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Circle Teams Organization: Critical Questions

July 3, 2017

Circle Teams Organization

In this second in a series of articles (part one appears in the July/August Lean Culture), we will continue taking a hard look at the practical questions and answers managers and supervisors must come to grips with in order to adequately support teams.

The categories of questions we will continue addressing include:

  • Getting organized–typical questions and activities prior to your first meeting
  • Conducting circle team (CT) meetings
  • Skills and coaching points for supervisors, managers, and CT team leaders

Question – How do we go about identifying goals and measures for service circle teams?

Answer – Let’s assume there are some overall objectives that the organization is focusing on this year. For this example, there are currently three overriding objectives for the organization: improving quality, improving customer satisfaction and increasing the membership for health and welfare services. Goals and objectives must directly support one or more of these objectives by accomplishing one or more of the following:

  • Improved quality of results
  • Increased speed of results
  • Increased customer delight with satisfiers and innovations
  • Reduced cost of operations

The objectives and goals must be measurable in an undeniable and quantifiable fashion. CT leaders are trained to understand how to create and track valid measures. We suggest having them help you and the team with this critical aspect. It’s best if we select goals and objectives that the people on the team both understand and agree are important measures of success. Without these things being true, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to win buy-in and support.

Question – What is the minimum number of people to include in a CT? What's the maximum? Who should be on the team?

Answer – Minimum 3 to 5 people, or else there are not enough “eyes” and “brains” to make good team decisions. A maximum suggested group size is 7 to 12 people, and sometimes larger–IF you have a very strong leader and facilitator who can keep things moving in a time-efficient manner. As a practical matter, groups larger than 7 to 9 people tend to bog down and take a lot longer to make decisions.

With respect to who should be on the team, it is suggested that you include at least one current supervisor/manager/work team leader and those who are responsible for the core work of the department/area. Sometimes it may make sense to include a supplier or customer department representative as well, provided this other area’s leadership and your team is in agreement.

Question – How many service teams can we have operating at one time in our department, and how often and how much time should we allocate for them to meet?

Answer – You can have as many teams as it makes sense to allow while still:

  • Maintaining good communication between the teams so that there is no duplication
    of effort.
  • Providing adequate supervision and management of each team.
  • Assuring each team has enough members to be effective.
  • Meeting twice a month, which is a good average frequency to keep things moving

Sometimes it is easy for a department to break up into various teams because of the number of people who specialize or have natural specialty activities defined by their work. If your area or department’s situation is unique, it is a good idea to enlist the aid of a skilled facilitator or coach to help think things through.

Question – How and who should be overseeing team activities across a given department to provide organization and coordination in view of everything else going on?

Answer – This generally should be the key manager responsible for overall performance of the area or department. The reason for this is that they generally can see the big picture and are aware of what is going on elsewhere in the organization. Part of their job is to help the teams to have visibility and guide them into selecting and working on improving processes in line with the organization’s goals and activities in other areas.

Question – How do we go about picking circle team leaders?

Answer – Ideally, this is done via multi-voting by the team members themselves. There are some guidelines:

  • This person must have adequate skills to carry out the duties (e.g., organization, written and verbal communications skills)
  • This person has to AGREE to accept the role; it does no good to conscript an unwilling team leader!
  • Supervision and management must agree that they will allow this person adequate consideration to carry out their roles and responsibilities (having a detailed list of CT team leader responsibilities is recommended)
  • As a general rule of thumb, you should not select a manager or supervisor for the CT team leader role. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that supervisors and managers have a key responsibility to support CTs and their other obligations, which puts them in an unfair position to lead CTs.

Question – What are the guidelines for CT meeting frequency and duration?

Answer ― There is no hard-and-fast rule, as the urgency for change and the amount of effort required to make things happen varies by area and circumstances at any given time. That said, we are suggesting you start with this strategy:

  • Schedule a one-hour meeting at the same time and weekday every other week to do planning, reporting, and decision-making. Each CT will have an assigned coach who is experienced in working with CTs. They will provide feedback and guidance to the team in planning the frequency and duration of team meetings.
  • It is also important to recognize that all meetings may or may not involve everyone on the CT. Especially in larger CTs, there will likely be smaller “sub-teams” that will work on projects from time to time upon agreement by the larger team. These teams will be created and charted by the CTs as part of their normal organization process. In this situation, there might be daily or weekly meetings to work on process improvement by sub-teams, who later report on progress to the larger CT.

Question – Should our team leaders (and other roles) on our circle teams rotate? How often?

Answer – It is a good idea to rotate responsibility for the team leader after the team has reached a point of team effectiveness. This may only take a few months to start or may be years away, depending on circumstances. Your assigned coach will help you with this decision.

Once the team has decided to rotate team leader roles, each team will need to decide what strategy to follow, as suggested in these examples:

  • Rotate quarterly
  • Rotate monthly
  • Rotate at every meeting (a TL is identified at each meeting to champion action and facilitate the next meeting)
  • Or any other strategy the team agrees to that is effective and sustainable.
  • Scribes to keep minutes and action plans to support the team may be static or rotated as well, at the discretion of each CT.

Question – Can you clarify manager and supervisor roles on service circle teams?

Answer – Supervisors and managers are voting members of their CTs and will have no special consideration or weighting to their opinions or votes. As a practical matter, supervisors and managers often serve in an “ombudsman” role–agreeing to take on tasks to get information from other areas, such as management.

Supervisors and managers must help the team determine what sustainable level of effort can be undertaken outside the meetings to further the team’s goals. This will often be a tricky task that requires a great deal of open and honest communication, as the needs of the business and our customers must be met from day to day. At the same time, it is also a clear expectation of supervisors and managers to help our teams make time to work on process improvement efforts. Finally, supervisors and managers have the additional obligation to help manage team conflicts and roadblocks to team processes.

Conducting Circle Team Meetings

A standard agenda reporting format should be developed for ongoing CT meetings. Initial meetings will be facilitated by CT coaches until such time that the supervisors, managers, team leaders and team members agree they are ready to run meetings without coaching assistance.

Question–What are the standard guidelines for conducting CT meetings?

Answer–Follow the meeting norms established for teams, create and update detailed action plans and ensure alignment between a team and overall organizational goals. The assigned CT coach is responsible for keeping the CT abreast of changes to procedures and objectives as they occur in the organization.

Skills and Coaching Points for Supervisors, Managers and Circle Team Leaders

The following questions came up that were very specific to the concerns of CT leaders.

Question – How do we go about maintaining intensity over time? It’s easy to lose focus!

Answer – It is a good technique to set some “celebration” points for certain objectives wherein everyone wins when there is an achievement. It’s usually best if this is something the team has agreed is appropriate. It needs to be something within the power of the department’s management to make happen. When in doubt, we encourage you to contact any CT coach or a program steering committee member for clarification and direction.

Question – How can I learn more about how I can win over participants in the team process?

Answer – Seek out a class and readings on team building and empowerment individually if your company does not offer this training and coaching.

Question – How do I get training and better skills in brainstorming? This is a critical part of team success going forward!

Answer – Again, seeking training is recommended. In addition, CT coaches have been trained to provide support for the team initially. Brainstorming tools are part of standard CT training that must occur when chartering teams.

Question–How do we teach our people to take more responsibility for themselves and work processes? They are not used to being responsible or autonomous!

Answer – The use of standard visual work, team-generated Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), publishing and promoting team goals and measures and 360 feedback within the teams will all contribute to solving this problem. When in doubt, we encourage you to contact any CT coach or a program steering committee member for clarification and direction.

Question – It’s apparent that learning how to handle different personalities and team process problems is important to team success. How should a leader address non-participants in our circle teams, i.e., individuals who won't participate in a professional and proactive manner?

Answer – Practice personal and team conflict management techniques. Attend a conflict management class. Ask for a CT coach to work with you in addressing conflicts.

Question – How should we handle department-to-department CT disconnects, situations in which we may be working at cross-purposes, competing or creating difficulties unintentionally? How can we better align our efforts?

Answer – We recommend putting in place a monthly meeting with customer and supplier departments to communicate and work out these problems. This should also be a charter responsibility for the supervisors and managers in each department as part of their role as CT members. When in doubt, we encourage you to contact any CT coach or program steering committee member for clarification and direction.

At this point, you would probably agree that all the above sounds great in theory. You might be wondering what the reality actually is. In our next installment in Lean Culture, we will be taking a look at what really happens in working circle teams–the good, bad and the not-so-ugly.


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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