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How do I practice lean when I don't feel a strong attachment to my knowledge worker team?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How do I practice lean consistently when I don't feel a strong attachment to my team? We do "knowledge work" and are rarely together in the same room.  Meetings never follow a standard format – nor regular cadence.

Attachment as in liking them? Trusting them? Enjoying the byplay? Those are very good questions indeed. Yes, in office or development work, people are rarely co-located so it’s hard to get a sense of a “team” as in sports or production.

I came across this interesting Gemba question recently, visiting an IT company where the founders are growing partly organically but also through the acquisition of other smaller outfits. The age-old question is: how much should we integrate them (tip: don’t do it)? If they all work separately, how do they feel as a team? How do we make the company work as a team when operations are located in different places with people with different backgrounds?

The traditional approach is “culture” as in common rules, common rituals, and ask everyone to conform to a standard image of Company Man or Woman. We now know that this 1960s approach doesn’t work so well with creatives – it hampers them or makes them leave, which is bad news in knowledge work, and very bad news if you’re trying to attract good developers.

Google’s enormous data-driven research project on team performance yielded one result (after following many false leads):

  1. What matters less is who is on the team, and more how the team works together
  2. The most important factor for team performance is trust: psychological safety

What is trust? How do you build trust within individuals who don’t work together on a daily basis and so have few opportunities for alignment? Well, we can always start with ourselves.

Trust Me

What is our theory of trust? The four main dimensions that seemed to emerge from the research were that to “trust” you instinctively evaluate:

  • Are they competent? Do they know their stuff and is their judgment usually sound?
  • Are they safe? Do they mean well? Can you confide in them and trust they won’t tell tales? Can you lower your guard and trust they won’t catch you out and ridicule you? Can you suggest something and trust they won’t put you back in your place?
  • Are they reliable? Do they deliver on what they commit to? Can you believe what they say?
  • Are they likable? Do they do things that drive you crazy? Are they pleasant to be around?

When you look at it that way, no one is trustworthy all around – people are trustworthy on some things and not others. We are not trustworthy all around either– and so we can work on it as well.

All of this stuff tends to get worked through in a co-located team during the famous Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing process teams go through to find their bearings – led by the personality of the team leader, or the most charismatic person in the group (careful, the loudest voice is not necessarily the smartest or the most respected).

But what about working with people you don’t share day-to-day, cheek-by-jowl working life with?

Lean thinking teaches us that we can build teamwork as an individual skill, one-by-one. We can start by thinking over about the state of our relationship with each person we have to work with, de-layering the onion from the outside:

  1. Do I like this person? Am I obsessing about their worse point? Do I drive them crazy with one of my habits? What easy thing could I change to improve mutual appreciation?
  2. Do I find them reliable? What are they reliable on? What not? Do I need them to be reliable on everything? Is there one reliability point where I can better negotiate the delivery process?
  3. Do I feel safe around them? What can I trust them with, and what can’t I? Can I be more thoughtful about not tempting them with what I know I can’t trust them with (privileged information, gossip, plans, personal issues, opinions, thinking out loud, and not having checked the facts, etc.)?
  4. Do I find them competent? On what? To what extent? Do I listen differently in their area of expertise than on other topics? Do I recognize privately and publicly their competence, even on small (to me) things?

 With this work plan in mind, I can now turn to lean tools.

  • Challenge: By clarifying the external – and internal - challenges to which we’re trying to respond altogether (as opposed to “I need from you,” or “I want from you”) you can leave space for their competence. See what they take on if anything. Discuss the challenge more, see if they’re convinced or not. Maybe their professional background and experience make them see things very differently – what if they’re right?
  • Genchi genbutsu: There is no going around the fact that, in lean, you’re going to have to go and meet them at the workplace if they handle some material process, but in knowledge work, the code is the Gemba, or the page of the report is the Gemba – you can look at things together and agree on the nature of problems, as well as which issue you’ll attempt to fix. In doing so, you can explore how safe you are, and create opportunities to show to each other that you can share perspectives safely on concrete cases.
  • Pull work: By establishing pull flow with kanbans, you can improve reliability by clarifying interfaces and delivery – looking at every job in terms of quality and delivery. This will also highlight areas for kaizen where, again, you can work together on reliability, and a good test of commitment. Start small, get them to participate, engage them.
  • Stop and look at every defect: Nothing can develop trust faster than genuinely showing up to look at problems people flag and taking them seriously. Fixing issues one after the other is the best proof of reliability, and doing so together creates opportunities to learn more about each other.
  • Respect: I know of nothing that will make you like someone more, or vice versa. But there is the Ben Franklin effect: If someone does small favors for you, they’re likely to like you more, particularly if you thank them and listen to them on this occasion. Asking for baby kaizen steps creates a context for the Ben Franklin effect and gives you an opportunity to listen seriously about people’s worldview (from what imaginary perspective everything they say is true).

Beware Bad Apples

Teamwork, in lean, is first and foremost an individual skill – through facing common challenges, listening to each other’s perspective and focusing on each other’s development and progress, trust builds up in relationships. As trust builds up between two people, their mutual opinion of each other improves, which influences others they’re in contact with and progressively builds trust in the network.

The good news is that working deliberately on increasing the level of trust in the network can pay back massively and quickly – unless …A counterintuitive finding of social psychology is how easily we are influenced, each of us (Me? Of course not, I know my own mind, surely?). What this means is teamwork or its opposite, mutual defiance, can spread very quickly through any network by the balance of the attitudes of influential people (trustworthy or they let you down) and the critical mass of influenced people (I haven’t given it much thought). The good news is that working deliberately on increasing the level of trust in the network can pay back massively and quickly – unless you hit a proverbial “bad apple,” someone with the classic middle-manager skills of information retention, backstabbing, and “can’t-be-done” partisan position on each issue, in which case you do have a problem.

In some of its versions, the basis of Toyota’s TPS house is mutual trust. The trick is to realize this is not a prerequisite – it’s something that you build through effort. After years of lean practice, the CEO of the growing company sums up what he’s learned from practicing lean as 1) clarify challenges, 2) give improvement exercises, and 3) show respect. I would add 4) a pull system. Taken as a whole, this creates the conditions for trust to spread in a network, particularly so in just-in-time/jidoka conditions.

No magic bullet. Start with the first colleague on your list, and ask yourself: What can I change in the way I deal with them to improve mutual trust?

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani March 25, 2019

We face this in higher education all the time. Faculty generally work as independent contributors. That never stopped me from relentlessly applying Lean principles and practices to my own work (teaching, etc.), and sharing the results with my colleagues.

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