey is well worth it.

Three key factors in circle team success

As I reflect on why the toll-free circle team effort has been more successful than others more quickly at this company, I can point to three characteristics that seem to make the difference. First, there was a willingness on the part of the managers of this group to be involved and not take away empowerment at the same time. Secondly, these managers made it their business to clearly communicate the what and the why – and then provide the necessary training and support for people to tackle the how. Thirdly, they began with some clear objectives that have shaped everything they do, improving the customer experience in dealing with their company. This involves leading indicators (hold times and first call resolution) and trailing indicators (customer satisfaction surveys), a healthy mix we can all learn from.


About Ron Crabtree

Ron Crabtree, President of MetaOps, Inc., is an organizational transformation coach/trainer, operational excellence (OpEx) adjunct facilitator at Villanova University, Lean and Six Sigma (LSS) speaker, author and thought leader in business process improvement/re-engineering (BPI/BPR). He is a consultant to private industry and government agencies in supply chain management, design of experiments (DOE), statistical process control (SPC), advanced quality systems (AQS), program evaluation review technique (PERT), enterprise resource planning (ERP), demand flow, theory of constraints, organizational change management, and value stream/process mapping and management. Ron has a BA in Management and Organizational Development, is a Master LSS Black Belt, and is Certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM), Integrated Resource Management (CIRM), and Supply Chain Professional (CSCP) by American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS). If you are an executive and would like to chat with Ron about anything related to business process improvement and operational excellence, please get on his calendar here:


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