How to Build High-Performance Teams through Lean Practices

Teams are a well-established feature of how we manage, accomplish and improve our work. Yet too often teams at work are no more than a near-random collection of people. If we were building a high-performance car, we would never do so without checking first that the parts were compatible. Building a computer, we would make sure the components could communicate with each other. While humans are far more valuable and variable than machines parts, the same need exists to check that we build teams as deliberate systems rather than a collection of people.

How Quickly Can You Change a Tire?

Working in good conditions, a person of average ability can change the tire of their car in between 20-30 minutes, from car stopped until back on the road. Even this average performance assumes that we are in work-ready clothes, with spare tire, hand tools and jack available.

Two people working without coordination may just get in each other’s way. When it’s dark outside, pouring rain, we’re dressed in formal wear, unsure of where we put the wrench, or otherwise unprepared, it can take longer.  Better call AAA.

On the other extreme, there is the high-performance team of tire changing: the pit crew. A fully equipped NASCAR pit crew can change not one, not two but all four tires on their driver’s car in less than 20 seconds. In a race, every second counts. Each person understands their shared purpose, has a clear role, the training and the tools they need to succeed. They practice and improve as part of their job.

What is a High-Performance Team?

Although there is no agreed and precise definition of what constitutes a high-performance team, there is broad agreement on their essential values and qualities. In order to remain cohesive as a team, people need a shared purpose or clear set of shared goals. For people to function together at a high level over prolonged periods of time, there must be mutual respect. Information flow must be frequent. There must be transparency, accountability, and feedback for both efforts and results. Last but not least, success with high performance teams requires that organizations have effective, flexible processes to turn these ideals into a reality.

While we don’t have an e-learning course titled High-Performance Teams, we cover the essential elements of this topic through a series of how-to videos, expert interviews and case studies. For anyone interested in developing high performance teams, I recommend organizing the resources below into a learning path on the subject.

How to Create Shared Purpose for High-Performance Teams

Team cohesion begins with having a shared purpose, vision or committed set of goals. Over time, what keeps the team together is the strength of the desire to accomplish something and the awareness that they need each other to do it. Whether it is winning a championship, helping the NASCAR driver get back on track faster, or simply satisfying customers every day, establishing high performance teams starts with shared purpose.

In the course of reflecting on 25 years of the Lean movement, James Womack, Daniel Jones and John Shook offer their thoughts starting with purpose.

In our podcast interview, Simon Sinek discusses the “golden circle” and the importance of putting the “why” or purpose at the center.

Jeff Kaas of Kaas Tailored shares how guiding principles engage people to grow the business and themselves.

Sizing and Shaping Diverse and Well-balanced Teams

Designing teams is both an art and a science. It requires an understanding of guidelines related to team size, the need for diversity of thinking styles and practical considerations such as what skills are needed and who is available.

We recommend reviewing our module on team design for daily management as a starting point. If the concept of Lean daily management itself is new to you, we recommend taking a step back to review that before experimenting with high performance teams.

How to Develop More and Better Leaders

High performance teams work only with clear roles and responsibilities. This includes developing standard work for leaders as a way of demonstrating commitment to helping the team succeed.

Another key to succeeding with high performance teams is to select people who have the will, skill and right temperament to lead. Often, this is more of a development effort than selecting from a pool of ideal candidates.

Frode Odegard discusses various leadership styles and their impact on organizational performance.

Organizations developing high performance teams do not limit leadership to those with leader titles. Leadership is participatory. Everyone is encouraged to take ownership and responsibility for their process. Leadership roles may rotate. Team members are encouraged to facilitate daily meetings, improvement activities or other leadership functions.

Equip the Team with Necessary Skills through Job Instruction

A minimum requirement of functional teams is to have the tools, information, knowledge and skills to do the work. Due to the ever-changing nature of work, it is not a one-time activity to set the team. Today’s skill set may not be what we need for high performance tomorrow. High performance teams address this through continuous development and investment in people.

In practical terms, this often takes the form of cross-training using a visualization tool called a skill matrix.  This begins with identifying high-priority skills that are either lacking or in short supply.

Then, team members draft provisional standard method to doing the work. Next, there is on-the-job training. The step-by-step method of TWI Job Instruction is a simple but effective way to teach people how to do the work correctly, safely and productively.

Develop Reliable Means for Conflict Resolution with TWI Job Relations

Even within the best designed, best led and best trained teams, there will be conflicts from time to time. It is essential to develop reliable ways to resolve conflict rapidly and fairly. Learning TWI Job Relations is an ideal place for high performance teams to start.

Enable Team Members to Make Decisions with Facts and Data

The structured gemba walk as part of a daily management system helps the leader and team members get on the same page about the facts. Team members should be coached to clarify and break down problems before jumping to causes or solutions. As complex problems require reliance on data, team members should be taught basic statistics and the seven quality control tools.

It’s common for organizations to teach these tools and methods first, and then ask team members to go find problems to solve by using them. When we don’t have time to dedicate to learning theory first, a just-in-time approach can be effective. The idea is to teach specific data analysis tools and methods to address specific, actual issues that come to the surface. This does, however, require that a robust system of data collection and visualization is in place.

Empower Team to Design their Daily Accountability Process

This brings us to the next Lean practice which not only supports high performance teams, but is arguably the one that binds everything together. The daily accountability process should be at the heart of any high-performance work team. It is means through which people communicate, ask and offer help, show commitment, raise and resolve issues. It can be as simple as a 10-minute daily huddle. But simplicity in execution requires careful though, so that this process fits the needs of the team.

Many organizations are finding that the daily accountability meeting is not just an effective way to monitor and improve performance. It is also a way to show appreciation, celebrate and express gratitude daily.

Experiment, Learn and Coach through Toyota Kata

A feature of high-performance teams is experimentation and learning by team members in pursuit of their shared goals. The leader supporting high performance teams must also learn how to such experiments.

Toyota Kata offers a simple pattern of questions for both Improvement kata is a starter routine for experimentation and learning, while coaching kata is a formula for leaders to develop and support team members and their efforts.

Evolve from Manager-led to Autonomous High-Performance Teams

Traditional teams are manager-led. A manager or leader is responsible for setting the team goals, roles and even how the work is done. Team members are responsible for carrying out their assigned work. The manager monitors the team and directs or supports according to their individual style and capability. Many high-performance teams will need to start from a traditional style and evolve towards autonomous teams.

In high performance teams that are more autonomous, self-managing and self-regulating, the most senior manager or leader still defines the team’s overall purpose or goal. The team has the autonomy to set interim goals and decide exactly how they will achieve them. Often, they modify their goals through discussion and presentation of evidence with the manager. The increased autonomy speeds up learning, experimentation, skill development and innovation. These efforts are self-directed based on desire to meet their shared goals, rather than directed top-down.

Learn how Steve Kane transformed the culture in his company through autonomous teams.

Which Comes First, Lean Management or High-Performance Teams?

My advice is to never launch a project to establish high performance teams in parallel with a Lean transformation. If you do, you will have duplication of effort, competition for attention and resources, potential for rework and confusion. Instead, weave the two together. Use high performance teams to lay a foundation for sustaining continuous improvement. Use specific Lean practices mentioned above. They are designed to operationalize key aspects of high-performance teams.

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