Teams are “Us” – Part 1: What’s a Team?

Teams are “Us” – Part 1: What’s a Team?

“If you want one year of prosperity grow grain. 


If you want ten years of prosperity grow trees. 


If you want one hundred years of prosperity grow your people”

— Confucius (~ 500 BC)

I guess you can say that truth and wisdom have been with us for a very long time. The problem is — we seem to have very short memories.

The other problem is that we often, conveniently, divide the “people” up into “us” and “them”. I can’t say how many times I have run into the manager, Lean coordinator, engineer, supervisor, etc. who believes that “grow your people” applies to someone other than themselves. If they are implementing Lean/TPS and have heard the term “Respect for People”, they invariably interpret that term as applying to those employees that are lowest on the totem pole — “those guys out back”.

“Grow your people” applies to everyone – including the “leader”. Growth requires continual learning and adaptability to change. Change is the only constant in human endeavors. I recently read a study that found that the people most likely to fail in an organizational transformation were the ones who were the most successful prior to the change effort. That’s one reason that these “transformations” are so very hard to do.

So how do we go about creating positive change and growing people at all levels in an organization? The last time I looked there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books written on this subject. Which means that there is no one answer to this question – or, alternatively, there is no answer to this question. But it does happen occasionally — which means there is some hope for us after all.

But I’m going to try and keep it simple and just tackle the problem of how do we convert the “them” into the “us”. I tried to tackle the what and why of this problem in my previous two posts. Now on to the how.

One word – Teams.

But what is a Team, anyway? Wikipedia says this:

“A team is a group of people or other animals linked in a common purpose. Human teams are especially appropriate for conducting tasks that are high in complexity and have many interdependent subtasks. A group does not necessarily constitute a team. Teams normally have members with complementary skills and generate synergy through a coordinated effort which allows each member to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.”

I’m not sure about the “animals” part, but the rest seems to make a lot of sense. Certain words jump out at me though: “common purpose”, “synergy”, “maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses” and especially “interdependent”. (For the significance of “interdependent” see the intro to “Want Respect for People: Grow the “Us” – Part 1”).

But in my mind the concept of a Team can be boiled down to a single statement. A Team is simply one of the purest forms of “Us”. There is no “they” or “them” there!

That is what differentiates a Team from a group.

But what constitutes the “Us” in Team? Does that mean we are all equal? Do we all have equal responsibility in decision making? Must we all agree about everything? How do we handle differences of opinion? When can I say no? Do I have to say yes? Do I really have time to work on this? Who said we have to do it this way? What’s in this for me?

Before I get into the mechanics of how teams work, I would like to tell a little story about my first encounter with the concept of teams. I think it sheds some light on the above questions.

In the mid-1980’s I held the position of Director of Manufacturing at the corporate headquarters of a large pharmaceutical company. Part of my responsibilities included a brand new, surgical suture plant in South Korea. At that time the production of surgical sutures was very labor intensive and this plant would obviously generate large cost saving opportunities. But that was not the main objective of building this new plant. The main objective was to grow our market in Japan.

Up until that point in time, Japan would only buy surgical suture products that were made in the U.S. They had very high quality standards and they felt that only U.S. products met those standards. They wouldn’t buy from our plants in the U.K. or Europe either. They also bought our competitor’s products, but with the same U.S. sourced stipulations.

We had a new high-tech, synthetic absorbable suture product that was selling like hotcakes and we were running out of room to further expand capacity in the U.S. This Korea project had to work.

My first visit to the Korean plant (and to the Far East, for that matter) was an eye-opener. All the key players at the plant had been trained in our U.S. facilities and had absorbed everything they could while they were there. But how would they do on their own in Korea? Don’t get me wrong. Tech support was available from the U.S. at any time. But they had to not only eventually do it on their own, they had to convince the Japanese to source from them.

But my eye-opening was not due to their technical prowess, which was quite good. The eye-opener was, for me, the strong, distinct culture embedded into the organization. At first I was a little alarmed at the strict hierarchy that existed within the plant. The Plant Manager appeared to literally be the King of his castle. People scurried at his every request. When I asked to read a certain report, the secretary brought it to me with both hands extended and bowed deep with no eye contact as she handed it to me. When we walked down a hallway, everyone in our path stood aside and the women literally backed up against the wall until we passed.

This wasn’t sitting well with me. I had seen top-down hierarchy before in the U.S., and it never worked out well. Actually, this appeared to be a step above what I had ever seen before. But by the end of the day, I began to change my mind.

The first hint came late in the day when the Plant Manager and I were working on something fairly intense. He turned to me and said, “we need to leave the plant now”. I’m sure I had a puzzled look on my face when he continued, “even though it is the end of their shift, no one on my staff or in the plant will leave until I leave. They will stay on in case I need something. I want them home with their families, so we must leave”. We left (and continued our meeting in my hotel).

My education continued the next day. After finishing my tour of the plant proper (and exchanging bows with someone every 30 seconds it seemed) we went into a very large room with charts and whiteboards scattered everywhere. “This is where we do our work” the Plant Manager said to me. (Actually, I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like that). He continued, “when we have problems that we can’t fix on the spot, everyone involved comes here to work on solutions”.

And when he said “everyone” he meant everyone. I saw operators (that was the word we used back then) working with engineers and supervisors in small groups. And since everyone wore basically the same uniforms, I couldn’t tell who was who. The dialogue was free and open between all. The Plant Manager explained that if they need additional help, they just ask and they get it. If they need approvals beyond their own authority, they ask for it – and usually get it.

To be honest, this stuff didn’t sink into my thick skull until much later. But I’ll never forget that room. It was a first for me. I think I saw my first “Quality Circles” and Obeya Room even though I wouldn’t know those words for several more years.

On the last day of my visit, the Plant Manager asked if I would mind saying something to his people. I, of course, assumed he meant he wanted me to say something to his staff and I said sure. But he then led me outside to the front visitor’s parking lot where a podium and microphone were set up. I then watched as the entire plant, and I mean everyone, filed outside in single file and lined up in rows. The entire plant was standing in front of us – and they were smiling.

I think I kept my mouth closed while they filed out and lined up, but I’ll never be sure. And I don’t have any remembrance of what I said to them. (And neither do they, since very few spoke any English). But I was there, and they were there, and I realized, right then and there, that we were all part of a Team. I’ll never forget it!

I don’t know if Japan had anything to do with the culture that I saw in Korea, or if this is just a Far East thing. Probably a little bit of both – during my many visits the Plant Manager was frequently on the phone speaking Japanese. But regardless, something seemed to be working well.

And so it was. About two years after my first visit, Japan informed us that, starting immediately, they would only source their synthetic absorbable suture products from the plant in Korea. They would no longer buy from the U.S. Our competitors were not happy. I was!

So Teams and hierarchy do mix – if you have mutual “Respect for People” at all levels of the hierarchy.

I’ll get us back to the “how to” of teams in the next post. I just had to share this story. It represents the best example of the “Us” in an organization that I have ever experienced firsthand.


2 thoughts on “Teams are “Us” – Part 1: What’s a Team?

  1. Bill,
    I like your articles that cite the founders of TPS, but I’ll admit that I like this article more than all of the previous ones of yours that I’ve read. Why? Because of you relate a personal experience to make a point. I suspect that you have a whole trunkful of similar manufacturing experiences — please continue to share them.

    I love the Confucius quote and will use it.

    I believe that strategic suppliers should be treated similarly to employees, i.e. as part of the team, both engineering-wise and financially. I didn’t get a lot of support for this at the executive level — most couldn’t get our of that win -lose mindset — but hope you can see that the points you make are applicable to “our extended enterprise partners”.

    The discussion about whether or not all team members are equal is important. The main point here is that I think team members have different roles, although should contribute when-ever and where-ever they feel they can add to the discussion.

    I think a leader’s role is to point team members to a “North Star” goal and define the strategy you want them to use in figuring out how to reach that goal — but then is to step aside and let the team work — only stepping back in to the discussion if the team starts veering too far away from the previously outlined goal or strategic approach.

    1. Paul, I’m glad you enjoyed my reminiscence about the Korean experience. It had a large impact on my way of thinking for years afterward. I am still learning from it.

      I’m glad you appreciate the Confucius quote. Its wisdom has been with us for two and a half millennia and we still haven’t fully learned it, unfortunately.

      I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about how we should work with our strategic suppliers. They are strategic because they are an integral part of our Lean River System. You need to insure the entire river flows smoothly, not just the river we see from our house. They are strategic because they are part of the river, not just a lake that the river feeds from. I have included suppliers in my Team structure on many occasions, but not to the extent that you did.

      I discuss the various roles of Team Members in much more detail in subsequent posts of this “Teams are Us” series. I talk about “True North” in the very next post. I think you will find we are in pretty good agreement about these issues.

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