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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: How can we enhance intense collaboration?

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Monday, October 21, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I’ve been puzzled for years by how the Toyota Way 2001 document organizes topics around Respect and Teamwork. Respect is about 1) Respect for stakeholders, 2) Mutual trust and mutual responsibility and 3) Sincere communication. Teamwork, on the other hand is about human resources development 1) commitment to education and development and 2) respect for the individual and realizing consolidated power as a team. Hmmm – thoroughly confusing. How come individual development and respect for the individual are teamwork? And how come respect for stakeholders and mutual trust are parts of respect? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

I’ll eat my hat and suggest a “culture” argument (yes, I know). Reading Jon Miller, Mike Wroblesky and Jaime Villafuerte’s book
http://www.amazon.com/Creating-Kaizen-Culture-Organization-Breakthrough/dp/0071826858/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382343286&sr=8-1&keywords=jon+miller+kaizen
about creating a kaizen culture I learned that, historically, Japan had no competitive team sports. All competitions were one on one – with a few collaborative sports, but nothing like our bevvy of team-based competitive sports, football (both kinds), baseball, cricket, rugby, volleyball, handball, and so on. The conjecture here is that in such a high context consistent society, there is no specific notion of “team spirit” as it’s taken for granted that the individual will, on their own accord, do what he or she can to be in harmony with the group, or if not endure endless drama.

In the US, on the other hand, the individualistic low context culture makes it necessary to remind people all the time that they should play for the team rather than for themselves, a meme which gives endless fodder to Hollywood scriptwriters. In France, for instance, the administrative culture is so strong that it’s not like we have a choice, so we manage to have high individualism without any incentive towards teamwork (the system will decide) which produces a unique brand of defiance and low trust (the French have the lowest trust grades in Europe – does that make them less trustworthy as well?)

The Toyota Way was written essentially with American managers in mind, after Fujio Cho’s experience with TMMK. Let’s take assume the “team spirit” concept isn’t part of Japanese culture – or, more accurately, that it’s such an obvious assumption, it wouldn’t be spelled out – and let’s rethink Respect and Teamwork without the idea that we need to convince individuals to blend in “for the good of the team”.

What this mental experiment gives us is 1) a notion of respect which is the individual practice of respecting others – as opposed to respecting the individuality of someone joining the team which would be our default western interpretation – and 2) teamwork as the individual skills one brings to make the team work, both in terms of technical expertise and relationship savvy. In both cases, respect and teamwork make sense as individual skills to work with others, not team characteristics to function better as a team and make room for individuals.

This is quite a radical departure from the “team” literature which mostly assumes without batting an eyelid that “there is no “I” in the world team” and keeps looking for characteristics of high performing teams: team boundaries, team leadership, teams rules and norms, and so on, and hence the taken for granted forming, storming, norming, performing model for teamwork.

As I’ve tried to work these concepts out at the gemba, particularly within engineering projects, such as making engineering, manufacturing engineering and production work together – somehow, I’ve not ever come across all the usual bumpf about what makes a great team, you know – be careful of criticism because people take it badly, establish comfortable group sanctioned ways to deal with interpersonal tension, celebrate success and blahdiblah. What I have seen is more or less collaboration between two or three people that, in a good day, leads to amazing breakthroughs.

For instance, The CEO of one high-tech company worked with one senior engineer and one junior vision specialist to come up with a radically new concept for the machines the firm sells. They were out there, back in the garage, tinkering with the idea of flow machines as opposed to batch, until they came up with a Minimum Viable Product, which suddenly triggered huge interest from customers. It was intense collaboration.

For what it’s worth what I have seen is: 1) the ability to listen (even while disagreeing) to each other and build on each other’s ideas and 2) quick experiments to look together and see how these ideas pan out in real life. As I look back, I find that these elements of intense collaboration were present in most of the breakthrough moments I’ve witnessed, and I now come to believe intense collaboration is a learnable (maybe even teachable) skill. Hence respect and teamwork: the individual skills and attitudes needed to develop intense collaboration with people across your functional boundaries. In other words, how to learn to work with people you have no authority over, and how to get them to do some work with/for you although their incentive systems might be skewed against it. Respect, Teamwork.

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