Key #3 Work Together for Maximum Gain
In today’s business world, having people work together to improve processes and solve problems is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. Remember the Bank One “check retrieval” case told at the beginning of Chapter 1? The problems with that process had existed for a long time. They had proven “immune” to previous improvement efforts. Bank One finally solved the biggest problems by bringing together people from all parts of the process and different departments and having them use data, facts, and process knowledge to get at the root causes.
In a Lean Six Sigma company, teamwork doesn’t just mean having formal teams make improvements, though that’s part of the picture. Another part is having an environment where people are encouraged to work together every day. People discuss and resolve problems openly rather than behind closed doors; they don’t use issues as ammunition for attacking each other.
There is a feeling of “we’re all in this together.” People are enthusiastic about sharing and learning from each other. Meetings are energized, productive—and the real meetings happen in the meetings, not in the hallways or on the shop floor afterward. Information is shared openly and freely, even “bad news” because it’s understood that hiding or distorting information won’t lead to real improvement.
Does this sound too good to be true? It’s certainly different from what most of us are used to, but organizations who have encouraged teamwork have reaped the benefits.
Getting good at working together the skills of collaboration
Placing high value on having people work together is something new in many organizations. It’s not enough for managers to simply tell people to collaborate. There are specific skills that all employees need to be trained in to have effective collaboration. They include:
- Listening skills: Listening is something most of us think we do well, because we do it all the time. We listen to spouses, family, friends, coworkers, managers, store clerks… everyone we deal with in the course of a day. But despite all of this practice, most of us don’t know how to listen well, especially when tension is high or tempers are about to flare. Learning how to use listening to really understand what people are trying to say is a cornerstone of effective collaboration. Part of “listening” includes developing inquiry skills so you can draw information out of your teammates. (You’ll also need good “advocacy” skills, being able to clearly state your own ideas and support them with facts and observations, but most of us are better at that than we are at listening.)
- Brainstorming & discussion techniques: One of the reasons for having people work in groups is to tap into everyone’s ideas and knowledge. There are a lot of fun brainstorming techniques that get people to think creatively. And discussion techniques can help groups make sure that everyone gets a chance to be heard.
- Organizing ideas: If you do a good job at listening, brainstorming, and discussion, many times you’ll end up with a long list of ideas. If you have a list of 50 solution ideas for a problem your team is working on, what do you do with them? In most cases, it’s not practical or efficient to pursue each suggestion one-by-one. That’s why collaboration techniques include methods for sorting through, organizing, and prioritizing ideas.
- Decision making: Most of us have worked in situations where decision making was easy—the choice was “whatever the boss says.” But one reason that organizations try to encourage teamwork is so that people working on a process or problem have more say in decisions. Teamwork therefore comes with greater responsibility for everyone to actively participate in decision making. The skills and techniques you might find helpful include methods for determining how a decision should get made, which people or groups need to be included, what roles they should play (such as just contributing information or getting a vote in the final decision), how to develop criteria for selection between options, and so on.
Additional skills for effective teams
The collaboration skills discussed above are one aspect of getting people to work together as a team. But other skills are just as important. Have you ever been in teams or groups that didn’t work very well? Sat in on meetings that seemed to never end? Gotten caught between people who would argue endlessly, making the same points over and over and over again?
Lean Six Sigma teams can’t afford to waste time like that. Here are seven tips for avoiding those traps:
- Set goals. As a team, discuss the project goals. Does everyone agree on what they mean? If not, resolve areas of disagreement or confusion.
- Assign accountability. Whenever action is required, make sure that someone on the team is assigned the lead responsibility to see that it is done. This applies to both ongoing tasks (such as arranging meeting times and locations) and project work (such as collecting data).
- Handle conflict. The most effective teams reach a balance between openness and conflict. You want people to feel free to say what they think, because that’s the only way you can be sure you’re getting the best thinking from the team. But you don’t want your team to spend its time in endless arguments. Finding this balance can take time, so be patient.
- Pay attention to how decisions are made. Teams are brought together to make decisions about what needs to change in a process or product or service. So you will be judged largely on how effectively you reach good decisions. The skills needed to make good decisions include gathering data to explore options, documenting the reasons behind each decision, and involving every team member in the decision-making process.
- Make sure you have effective meetings. A team gets most of its work done in meetings, so it’s important that you use that time well. There are a lot of specific meeting skills and techniques that can help your team have good meetings. Team training courses usually cover topics like creating and using agendas, managing the meeting time, and so on.
- Foster continuous learning. A goal of Lean Six Sigma teams is to constantly get better at everything they do—improving their work, making decisions, holding good meetings. That’s why they emphasize continuous learning, always going over what they’ve done, identifying what went well and what didn’t, and finding ways to get better the next time around.
- Collaborate with other groups. Lean Six Sigma teams don’t work in isolation. They are usually trying to improve procedures or a workplace where other people work. There may be other teams working on related areas. There are always people not on the team who have knowledge or skills the team could use. So learning how to work with other people and groups is another key to success. Your team will want to do things like talking to customers to see what they want from your product or service. You’ll want to talk to other people in the work area to see how their experience does or doesn’t match your own. You’ll also benefit from making connections with people who have done similar kinds of work.
It’s easy enough to get a group of people and tell them to work together on a Lean Six Sigma project. But for them to be effective takes special team skills that most companies don’t normally teach employees. If you have the chance to participate in team training, we advise that you jump at it! Skills like listening, brainstorming, and decision-making come in handy in any situation, not just when you’re on a formal team.