Imagine that an organization has chartered four Six Sigma improvement teams – one each in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Each has been given the charter to reduce manufacturing cycle times. The four facilities are virtually identical, producing comparable products and packaging, with the same technology. However, even with an equal degree of management support, the same improvement approach and equally capable team leadership, the progress of the teams will differ dramatically, from start to finish.

Here are some generalizations about how each of the four teams is likely to perform:

United States Team: Fast Start, Weak Follow-Through

The American team gets off to an enthusiastic, fast start. During the three-day team training event that launches the project, the Americans participate actively, asking the presenter for clarification. Although they are skeptical of reducing cycle times by 75 percent, they agree to “go for it.”

Good at generating innovative ideas and quick to experiment, the U.S. team implements a number of changes within the first two months. Four months into the project, they achieve 50 percent of the established target. But at the five-month mark, deep into analyzing the chronic problems, the team starts to lose momentum. The team members are frustrated by the time it takes to gather and analyze data. Kept on track by a strong team leader, though, they persist. When they have achieved 80 percent of the goal, the team is distracted by senior management’s latest priority. “Anyone could have gotten the last 20 percent,” comments one team member. Two months later, the team’s performance has dropped back down to the 50-percent mark.

German Team: Progress Is Incremental

During the three-day team training, the German team listens quietly to the proposal and is skeptical. Team members take twice the allotted time to agree on their charter. At issue is whether the organizational structure is within their remit and when it should be considered. They are uncomfortable with first redesigning the process, then considering how the organizational structure should change. They complain, “Our American colleagues believe things get done despite the organizational structure so it is sufficient to work at the process level. In Germany things get done because of the way we are organized. Give someone the authority for a result, and he will sort out the best way to do it with his team.”

The topic flares into a heated debate. People believe that intellectual dueling produces the best answer, and that consensus is critical from the start. The team’s skepticism stems from the members’ pride that things are done the way they are today because they have been analyzed and engineered. Thus, new ideas risk upsetting the established protocol of how things are done and who is responsible for what.

During the nine-month project period, the team makes regular incremental progress, like steps on a staircase. Each increment reflects the team’s methodical approach and follow-through. The goal is achieved right on time. And the ensuing changes to organizational structure assure everyone that the gains will be maintained.

French Team: Very Slow Start, Yet Goal Is Met

The first challenge is just to get the French team together for the team training. Only after a mandate from the local company president, will people agree to devote the time to launch the project. Once the team members are together, though, they become animated. The group of eight fires off six simultaneous conversations. If only one person talks at a time, it means no one else is interested. Finally, the team accepts its remit but not the roadmap for the project. “We’ll do it our own way,” insists the team leader. The implication is, “or it won’t get done at all.”

Once the project has begun, the team spends two-thirds of its time analyzing data about cycle times and problems in the plant. The detailed analysis points to four problems related to the way production is scheduled. Though tempted to turn the project over to the IT department, the team members assemble their ideas and begin experimenting.

After they have a collective vision of how a new “pull” system of finishing product is essentially self-scheduling, the team is off and running. Though no visible progress is made in the first six months, improvements in cycle time are dramatic thereafter. This team’s preference is to sort out the entire system based on careful analysis. “If we get the system right, the results will follow,” comments one team member.

British Team: Some Doubts, Forward Movement

The three-day team training is a cordial event. The hotel seems appropriate for the event, not too luxurious but away from the plant – marking a departure from “the normal way of doing business.” The team members behave politely toward one another. They “have no problems” with the remit they have been given, but are not ready to commit themselves to the goal. During breaks, a number of the team members express their doubts: “We tried this type of approach before and we weren’t able to implement.” After a slow start, the team begins to surface their concerns and work on them.

Two months into the project, the team recognizes that by overlapping operations in the finishing department, cycle time can be reduced dramatically. However, it means operators will need to perform two jobs rather than one. “It’s not my job to get ready for the next job and be responsible for maintaining running speeds on the printing press,” says one operator. The operator on the team works one-on-one with his colleagues on the shop floor and they agree on a trial. The plant manager knows that the operators are thinking: “There better be something in this for us since you are asking us to do more.”

After an initial breakthrough, it is not until roles have been renegotiated that full implementation occurs.

Different Cultures, Different Tempos
Different Cultures, Different Tempos

Advance Information on Cross-Culture Improvement Teams

It is worthwhile to know how the culture of team members can affect the progress of a SixSigma improvement project. Starting with the proper expectations or being aware of possible sticking points can help make a project run more smoothly. Here are a few specific pieces of advice for those involved in cross-culture improvement teams:

  1. For managers sponsoring teams in a culture different from their own: Set the improvement targets high and pace yourself.
  2. To Americans sponsoring French teams: Don’t pull the plug too early. Be demanding but patient.
  3. For members of teams with mixed nationalities: Understand that everyone has different expectations about how and how quickly a team should achieve results. Take the time to examine the differences in behavior that are attributable to national culture. Acknowledge the differences but avoid stereotyping. Use the strengths of each individual for the benefit of the team and the company.
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