A local electronics firm executive leaned back in his padded leather chair and looked out at the mountain view which filled the floor-to-ceiling window. "I guess I'm always looking for team players," he said, when asked to describe the most important traits of potential employees. "You know, someone who can work with others to accomplish a goal.""Team players" are considered assets by most companies. Yet many managers don't realize the numerous skills required for teamwork to succeed. Teamwork is an essential element of the quality improvement process. It requires leadership and communication skills. But to define teamwork apart from quality is getting ahead of ourselves. Let's look at the principles of quality first.

Quality is defined as conformance to requirements, that is, zero defects. It is achieved through a system of prevention; a system which keeps errors form occurring. The system is controlled by measuring performance.

Because many processes within an organization are interrelated, quality improvement demands communication at all levels. For example, the process of entering and tracking sales orders relates to other processes in the accounting, inventory and shipping departments.

Teams are one of the most important vehicles for communicating information throughout an organization. Teamwork brings together diverse knowledge and skills to solve a problem or accomplish a goal. It encourages cooperation between different departments of an organization. It communicates the need for improvement and the status of improvement efforts.

Teams must be designed carefully. Just putting people together in a room will not ensure that they will work together. Effective team design draws from all necessary skill areas, and encourages participation and interaction.

Key considerations in team design include leadership skills and member selection.

Leadership: A team leader keeps the team focused on the task and makes sure someone is responsible for carrying out team decisions. The leader encourages participation so that all points of view are heard. Consensus building also requires leadership skills.

Member selection: A team is only as powerful as the people on it. Members must have the skills necessary to accomplish the task. For example, a team established to produce a company's annual report requires writing and design skills as well as the necessary company background and financial information.

Meetings: The team huddle. Teams must meet to share input, keep members informed and reach decisions. But often, team meetings fail to accomplish results - for a variety of reasons. So how can you ensure that a meeting achieves its purpose?

The meeting environment can make the difference between a productive and non-productive meeting. Preparation, listening, openness and trust development are all involved.

Prepare for meetings. Without adequate preparation, including the proper materials or completion of a previous action assignment, meetings can waste valuable time.

Provide an agenda to all team members in advance of the meeting. The agenda should include the time and length of the meeting as well as the meeting objectives.

The game plan: clearly state the objectives. A clear focus helps prevent misunderstandings and can reduce conflicts.

Agree on specific procedures; that is, no surprises. If procedures for meetings, such as rules of order, areunderstood by every member of the team, then members will feel encouraged to participate.

Delegate action assignments. The team leader assigns designations of responsibility to carry out the actions decided on by the team. An action assignment could involve gathering additional information or contacting additional people for input.

Listen well. It's important to understand the intent and content of what other team members are saying, without being distracted by their style of delivery.

Strive for openness. Leave out the "hidden agendas," the personal reasons for trying to manipulate a meeting in one direction or another.

Develop trust. Though this can take time, effective leadership, clear goals and openness can build trust between every team member.

Resolving conflict: The decision process can make or break the effectiveness of a team. Building a consensus opinion, as opposed to voting, is a valuable method for reaching a team decision. Calling for a vote may cut off important interaction and it may also alienate team members who might not understand or agree with the decision.

If team members are divided in support of a decision, answering the following questions may help win agreement: What information do you need so you can support this decision? What results of this decision do you think we have neglected to consider?

How can we build on this idea so we can reach a decision you can support?

In summary: Teamwork is a catalyst in the quality improvement process. Ideally, it forces interaction and communication between all departments as work processes are defined and measured and as systems for prevention are put in place. It brings together the individuals who are responsible for the different aspects of each process and helps provide an equitable base for reaching solutions and accomplishing goals. By using leadership, membership selection and decisionmaking skills, and providing a productive meeting environment, effective teamwork can happen.