High Performing Teams = Driving Success in Lean

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High Performing Teams

Prepare your team for success right from the beginning by understanding and recognizing the various phases of development and planning for potential conflicts or road blocks.

One of the many hidden secrets to any organization’s success getting real results with Lean Six Sigma is in having well-functioning high-performing teams throughout. High-performing teams can be an easy thing to manage if you know how to do it; an incorrectly managed team will fall apart and possibly leave a mess in its wake, including the ‘failure of lean.’

In order to function well, a high-performing team must have the following attributes right from the start:

  • Overall common purpose
  • Measurable outcomes
  • Documented processes
  • Written code of conduct
  • Adequate support from others 

If team goals are unclear, they aren’t provided with feedback, they don’t have a charter, they don’t have ‘rules’ for meeting and conducting activities, or they don’t have adequate support from management and other upper level executives, the prospect of having well functioning high-performing teams (HPTs) will come crashing right into the ground.  Finally, YOU are a personally a key element of the degree of success in HPTs in the areas you are responsible for.

There are four stages to the development of a high-performing team: forming, storming, norming, and performing. When you are in the position of leading a high performing team, you must be prepared to support each area of development, or the team will fall to pieces.  In short, you must not only understand the phases of HPT development, you must also understand how your role and behavior must adapt to support your team.

Phase 1: Forming

In the forming phase, people are brought together for the first time, which can be a little tentative. Everyone on the team starts to figure out their roles, and it’s at this stage that whoever the team leader is becomes established. At this stage, the team leader must be very directive. The leader (you) must be descriptive and assertive; their goal is to orient the team and set them on a path as quickly as possible.  They must provide plenty of feedback and make no assumptions about the rest of the team until they’ve proven that they’re ready to move on to the next phase.

Phase 2: Storming

In the storming phase, the team is starting to learn how to communicate with one another and set up a process for getting things done. This is the phase where teams work past initial conflicts and oppositions. There may be some resistance or skepticism in this phase, and it’s the team leader’s job to listen to everyone and help the team members realize and work past their differences and opinions towards a singular common goal. The team leader has to shift from being very directive to being less directive and more supportive; ‘selling’ the team on working through their differences. During storming, the leader has to win over the support of everyone on the team so that they can rally towards what they need to do.

Phase 3: Norming

In the norming phase, the team members are finally beginning to feel comfortable with one another. The team starts to share ideas and thoughts more openly and is comfortable with its differences. The team leader becomes less of a leader here and more of a fellow team member and resource. The leader should keep an eye out for anyone who is holding back or hesitating with their contributions and try to encourage them to speak up to further benefit the team.

Phase 4: Performing

In the performing phase, the team starts to see the payoff for all of their hard work. This is where the process results are evident, the team is energized, and they’re putting out results that can be measured. Finally, the leader’s job is to deliberately take a bit of back seat – watching the team’s progress, being ready to intervene as needed. Be the team’s resource, not their director. The team can function well on its own and provide excellent and desirable results.

If the processes of forming and maintaining high-performing teams is really as simple as written above, then why are there so many failed attempts at setting up an effective high-performing team?  In my experience there is this short list of reasons why HPTs fail to take hold or break down over time:

  1. Management. If the team reports their findings to a manager who pretends to listen and then says, “do it my way anyway,” the purpose of the team is completely moot, and what ever progress has been made grinds to a halt.
  2. Support. Can management support what the team needs? If management can’t provide enough guidance, resources, or support well-made decisions, then the team can’t hope to really get off the ground.
  3. People. Choose team members carefully. Failure can be slated right from the beginning if there are too many clashing personality types, or too many people of the same personality type.  If necessity forces a poor mix the need for a skilled leader and facilitator goes up exponentially.
  4. Size. If a team is too large or too small, it won’t function properly. Three people is too small, and when you reach ten or more people, that’s entirely too big. Seven or eight individuals is the ‘sweet spot’ for team sizes.  Especially with larger teams, it takes special leadership and facilitation skills to help the team function effectively.
  5. Expectations. If expectations are way too high or too low for the team, the team can’t function. If they struggle to meet unrealistic goals they will be demoralized and defeated from the start.  If they have tasks that are far too easy, the team won’t go anywhere because there is no ‘stretch’ and ‘just doing what we always did’ may be good enough.
  6. Facilitator. If the team leader or facilitator can’t guide the team properly, the team will fail.  That’s where you come in for the HPTs you are responsible for.

Let me emphasize that you are the ‘secret sauce’ for HPTs you are responsible for to work.  There are some other important things to remember if you ever find yourself attempting to form or lead a high-performing team, the most important of which is: your role is always situational. You must be willing to shift and change your role as the team grows and develops. In addition to that, you must be willing to change your leadership style depending on the level of competent team members you have for the task at hand.

I remember a situation in particular about an individual named ‘Bob’. Bob was a long-term employee and key manager who was dedicated, loyal, smart, and sincerely wanted the company to be successful. Bob became the leader of a high performing team at his company to head up a cross-functional team to improve a supply chain process.

Bob was also a very forceful communicator who had a tendency to dominate every conversation. As I was monitoring his team and their development, I noticed that his very direct style of leadership worked well in the forming phase.

Then, during the storming phase, things became a little messy. Bob’s very direct and forward-moving style was tripping up the rest of the team. Two other members were losing interest, another team member was becoming challenging and disruptive, and nothing was getting done.

After the meeting, I took Bob aside and pointed out a few things that he needed to address. First, he needed to stop domineering and controlling the meetings and listen to the other team members and their thoughts to build consensus, rather than just pushing ahead whenever he was satisfied.

Secondly, I told Bob that he needed to formulate a solid team charter and have all of the members acknowledge and sign it to verify that they agreed to follow them. Bob took my advice and the team went quickly into the norming phase, and proceeded well into the performing phase where they achieved the results they’d been working for.

One of the other things to remember when you first start to form a high-performing team is to make sure that the management is completely on board with the idea. There will always be some missteps or confusion as you start forming the team, so make sure management stays informed and is willing to cooperate with you the whole time.

Make sure your team has a solid charter in place while you’re forming. Without a charter or directive, the team won’t have anything to remind them where they should be going or how they should be acting. Also, while working with a high-performing team, it helps to find or develop your own ‘training deck’ for the team. Here are some ideas for what it could contain:

  • Facilitator’s guide
  • Team leader roles and expectations
  • Team member roles and expectations
  • Personality styles assessment tool
  • Brainstorming rules for ideation
  • Prioritization methods defined
  • Agenda
  • Action plan formats
  • Standardized team score-cards
  • Supplemental training:
    1. communication skills
    2. conflict resolution skills
    3. disciplinary system skills 

Prepare your team for success right from the beginning by understanding and recognizing the various phases of development and planning for potential conflicts or road blocks. If you are able to guide the team through all four phases, work with management to communicate what the team needs, and formulate and enforce a solid team charter, you will be a successful leader to your team and they will prosper.

If you enjoyed this article and would like more insights from Ron Crabtree, you can enroll is his FREE weekly ezine series – Operational Excellence Edge by visiting http://www.operationalexcellenceedge.com/ to learn more.

Ron Crabtree, CPIM, CIRM, CSCP, MLSSBB, is a director-at-large for the Greater Detroit Chapter of APICS and president of MetaOps, training and consulting firm specializing in lean six sigma in the areas of operations, marketing, and sales.  He may be contacted at (248) 568-6484 or [email protected]


Additional Reading

Improving the Order Entry Process with Lean Six Sigma

Integrated Lean Six Sigma and Collaborative Leadership of the E2E Supply Chain


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