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November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

Using Self-Regulating Work Teams

By adapting a successful business approach to schools' needs, Lake Washington found a process to improve quality and involve staff and community in improvement.

As in many districts, we in the Lake Washington School District in Kirkland, Washington, have students who are not learning what they need to be successful citizens, others who are not sufficiently challenged, and still others who stay in school but close their minds. How can we make our vision that all students can learn more than words on paper?
Telling people what to do and how to do it doesn't work, and adding new programs is not the answer. Schools need a process that allows those closest to the point of implementation to be involved in designing plans and strategies that will propel the organization closer to its vision. The self-regulating work group provides such a process.

Self-Regulating Work Groups

A reaction to bureaucracy and its inherently authoritarian management style and fragmented work, work team organizations broaden and integrate responsibilities. While bureaucracies focus on inputs and processes, work teams emphasize outcomes. While bureaucracies define the process for employees, work team members create their own process. Members of work groups possess numerous skills and have relative autonomy and adequate information to make decisions for various tasks or services. They focus on what needs to be done as well as how they'll work together to get it done (Weisbord 1987).
Timar (1989) argues that without bureaucratic decentralization, school restructuring cannot take place. Our reliance on a highly prescriptive set of rules, regulations, job responsibilities, and boundaries precludes us from developing structures that we need to creatively and effectively foster meaningful change and improvement. He points out that schools resemble the quintessential bureaucracy, the factory, but to change we must strive to operate more like a baseball team—fluid, dynamic, and flexible. Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1983), an expert on organizational change, makes a similar argument for corporations. She points to decades of social-psychological research and corporate experience in suggesting that participative teams are the most appropriate structure for keeping ahead of change.
Today's self-regulating work teams, found in an increasing number of American corporations, have been proven able to monitor themselves more effectively than supervisory control. In the 1970s self-regulating work groups were pioneered at American corporations including General Foods, Proctor and Gamble, and Digital Equipment Corporation. Positive results included greater innovation; improved employee attitudes; and reduced work stoppages, employee turnover, and absenteeism (Huse and Cummings 1985). 3M organized a fledgling division into cross-functional teams that subsequently tripled the number of products developed. Aetna saw its middle manager/worker ratio fall from 1 to 7 down to 1 to 30 while improving customer service. If corporate America can use teams to break down the functional barriers that limit participation, stifle productivity, and complicate communication, can we use them to crack the walls that segment education?

Work Teams in Lake Washington

In April 1991, Lake Washington, a rapidly growing suburban school district with 38 schools, 24,000 students, and 2,200 employees, reorganized its central office staff, building administrators, and support personnel into four separate work teams. The three regional teams each include one high school and the schools that feed into it. These teams focus on supporting the operations and restructuring efforts of schools in their area. A fourth team provides services to schools and teams including business, facilities, and personnel. No longer do we have a Director of Elementary or Secondary Education or a Technology Supervisor and Curriculum Director. These specialized and differentiated functions have been redesigned by each team to meet schools' needs.
Approximately 12 schools are assigned to each of the three regional teams. Each team is made up of approximately 75 people: principals, central office administrators, teachers, support staff, students, parents, and businesspeople. Teams are divided into subgroups charged with specific responsibilities and tasks.
Each team is responsible for assisting schools in developing a three-year strategy to implement the district's restructuring vision in three major areas: use of time; staff members; and community, business, and parent partnerships. Each work team is also charged with supporting the operational needs of schools and with developing plans to allocate resources. Since the teams are self-regulating, they have developed the structures that guide them including budget allocation, communication, organizational structure, and decision making.
Finally, each building is responsible for working with staff and community to make changes in the school's organizational structure that will result in every student obtaining the skills, knowledge, and attitudes they need to be successful. The three teams have set aside 10 percent of their budget for restructuring initiatives. They have developed a process for awarding this money to innovative ideas that drive the organization toward its vision.
In the past year, a districtwide commission, working with the teams, schools, and community, developed a profile of the skills, abilities, and knowledge a Lake Washington graduate should possess. This profile has become a part of the district's common vision. Concurrently, quality indicators—information, assessments, and measurements that tell us if we are on the right track—will be used to ascertain if we are increasing achievement for all students. This will be our ultimate indicator of success.
Why did we introduce self-regulating work teams in Lake Washington, making a radical departure from the structure that is as familiar to educators as school desks are to students? A compelling reason was that with work teams, focus is transformed from a narrow, compartmentalized view to a broad and far-reaching perspective. Because of the way in which our schools and districts are organized, we tend to look at parts of a student or process: elementary, secondary, 5th grade, 9th grade, curriculum, and so on. A Director of Elementary Education is responsible for and concerned with elementary schools. A 10th grade math teacher concentrates on teaching that subject to 16-year-old students. He or she most likely doesn't know what math students learned in elementary school, or what colleagues are doing at the other high schools, or even in the feeder junior high. Work teams give all educators, from every level and function, a K–12 perspective. Secondary schools plan and integrate their curriculums and emphases with elementary and junior high schools. The entire team is responsible for every student until the student demonstrates the required skills, abilities, and knowledge.
Second, there is an increasing need to create a structure for participation and involvement. Work teams engage people at all levels of the organization. In addition to building and central office administrators, work teams include teachers, staff, students, parents, and businesspeople. This year, several community members will join them. The teams create a delivery system to work with all students to increase their mastery of relevant skills, knowledge, and abilities.
Individual buildings also function as work teams. Like the larger team, building principals and their staffs are developing processes and a decision-making model that will harness the creativity and participation of teachers and staff.

Figure 1. One Work Team's Decision-Making Model


Roadblocks Along the Way

Fundamentally changing the way a school district operates requires courage to stand up for the reasons change is necessary and for the belief that the chosen path will lead to success for all students. Many special interest groups have a vested interest in the status quo. They continue to work to block reforms or demand a strong voice in their development.
Internally we dealt with a period of ambiguity as new roles and responsibilities were clarified. People didn't understand what they were supposed to do and were not used to the idea of working with others to determine their new role. Also, there was confusion over resources, previously allocated very specifically and now given to the teams to determine their use.
We can no longer look at restructuring, or change, as a program that will come and go. As educators, we must accept that constant change and flexibility are the norm, not the exception. Organizational structures in education must change. Bureaucracies break work down into a series of discrete tasks. Educating students is not a series of specialized jobs but a set of integrated steps and responsibilities. We have attempted to implement an organizational structure that supports this reality.

Huse, E., and T. Cummings. (1985). Organization Development and Change. St. Paul: West Publishing Company.

Kanter, R. M. (1983). The Change Masters. New York: Touchstone.

Timar, T. (1989). “The Politics of School Restructuring.” Phi Delta Kappan 12: 266–67.

Weisbord, M. (1987). Productive Workplaces. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

L. E. Scarr has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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