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I’ve just been named team leader with zero training and my team is not co-located – where should I start?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’ve just been named team leader with zero training and my team is not co-located – where should I start?

This really got me thinking! It’s a hard question to answer because lean is an improvement method. There needs to be something to improve for it to apply. In the case of the team leader role, we need to start with the basics of what a team leader is in any management situation, and then think about the specific lean (ie improvement facilitating) aspects that add on to that.

Start with quality: What are the high standards my team needs to know to do quality work? The rest will follow.Teams and their team leaders are essential to performance and, more generally, to success. This is an assumption that gets tested so often it can be considered as a basic truth of management – it gets forgotten by organizations (with their focus on processes and hierarchies) and rediscovered every time winning matters. It’s not much of a surprise. Evolutionary biology has designed us to work in hunting or foraging parties and to roam space in groups of about 30 (the maximum you can feed on one animal without meat preservation) in clans of about 300 – beyond that … enemies or modern societies.

When my father did Gemba walks, he’d point to isolated operators doing a job or other, and ask, “How is this person organized?” Plant managers would try to explain the org chart and in what department the person worked but he’d look back dubiously and ask, “What team are they part of? How do they know what team they’re part of? Who is the team leader? Where is she?”

Get the Direction Right

Teams of five to seven people are where things happen. The team leader is the reference point, the person others turn to in doubt for guidance, and in pain for comfort. The strongest skill of a team leader is to create a safe space for the members of the team to feel comfortable telling things as they see it, find the place for their natural talents, and play well with others, understanding that everyone has good days and bad days. This means worrying about the five following points:

  1. Get the direction right,
  2. Check priorities and follow-up,
  3. Listen and suggest,
  4. Solve workplace problems,
  5. Manage conflicts, console losers.

People look to you for guidance. As with a compass, not necessarily to comply and do what you ask, but to know which waypoints “forward.” Usually, the job given to you by your boss and her corporate masters is a contradiction in terms. You’ve got to take care of final customers, as well as internal customers. But you’ve got to control your costs. And play along with the office politics which means supporting your bosses in whatever nonsensical ideas came through their heads. You’ve got to achieve goals, but also follow company processes that seem designed to stop you from doing so, and so on.

Getting the direction right means meditating about the mission, trying to figure out the intent so that the company succeeds, arguing it logically to yourself back and forth until you can express it clearly and break it down simply to your team as:

  • This is the mission
  • This is the main goal
  • Here’s the three-step plan
  • Listen to the difficulties people see with the plan

What top managers ask you to do is contradictory by nature – they’re always going after too many objectives. To succeed as a leader, you need to keep it simple for the team. This is a head-scratching dilemma that can only be solved by thinking about it a lot until you’re comfortable that you’ve understood what the company is trying to do and found a way to communicate it. No easy way. No other way than breaking down the logic, testing assumptions and doing what leaders do: question the way forward, and then lead.

Check Priorities and Follow Up

Research shows that the make or break criteria for you as a team leader is a weekly one-on-one conversation with each person you lead (which also explains the 5 to 10 span of control issue as how many people can we have a meaningful weekly conversation with?). On the frontline, you see your team every day, this still means taking the time for a chat weekly. At the top level, I remember one of the best CEOs I’ve known spending his Fridays having 20-minute calls with each of his senior managers across the world.

Even if the mission is clear, things change daily and people get their own ideas and so on. The weekly talk is mainly about checking priorities – yours versus theirs – and following up on what needs to get done, new developments that change things, and difficulties to resolve. Yes, the plan is important, but unless you have enough power to roll it out forcefully against all odds, being flexible and dealing opportunistically with events is also a path to success. As a team leader, you need to figure out how to deal with obstacles in terms of:

  • Stick with the plan, grit your teeth, and bash on
  • See the obstacles as an opportunity to further the mission, guerilla style
  • Follow people in their intuitions and what they want to do

Again, no easy answers. When something comes up you need to choose between “let’s stick with the plan,” “let’s use this opportunity,” and “let’s do it your way.”

Listen and Suggest

As a team leader, people will come to you with their problems. Of course, they’ll rarely say “I have a clear-cut problem and this is how it breaks down.” Mostly they’ll show up in a bad mood, snap at other team members, look despondent, have passive-aggressive reactions to any suggestions, get overinvolved, get upset, and all the normal people behaviors you can expect.

People are not always aware they have a problem. Mostly they think everyone else is the problem – starting with you. Listening means taking a deep breath and taking the time to hear what someone has to say deep down, which is usually wrapped up in all sorts of annoying comments and attitudes. Also, it takes time and we need to get the day rolling. This, again, requires a judgment call:

  • Ignore the usual “start-up” procedure of the person and get on with the work
  • Stop and listen, knowing you probably won’t have an answer

In many cases, you can’t do much with people’s problems. They need to solve them themselves. Unless it’s a material thing at work, solving it for them won’t help much. But they need you to create a space for them to feel “felt” and to listen to the suggestions you may have.

Solve Workplace Problems

Some issues though are yours to solve – anything to do with enabling conditions for people to do their work. That’s tough because what can you do if computers are slow to start or if this machine has a breakdown, or if your team doesn’t have the critical information from the department next door to get on with their task. Well, that’s the job.

You’re not expected to solve all of these problems but the team will feel much better if they see you try hard. This is where the To Do list comes in handy. The most effective tip I’ve been given is to have a special pad of yellow legal paper dedicated to listing the practical things that need sorting out for the team to perform, and cross them out as you go

Some are solved easily, some will never get solved. The key here is to transform a big task (get IT to fix the bugs in the software) into next steps that can get done (talk to IT about which bug they can solve right away). With each step done, ask yourself what is the immediate next step to move towards solving the problem (usually involves talking with someone different) and turn that into concrete action.

The trick to workplace problems vis-à-vis your team is to accept responsibility without carrying the guilt. Yes, you owe it to them to give them a good working environment. No, you can’t carry the world on your shoulders. Again, there’s a balance to find day to day, and depending on what happens out there.

Manage Conflicts, Console Losers

The secret to running a successful team is to create a safe space for people to be themselves without having to wear the “company face.” People being people, however, conflict is unavoidable, for existential reasons (people don’t want the same things) and for banal reasons (people rub each other the wrong way). Managing conflicts is a key part of leading a team, if only because people will look to you for tie-breaking.

The first step to managing conflict is to recognize it – which is not always obvious. Teams have moods, and when the mood sours, the chances are there is a fire burning under the bushes and you need to find out where and why. The second step is understanding it. Typically, conflict starts with an incident that gets out of hand, as milk boiling over suddenly after simmering.

The trick then is to look beyond the incident, separate the personalities from the problem, and try to understand the deeper issues of who is doing what to whom and who is feeling wronged. Then comes the hard part of asking people to propose each a feasible step to conflict appeasement and, failing that, coming up with some kind of Solomonic judgment (danger, danger, danger) that each party can support. And finally getting them to shake on it.

And finally, the most important element for a lasting peace: consoling the loser. We all lose all the time, to something or someone.  We’re all grown-ups and mostly can deal with it. But we can also feel very aggrieved by it. The simple skill of listening and consoling goes a long way to making the team feel like a place they can run to rather than a place to run from.

These five skills are the basis of any team leadership, whether the local darts team at the pub or a multi-million dollar executive committee, and by all means not easy to master as you’ve got your own emotions to do deal with.

And then you throw kanban into the mix.

kanban is magic because it’s relentless – you can’t argue with the kanban. By visualizing the job units requested by the customer, the lean system both releases the team leader from the pressure of deciding what needs to be done by whom by when – but now creates a different tension because the cards have to be served and with perfect quality each time. A kanban system requires additional “lean” skills from a team leader:

  1. Know quality characteristics and job sequence
  2. Train to standards
  3. Upkeep visual management, spot abnormalities
  4. Grasp kaizen points
  5. Pay attention to preceding and following processes

Know the Quality Characteristics and Job Sequence

The first rule of kanban is “don’t send defectives to the subsequent process.” Easy to say, hard to do. The team leader needs to both master quality characteristics to inspect the jobs going out of the team and understand where most qualities issues come from in doing the job itself. The lean tools to support this are:

  • Boundary conditions to visualize OK versus not-OK on key aspects of the job
  • Job standards to detail the sequence and show the specific attention points in order to do it right

Train to Standards

The next step is to train each team member to standards. Show them how it’s done. Show them the points of attention. Watch them while they master the points and correct them in the details. Encourage them to continue to practice their skills.

This also poses the larger question of whether the team members are teachable: are they willing and able to learn, and do they accept the legitimacy of the team leader to teach. More often than not, this requires a management system to support the team leader by establishing training in teams as expected and a company-wide norm.

A unique, specific aspect of lean is visual management. Taiichi Ohno starts his book on workplace management with an optical illusion – which line is the longest?

Then spends six chapters discussing being wrong, admitting it, and changing your mind! Modern cognitive research shows that optical illusions occur because we think as we look, rather than, as you’d expect, see and then think. The way information is displayed supports reasoning and leads to very different conclusions.

Lean sensei grasped this early on and have always insisted on visualizing the workplace in order to think as concretely and pragmatically as possible. As a lean team leader, it’s your job to get your team to maintain it’s own visual management with:

This will be supported by management at the process level but it essentially falls on the team leader to get it and do it right.

Grasp kaizen Points

kanban will reveal process kaizen points every time there is a quality alert or a delay on delivering on the card. Five S will reveal workplace management problems. The team leader then has to somehow get the teams to transform these problems into kaizen opportunities.

This means first recognizing typical kaizen opportunities, such as “one step, one second, one cent” waste and then not solving it on one’s own but getting the person doing the job to do it themselves: encouraging the suggestion, helping with a way to test it, supporting presenting to the team, selling it to management.

team leader skill at spotting kaizen opportunities was the core of training team leaders when Toyota started in the U.S. and is, I believe, the foundational skill of continuous improvement, but it’s often not easy to grasp, so you need to be on the lookout for it.

Pay Attention to the Preceding and Following Processes

“The next process is the customer” is a breakthrough idea of lean thinking, and indeed, the whole point of just-in-time is to improve collaboration across functions for better use of capital and people. At the team leader level, this means learning teamwork: solving problems across borders.

As a team, it’s easy to develop a fortress mentality in which we’re right and everyone else is wrong. Team leaders can easily try to buy their people’s good graces by protecting them from their own incompetence or mistakes and consider that the universe makes unreasonable demands.  Supporting people also means developing them – helping them to be more autonomous in their jobs in producing to high-quality standards. A key attitude to do so is to keep focusing the team to teamwork with upstream and downstream colleagues.

Okaaaay – I realize now that I’ve answered your question about where should I start with a laundry list of impossible things to do before breakfast.

Where should you start? Forget all of the above and ask yourself how you’re going to maintain the quality spirit of your team. Humans respond to norms. End of story. Your real job is to maintain high standards of quality work while supporting team members in their emotional ups and downs. Start with quality: what are the high standards my team needs to know to do quality work? The rest will follow.

3 Comments | Post a Comment
Jon Miller June 4, 2019

Comes out same day LEI names Josh Howell President & Executive TEAM LEADER and I sez to myself hmm :-D

Michael Ballé June 5, 2019

@Jon Miller LOOOL - wish we knew how to coordinate that finely! 

Josh Howell September 11, 2019

Heeding the advice!

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