How Do You Create a High-Performance Team?

Bill Wilder, Life Cycle Engineering

An effective work team is a group of engaged individuals. In “The Toyota Way,” Jeffrey Liker tells us, “The center of TPS (Toyota Production System) is people. A common phrase heard around Toyota is 'Before we build cars, we build people.'”

You can have the best tools, most productive processes and the biggest bank account, but none of this will produce results unless you have people. The research has been done, and the results are clear. People engaged in a common goal will trump advantages in resources, processes and capital. Just read the business best-sellers or search “employee engagement” if you need to see the business case for developing engaged employees. If you are reading this article, I assume you’re already convinced.

A work group consists of individual people. To achieve high-performing teams, you must treat them as individual people. Individuals are engaged when they feel like their effort and opinions are valued and they are rewarded for their individual contribution.

An individual’s manager is the most influential factor in the level of that individual’s engagement. Leaders of engaged work teams create shared goals, align goals with individual skills and aspirations, establish fair measures, delegate responsibility and authority, and reward individual contributions.

Environment and market drive many of the specific leadership tasks required to sustain a high-performance team. The level of communication, feedback, authority and recognition are situational. Consider these ideas in the context of your situation and apply those that best fit your unique environment and work team.

Shared Goals

Create a direct line of sight between individual behavior, team goals, departmental goals and company goals. Consider using impact maps to document the connections. Publish these goals, talk about them and review them often. Twice a year is not nearly enough. In some cases, review them weekly, monthly or quarterly.

Individuals — not teams or organizations — change, learn and produce results. Focus attention on short-term results that contribute to overall goals like reducing costs, generating revenue and increasing customer value. Focus on a few goals you can achieve quickly.

Meet often and engage everyone in the discussions that impact shared goals. Encourage constructive team conflict. Allow it to be worked through. Do not cut it off or step in unless it becomes personal or voices are being stifled.

Aligned Goals

Assess individual strengths and aspirations, and then match goals and tasks to them. Design goals that build on an individual’s strengths and mitigate his weaknesses.

Work together to establish goals that advance the organization’s goals and personal aspirations. Do not assume you know what each individual’s aspirations are, or that they will remain constant. 

Review goals often, perhaps weekly, especially if you are in a fast-changing market environment.

Do not make decisions that impact an individual’s ability to achieve his personal goals without his participation.

Fair Measures

Establish measures that the individual can impact. If you hold the individual accountable for a group or organiation goal, give that individual some responsibility and authority to achieve that goal. Do not tell someone he is responsible for group production and then deny him any voice in how (the actions and investments).

To sustain engagement, individuals need to be able to impact the results.Talk with them about how. Guide a conversation about how they can impact their performance measures. Always have one to three documented goals that can be achieved in the short term that impact the measures.


Hold people accountable for results. Give them the resources. Don’t tell them how. Tell them what.

If someone is failing, then ask questions. In “The Toyota Way,” Liker writes, “Toyota leaders seldom give orders. In fact, the leaders often lead and mentor through questioning.” Stop giving orders and start asking questions, guiding people to the right choices through a process of discovery.

Do not engage in skip level delegation. Work as a team.


Individuals want to be recognized for their individual contribution and their group achievements. This includes financial and nonfinancial recognition.

Communication is one of the most underutilized forms of recognition. Use clear, concise communication. Repeat recognition often. Open every meeting with it. Recognize all individual contributors. Publish a weekly review of individual achievements and goals, either in print or meetings, or both.

Pay the performers. When people exceed their individual goals in spite of their larger group shortcomings, be careful. If you want to keep top performers engaged, or on the payroll for that matter, pay for the individual performance.


High-performance teams are teams that pull toward a shared goal, help develop individual goals that inspire them, are measured in a few simple meaningful ways, are given the individual authority to impact those measures and are rewarded for their individual and team results.

Deploy the tactics that work for your situation. Don’t be paralyzed by the overwhelming options. Pick two — one you can implement quickly and one that will have big impact. This can be achieved by starting each day thinking about how to build your people.Try something simple and just do it.

Bill Wilder is the director of the Life Cycle Institute at Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). Bill holds a Masters of Education degree from East Tennessee State University and a Bachelors of Science degree in Human Resources, and is Prosci-certified in change management. You can reach Bill at bwilder@LCE.com.

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