What Does It Mean to Huddle?

One of the encouraging trends I’ve seen in the past decade with Lean management is the emerging acceptance of team huddles. While still far from universal, this one simple activity is becoming a core part of the daily practice of Lean management. Organizations a decade or more into their Lean journey often find that the team huddle, together with a few other daily accountability enablers, are the missing pieces for sustaining improvement. Organizations new to Lean find team huddles an easy starting point in creating daily improvement dialogue and action.

As a broad and general description, a huddle is any brief break to review the day’s goals, assess what’s in front of us and how to face it. Soccer players huddle at the start of a match, American football players huddle between plays, cricket teams have been known to huddle. Players form a tight circle on the field in a position where they can communicate without being heard by the opposing team. In American football, forming a tight circle also provides some insulation should the roaring crowd try to disrupt the visiting team. The time for communication is seconds, not minutes, so typically one person does the talking, giving assignments or motivating words to the team.

Team huddles come in a variety of names and contexts, such as the morning meeting, shift start meeting, the daily stand up, the Agile scrum or tiered accountability meetings. What they have in common is that small teams get together on a regular cadence to communicate changes, review status of their work and raise any issues requiring immediate support. The team huddle often has a structured agenda. Team members stand around a display board or wall in their workplace where they can see their goals, how they are doing and what needs improving. The purpose of the team huddle is not in-depth problem solving, but communication, alignment and prioritization.

In modern business the form and purpose of team huddles is similar to the sports huddle but there are notable differences. Within our company walls there is no opposing team. Rather than huddling tightly for the purpose of hiding our communication, the team huddle is often a loose semi-circle around a visual display board tracking key metrics and improvement actions. Unlike a sporting event, everyone in the huddle is encouraged or even expected to talk, sharing how their work is going, how this may affect the other team members, and whether they need support. There maybe a “quarterback” or facilitator of the huddle, but the team huddle is typically not an exercise to give out assignments for the day.

The frequency and duration of a team huddle should reflect the length and cyclic nature of the work. A general rule is to have the team huddle early in the day, for ten or fifteen minutes, and once per organizational tier or based on other logical structural considerations. Soccer matches may not benefit from multiple interruptions to huddle and discuss game plan, while in American football, interruptions to call and communicate plays is an essential aspect of the game. Many team huddles are done daily, but this should not be accepted as given. The nature of the work, the regular frequency of changes that affect our performance, and our ability to affect the outcome by huddling should all be considered when deciding when, how often and how long to huddle.

It’s interesting how meanings of words can completely change or even flip to the opposite over time. Going back several hundred years to Middle English, to huddle meant “to conceal, to hide, to cover up, to shelter”. In contrast, the modern team huddle brings teams together physically to reveal information, make problems visible and uncover issues. Then as now, to huddle means providing cover or protection to scattered and vulnerable individuals by bringing people together.

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