Not a run-of-the-mill team

In a recent post we discussed the “reality distortion field”—RDF—that great leaders (e.g., Steve Jobs) and great teams (e.g., The Beatles) possess that has them believe in “impossible outcomes" and convince others of the same.

In the beginning such folks are frequently dismissed as delusional, but in the end the results they produce often speak for themselves. Of course there are those who live in complete denial of reality, so we should assess the experience and competence—mental and otherwise—of our leaders before falling under their spell. But extraordinary results are frequently achieved by those who were once written off as pipe dreamers.

This week I was reflecting on some breakthrough teams I’ve known in business that operated with their RDF on full throttle. Many of them worked in relative obscurity, in small organizations, but what they accomplished defied all expectations and in several instances saved their companies from oblivion. It helped that these teams, in every case, were fiercely independent-minded and self-determined, undeterred by skeptics around them. The memory of one such team jumps out at me.

It was a group of eight frontline workers in a remote Canadian sawmill that were given five weeks to design a new workflow plan for the facility, with active input from the workforce. The new plan, upon implementation, had to hit specific benchmarks that dramatically improved production, unit cost, and safety, but without major capital expenditures. Otherwise the owners—who were losing money by the truckload—would be forced to sell (or close down) the operation. This was a frightening prospect for the employees and for the local Ontario town whose existence depended in part on the viability of the mill.

The members of this design team were "leaders without portfolio"—frontline employees plus one production supervisor, jointly chosen by union and management because of their influence and credibility with coworkers. My job was to coach them in hitting their weekly deliverables so they could produce a final design that would be approved by union and management, enthusiastically received by the workforce, and promptly implemented.

But first I had to make sure the team had the belief in—and commitment to—the breakthrough goals. (In other words, was their RDF cranked up?) Fortunately, the team members understood one simple fact: that the workforce had been disengaged for years and were not operating on all cylinders. This meant that if the workforce could get excited about contributing ideas for a radically improved workflow design—which could enable the operation to survive and thrive—the result would be achieved! The team was confident they could mobilize the workforce for this.

Most of the team members had a secondary school education, and had recently been given training in financial literacy and computer skills. They had also received offsite training—by a consulting firm I contracted with—in leadership and communication skills, including the art of “enrollment.” So they had what they needed in order to: communicate to the workers the purpose and urgency of their project; canvass the workforce for the best ideas for a new workflow design; create a preliminary workflow design based on these ideas; and tweak the plan as needed to get final management/union approval. The team knew the workers had all the answers. The team just had to ask the questions.

As it turned out, the workforce fully participated. The design team received ideas and recommendations that far exceeded expectations in both quantity and quality. Yet to the workers the suggestions they offered were so obvious! One machine operator mentioned a simple mechanical fix that would remove recurring jam-ups on his saw line, saving at least thousands of dollars a week—something he had requested to his shift supervisor TEN YEARS EARLIER, but was told to mind his own business! Of course that turned out to be the last time this operator ever volunteered a suggestion to management. (And we wonder why employees become “actively disengaged”?)

Another operator pointed out that inadequate lighting on his line regularly contributed to accidents and unscheduled downtime—the bane of any sawmill‘s existence. (A few new light fixtures and bulbs paid for themselves within a day!) Why hadn’t this employee mentioned it before? Well, nobody asked.

Meanwhile, I had to keep management informed but out of the way. It was understood from the beginning that this project would be worker-driven, so the last thing we needed was interference from the top. (That would have upset the design team and driven the union over the edge.) Yes, a few of the team’s initial ideas were too fanciful or expensive, but they would do the math and figure that out. And discovering this on their own was critical for the team (and the workforce as a whole). The independence and autonomy which ownership had given them for this project—and which I had to protect—was a major contributor to their enthusiasm, and to the overall mobilization of the workforce.

After filtering through hundreds of workers’ suggestions, the design team created a preliminary blueprint or prototype of the workflow. After making final adjustments, the team presented the blueprint to union leadership and management. The union was initially skeptical, because of a proposed shutdown of one part of the operation, but the plan made so much business sense they eventually gave it their blessing. Then with much fanfare it was rolled out to the workforce. The design team members, who in a short time had become seasoned communicators, carefully explained the details of the new plan to their fellow workers, fielded questions, and did a thorough job of gaining the workers’ buy-in.

Within two months of implementation the operation was hitting the aggressive targets, without layoffs. And, as a side benefit, workplace morale improved once employees had the experience that what they said actually mattered.

Operating inside a reality distortion field in which they knew they would be successful was a major factor in the design team’s accomplishment. Of course it was also important that this team had the support they needed—including the sponsorship, training, and coaching—to pull this off.

And like the best rock and roll teams that I promote on these cyberpages, this team worked creatively, passionately, tenaciously, and even defiantly to produce the final result.

Over a decade later the sawmill is still thriving.

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  1. I used to dream of doing this kind of thing for small businesses. I'd walk into the new coffee shop in Sacramento and within 5 minutes see a dozen things they had to do differently to succeed.

    And then read sadly about their closing 6 months later. (I haven't yet figured out how to approach those folks in a credible manner, and it frustrates me.)

    I see it in the authors I'd love to help, musicians, the small businesses, the local presence of the big corporate machine: a few simple changes would make such a difference.

    1. A LOT of people can see what's not working in a small business—though most don't have the insights you do, Joel. Having the owners of such a business be open to your insights (or, better yet, ASK for your insights) is of course the eternal sales challenge. True for frustrated employees too, who like in the sawmill example often become resigned and "actively disengaged" when they perceive that management or ownership doesn't give an RA about their input.

      But even in a thriving, successful business, there are always more "simple changes" that would produce major improvements, so the game is never done—which keeps folks like us happily employed.

  2. The sad thing about the sawmill example is that one reason why there was such an improvement is because the staff saw a collosal problem looming (closure) and reacted with alacrity. They'd clearly been living in some kind of RDF created by management not communicating.

    I think that people who achieve massive wins often do so by creating either an amazing vision of what the future might be or by making clear that everyone is under a huge threat. There's nothing like a sink or swim option to focus people's attention, and make them willing to do something a bit different.

    1. Actually, it seems what changed was that *management* finally saw it. Staff had clearly been trying to make changes for at least a decade. (I contend that ALL employees are living in a RDF; depending on someone else to ensure you continue to make a living is a bit of a risk, and getting riskier.)

      Amazing vision is best, but when you get a certain way down the road, that burning platform is a key to change.

      1. Joel, in this case it was ownership that finally saw it, with help from the consulting firm I was contracting with at the time. (I didn't fully differentiate all the players in my post.) Yeah, a burning platform will often penetrate one's field of denial.

    2. Yes, Mark, there is a kind of RDF produced by management that's tuned out to the reality of what's going on around them. I'm preferring to use the term in the context of leaders who have a vision (and plan) for something extraordinary that others don't see yet—leaders who in time are able to enroll others in that vision and plan.

      Regarding what works better, an "amazing vision of what the future might be" or a "huge threat," that's an interesting debate. Often a team—like the aforementioned design team—is convened as a result of the latter but, if they're wise, they'll transform into the former. I didn't go into detail on this (in the interest of blog brevity) but the team was completely aware of the imminent threat to their livelihood (and the livelihood of their neighbors!) if the workflow design failed, but they also envisioned what would be possible with a reinvented process flow, including a more prosperous mill and a more fully engaged workforce. They focused on—and communicated—the latter to the workforce, though I'm sure the threat of closing was also on everyone's minds.

      Perhaps we could say the threat got everyone's attention, but the workforce was inspired and mobilized by the larger vision.

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