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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Individual responsibility to solve problems with colleagues from other fucntions

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: vendredi, mai 13, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

As I understand it, teamwork has a specific meaning within TPS: it’s about individual development through solving problems with others across functions. So, on the one hand, individual responsibility remains (one problem is owned by one person), but on the other this person cannot solve the problem alone but must collaborate with colleagues, and more specifically, colleagues from other functions.

Interestingly, this definition doesn’t refer to “team building” – there is no notion of activities targeted towards developing a stronger team spirit. Also absent is the motherhood that “there is no “I” in the word TEAM” and that strong egos should be frowned upon. My experience is that solving difficult problems is, well, difficult, and often take exceptional people – with the corresponding egos;

What we see in companies when we take this definition of teamwork on board is that as, say, the plant director and the purchasing director start solving problem after problem together, and then they involve the quality director in their discussions. Over time the relationships between this three people is strengthened by the mutual trust of having been at the front together, and the HR manager who never did get involved feels left out – out of the team.

Teambuilding does happen, but not as a result of any specific activity (which would be clear muda) but as a result of developing trust from solving problems together. This, however, requires the political feeling of working jointly for the same overall aims, without needing to have aligned specific objectives. In a lean context, the common goal is often given by establishing an end-to-end pull system.

One key point often stressed by Tom Johnson that I believe that we tend to overlook in our discussions is that improvement occurs within relationships. A large part of the success of Toyota’s industrial model lies in its positive handling of supplier relationships – and indeed when purchasing considerations strain these relationships, bad things happen.

Ultimately, this works both ways: improvement occurs within relationships but relationships can be built around improvement activities. This is teamwork. The first point is agreeing on some mutual success conditions, and the second is working together on solving the challenges we face. The power of this approach to teamwork is that on the one hand problems do get solved, and on the other, every one learns from discussing in-depth with colleagues with other background. The best known way to learn as an adult remains to look at domains you know well through another perspective. In the end, there is no clear distinction between individual learning and team effort.

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