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Are morning team huddles that go on forever a waste of time?

1/20/2020
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Dear Gemba Coach

Our company has made morning team huddles mandatory. I don't see how that helps. On my team, huddles seem to go on forever and feel like a waste of time. Are they?

Yes, I know what you mean. I was on the Gemba recently of a massive logistics company and the morning huddle was simply painful to watch. About 15 people standing in a circle, with a manager droning on about the day’s objectives and then getting caught in an argument with a passive-aggressive member that had everyone cringing.

Like any routine, team briefs can be useful or wasteful according to how they’re done. Let’s take a step back to look again at the logic of team briefs. The best model I’ve found explaining the underlying theory is Cross, Edmonson, and Murphy’s discussion of purpose and energy in companies.In a positive organization, a team brief is a great tool that leverages individual positive energies into team collaboration. In a negative one, the team brief makes things worse.

Their argument echoes the Toyota Way: interpersonal collaboration is the key to both team performance and people involvement. The logic is familiar by now: people engagement  to individual and team performance.

Purpose Falls Short

The next accepted step is that a clear purpose is the key to people engagement, or, in the authors’ terms, energy: clear purpose  energy  collaboration  performance, which is the basis of daily huddles: routinely reassert the purpose of the organization and the team’s place in it with a reminder of daily objectives.

But the authors make the interesting point that purpose, in itself, is not enough to achieve collaboration. Purpose must stand on a basis of psychological safety, or in lean terms, mutual trust. The model is:

Building mutual trust cultivates purpose generates energy improves collaboration fosters performance

Trust, and the psychological safety that goes with it, is a hygiene factor: having it doesn’t guarantee purpose, but without it, you can’t take the first step towards collaboration. It’s a prerequisite, a foundation – you need it to go forward.

The huddle I saw in that logistics company did the opposite of what a brief was supposed to do:

  • The “team” was too large to function as a team – over seven people, you’ve got two natural teams. Team size is not an organizational choice; it’s a human fact about how many bodies you can keep together in one conversation around a drink at the pub.
  • The team leader was using this moment to list all that needed to be done and that clearly could not get done because of obvious process problems on the shop floor.
  • The organization had developed a culture of protecting middle management and “blame the driver” for everything, mostly to support top management delusions of “excellence.”

In short, we were looking at a forced Mass, not a team brief. Forced mass is when you force people to go to a Mass and give them the sermon one more time in the belief that, eventually, they’ll buy into it. Guess what, they don’t. Whatever positive energy they have coming to work, they lose during the brief and then drag their feet back to their workstation to get on with the day’s drudgery.

Walk Through, Talk Through

At the opposite end of the spectrum, organizations that need to succeed such as high-level sports or special forces interpret briefs as “walk through, talk through." You walk through the plan step by step and everyone chips in with anticipated difficulties and the team works out a common way to deal with the problem. This might take a while as well, but it addresses the fundamental problem: collaboration.

Regular jobs are neither sports nor special forces, so team briefs can be very light:

  1. A reminder of the day’s objectives (that’s one sentence, not even a paragraph, no surprises expected there);
  2. A discussion of the day’s potential changes: that’s the meat of the brief – the team leader highlights the special things that might happen today and how this could affect the team, with a quick discussion with team members of how they suggest handling this team;
  3. Asking each person in turn to flag an issue they’ve encountered, and that needs to be discussed after the meeting.

And that’s it. Five minutes. Tops.

In doing it this way you: 1/ affirm purpose, 2/ align energies with daily changes, and 3/ reassert psychological safety by welcoming what anyone has to say, no matter how inconvenient.

Making It Worse

What this means is that the success or failure of a morning brief completely depends on the team leader. If the team leader is a person the team who knows what they’re doing, the team steps out of the meeting energized and with new information needed to make the day a success. If the team leader is despised by the team and uses the meeting to assert their authority, the opposite happens.

In turn, the team leader very much depends on the organization’s culture and who gets picked as a team leader – a leader or a capo. Positive organizations choose team leaders for their judgment and their easy manner with their team (people come to talk to them naturally). Negative organizations chose enforcers that make sure people apply instructions, keep their noses clean, never complain publicly and get on with the job in the narrowest way possible.

In a positive organization, a team brief is a great tool that leverages individual positive energies into team collaboration. In a negative one, the team brief makes things worse. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful as I’ve seen my share of both – I don’t know which setting you’re in.

On the other hand, better understanding what the brief does, its underlying theory and how it’s supposed to work can help you turn it around for your team – which could be the start of a revolution. To my surprise, when I discussed the disastrous huddle we were looking at with the company’s CEO, he took the point – he saw it. And we then had the talk I’ve just written up. I have no idea what he’ll do with it, but starting with “why” can’t hurt.

 

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