Problem SolvingIt is a common process-improvement scenario: After a project team or a work group is formed, members have a series of productive meetings and workshops, but then nothing happens. How many times has it felt like there are great team dynamics in the conference room but when it comes time to execute change, no one acts? What drives these disconnects?

Many people want to attribute these failures (and they are failures) to the quality methodologies used. It is not uncommon to hear, for example, that Six Sigma is too complex or that Lean works best in production environments. For every method there is an excuse. But the failures transcend industry, culture, education and reward structure. What is more frustrating about this “almost engaged,” “almost empowered” phenomenon is that the people participating believe, during the workshops, that they are doing everything right. They believe they are highly engaged and most outsiders would look in and agree.

So what is wrong? Why do what appear to be highly engaged teams opt out when it comes time to act, and why do they not believe they have opted out? Keep reading to learn how to achieve successful problem-solving and continuous improvement execution.

Four Dysfunctions

One of the benefits of making a career in Lean Six Sigma is learning to distrust instincts and demand data. Ask any instrument-rated pilot, however, and it is clear that learning to distrust instincts is hard!

When it comes to the facilitation of a group, many practitioners rely on instincts derived from prevailing wisdom about how to lead teams. While those habits and instincts are hard to ignore, that prevailing wisdom might actually be teaching people to disengage.

How a leader manages or facilitates a team determines who executes the projects a team designs – that is, who does the work. Four simple observations – or dysfunctions – of team dynamics suggest common pitfalls of facilitation and ultimately how to improve team performance.

Dysfunction 1: How Does the Team View the Improvement Process?

How does the team view the improvement process? Is it a short-term event, or is this part of an overall improvement program? Do team members see the goals as long-term and far reaching, or is this a tactical engagement that might look good on a resume but is not likely to impact the participants personally? The key to long-term engagement is to win the hearts and minds of the involved individuals. Anything else and individuals will pretend to engage, meaning they are really expecting the facilitator to be the person who executes change, NOT them. They are advising and assisting but are not committed.

Dysfunction 2: What Level of Participation Is Achieved?

Once beyond the programme du jour roadblock, the second dysfunction is the level of participation that is achieved. There are two issues here:  1) overall participation (average engagement) and 2) individual engagement (median engagement). It is important to remember that engagement is a process and if there is a difference between the average and the median, there is a non-random problem (i.e., not normal). Since there are no fundamentals that dictate engagement to be anything other than normal, it is safe to assume that that difference means there are disparate groups within a team. In other words, it is not team; a non-team will not perform like a team.

Dysfunction 3: Where Does the Team Place Its Focus?

The third dysfunction is well known – it relates to where the team places its focus. If the team places its focus on blaming others for problems (for example, it is almost always information technology’s [IT] fault), then the expectation is that those groups receiving the blame should fix the problem. If the team focuses on business constraints, they are actually shifting from themselves to those who impose the constraints (for example, when it is not IT’s fault, it is quality’s fault). Consider the problem solving the team is engaging in. Is their focus on how to solve the problem or why the problem exists? When teams focus too early on the tactical solution what they are really doing is disengaging from the problem-solving process. They want the problem solved immediately so they can return to their “day” jobs.

Dysfunction 4: With Whom Is the Team Discussing the Problem?

The forth dysfunction requires an attentive eye. Look to see with whom the team is discussing the problem. When all of the discussion is arbitrated by the facilitator, the team is not so subtly informing the facilitator that they are providing information for someone else to employ when solving the problem. It is only when the team discusses issues among themselves – without the intervention and arbitration of the facilitator – that they engage in team problem solving.

It is deceptive because in the early stages of the team’s forming, the facilitator often provides all of the structure and tries to coax the rest of the team into participation. Furthermore, most leaders got to be leaders by being good at execution, so the natural tendency is to lead by driving the rest of the team to do what you want. The problem comes when a facilitator does not step back after the process is underway. If the facilitator always leads, the team may be comfortable continuing to expect them to lead the project execution as well as the problem-solving process. They stay engaged while the facilitator forces them to be engaged.

Three Causes of Problems

These dysfunctions are not spontaneous and every business or project does not experience all of them. They are, however, prevalent enough to warrant a look at not only why they occur but also how to actively guard against them creeping into a team process. There are three key drivers that create these problems. They are not independent, and to correlate one cause with any single dysfunction would be an  oversimplification. The only clear correlation is that these issues tend to diminish with experience.

Cause 1: Lack of Patience

The first major cause of problems with team dynamics is a lack of patience. A team leader must always remember that people learn at different rates. A facilitator must be careful not to become overly impatient with those who have not yet gotten on board with the program. Change is a difficult proposition and many will feel threatened by the prospect of enduring change let alone creating that change. The leader must help the team members engage.

Cause 2: Cost Cutting Rather Than Value Creation

Team leaders are not the only ones who must exude patience. Executive leadership must also understand that there is a fine line between demanding rapid results and destroying long-term gains in favor of short-term fixes. When leadership is unrealistic or overzealous in setting expectations, they risk creating a situation where the process improvement teams do not engage for fear of failure. When leadership focuses on tactical gains they should not be surprised that their employees also shorten their decision horizon. Sometimes that event horizon gets so close that every action is reactive and continuous improvement becomes impossible.

This second cause for poor team dynamics most commonly manifests in a focus on cost cutting rather than value creation. No one has ever been able to economize their way to growth.

Cause 3: The Facilitator

The final underlying cause for team dysfunction relates to the facilitators themselves and self-confidence. In a true Kaizen environment, for example, the leader is not at the center of attention. Rank falls to the background, leaders sit side by side with team members and the product of the team’s labor (with its associated problems and issues) is the center of focus. There is no need for posturing or self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately, this is often not how things work. In most instances, the team members talk to the facilitator, not to each other. The facilitator exerts expert influence (and often positional influence) to direct the team. Although it may look like a team process, decision making and discussion is staged and limited. It is important to know what is happening, but a facilitator cannot let team members feel inferior if they are to participate.

Five Strategies for Problem Solving

How can businesses move from a team room standoff between the ego of the leaders and the fear of the participants? How can problems be the focus rather than blame? People need to participate and change the way they view improvement. Businesses must take a long-term view, and individuals need to work with each other and not look to others to solve their problems for them. The following is a list of strategies for solving these problems.

Strategy 1: Listen

One of the biggest mistakes leaders can make is not giving their people a voice in the processes they manage. How much dialogue is created in meetings is directly correlated to how confident leaders are that those who are being led will act in a desired manner. It is not about leaders’ needs, feelings or fears – it is about their insecurities. A good leader must not constantly fill the space and demand that teams step up. Otherwise, deference is being subtly promoted, as is permission for team members to opt-out.

The best leaders lead from the ranks. This is not to say they have no positional authority but rather that they choose to exercise that authority in a strategic manner. Remember, in the end it is the team – not just the leader – who must execute the project. This means they must buy-in and believe in the change they are about to create. In other words, it must be their change, not the leader’s alone. Leaders must help team members create change rather than direct them to do so.

Strategy 2: Leave Ranks at the Door

Giving up the floor means that leaders also give up some control. Good leaders know that they gain more than they lose in this transition but it is important to remember that each person will have a unique perspective and approach to solving problems. The trick is to embrace these differences and exploit them rather than expect everyone to act in the manner with which leaders are most comfortable.

The problem, however, is that no one wants to contradict the leaders, so as long as they act as “the boss,” discussion is stifled. Leaders probably do not intend for this to be the case. But even if they say that everyone should treated equally, when all the other signals indicate that the leader is the boss, that equality will not result. If team members are talking to the leaders, to impress them, they are not speaking with each other; they are not a team and will not ultimately embrace the responsibility to do the project.

How can leaders leave rank at the door?

1. Look like a member of the team. This can be as simple as how leaders dress, where they sit and with whom they speak. Their ultimate goal in not expressing rank is for everyone else to step into the power vacuum that they are allowing. For team members to step up, leaders must make it feel safe to do so.

Dress the way the team does. Do not be overly formal or informal in situations where the team will feel uncomfortable matching your attire. If leaders want to leave their ranks at the door, start by not displaying them openly.

Do not sit at the front or rear of the room, or be positioned in a way that makes a leader look less accessible. If leaders take a position of power (such as standing at the front of the room) everyone will focus on them. In a problem-solving session, team members should focus on each other. If a leader takes the position of disconnected oversight (for example, sitting by the door) people will assume the leaders are there to observe and judge (also an expression of power). If leaders stand at the periphery of the group, people will assume they are only going through the motions of being a team member and not really committed. Sit down, dig in and be on the team.

2. Participate fairly. Once a leader looks like part of the team, she must behave as part of the team. This is more complex because others will attempt to push her back into the positional leadership role. Sometimes the leader will need to exercise that authority in a limited manner but remember that for “leaving rank at the door” to work, that rank must stay at the door. If there is a facilitator, leaders should not step into their role. If there are subteams, allow others to lead them. Do not dominate discussions, do take direction from others and do not show favoritism toward direct reports (especially when it undermines their ability to leave their ranks at the door).

3. Ask questions that allow others to demonstrate knowledge, expertise and power. A good portion of leaving rank behind is coaching and mentoring others to lead. Successfully opening a space for them to lead from is not enough; leaders need to make them feel comfortable standing in that space, and this often means needing to help them exert their own personal power.
With or without a rank insignia, a leader has positional authority. Help team members express their expertise, help them leverage their relationships to influence others and allow them to exercise their positional authority with others outside the core project team.  The best way to do this is by asking prompting questions.

Remember, the reason we leave rank at the door is to allow others to feel safe from judgment. A leader is the boss, but here the boss must be a colleague. Create an environment for team members to feel safe, secure and strong.

4. Commit to being an active, sincere member of the team. Do not be surprised when a leader claims to be “part of the team” but everyone still thinks otherwise. Words are cheap; actions are needed. If a leader is part of the team, he needs to have the same level of dedication for the task that everyone else on the team is asked to have. Everyone will mimic the level of commitment of the most senior team members. If leaders skip meetings, if leaders have excuses for why they cannot do the work, so will the rest of the team.

Strategy 3: Not All Ideas Are Great, But All Perspectives Are

Do not lose sight of why diverse teams are desired. It is great to have consensus and unanimity but it does not generate innovation. Problem-solving teams need a diversity of thought but, more importantly, everyone on the team needs to feel appreciated and valued. This means hearing their views, accepting their perspectives and considering all ideas.

Old-school brainstorming argues that “there are no bad ideas,” but that is not true. As soon as someone makes that assertion, someone proposes the ludicrous, the outrageous and the simply impossible. There is, however, still value in hearing those concepts to conclusion. Why?

It is possible that these wild ideas will lead to other ideas and one of those will be a breakthrough. It is not likely, but it is possible. This is not the reason leaders should embrace everyone’s ideas, though. The real reason is motivational.

The person who proposed mounting all the furniture on the ceiling or that everyone should wear purple tutus to work on Fridays knows those ideas have zero merit. They are setting up a challenge. The proposal is either an attempt to expand the set of ideas considered or it is an attempt to justify not fully participating. Either way the challenge is made for an effect. How leaders manage those challenges sets up how the team will view them as leaders.

Strategy 4:  Push and Pull the Team Together

Teams do not just happen. People cannot be forced to care about or trust each other. Those relationships must be formed by a team-building process and if that process is shortened, the team will not perform well.  A team leader’s role is not so much to manage the team’s work as it is to manage this team-building process.

In the 1960s, group dynamics researcher Bruce Tuckman penned a team behavior model that explains the four stages of team development. The key learning is that teams must evolve and mature – they do not just happen. How leaders manage teams through these stages of development ultimately determines how successful and how empowered the teams will be.

Team Behavior Model
Team Behavior Model

When this process is shortened, the team does not gel; if the team does not gel, then they devolve into a group of people who may express their ideas, frustrations and expectations. They may engage in solving these problems as individuals but they will not own the solution process and will not fully leverage the expertise and talents of others in the group. Team members will not trust each other and expect them to deliver in their role on the team, and will not commit to ensuring the success of other members of the team. When the members of the team do not gel as a team, the ultimate accountability for the success of the team will fall on the leader rather than the team as a unit.

To be successful, the process to create the team must be actively managed. Once a team is assembled, give them a sense of purpose. Help team members understand their roles as well as the role of everyone else on the team. Let the team members find their niches, express their unique perspectives and bond with their teammates. Reinforce good decision-making strategies and coach the team on how to be inclusive and effective. Celebrate their victories and mourn their setbacks. It is a hard job but rewarding.

Strategy 5:  Focus on Small, Incremental Changes

Often by the time companies engage in continuous improvement, the needs are huge. Improvement teams, eager to make a significant impact and seeing opportunity everywhere, oversell the opportunities. They are not necessarily overpromising intentionally, but the teams that are servicing are overeager to get results. This results in large meetings with diverse constituents attempting to re-engineer entire workstreams; they crash and burn. This does not always happen but it happens too much. Ideally, a LSS culture is being deployed, not just a set of tools. Ideally, an organization is in this for the long-haul. Why rush?

Save your blitzkrieg for the experts who can mop up the mistakes and who already know how the processes and philosophies of LSS work. Teach people in a manner that promotes understanding and retention as they learn new skill sets. Let employees learn how the process really works and then move to more complex systems. When we teach this way, people learn quickly and efficiently.

It that huge opportunity being abandoned? Absolutely not! It is vital to remember that for continuous improvement to be ultimately successful not just processes must change, but also mindsets. Were a leader to magically make all the processes perfect today but fail to instill a mindset in their staff that promotes and demands constant improvements, the gains would be transient and before long an organization would be again facing an improvement opportunity. On the other hand, if leaders instill the correct mindset, the problems will eventually be worn away by people no longer willing to tolerate inefficiency.

Proper Facilitation for Long-term Success

If a business is not getting the desired results from a continuous improvement program, look at the facilitators before switching to another methodology. Properly leading your team will leverage better long-term results than any innovation in problem solving.

It is not the responsibility of the followers to follow, it is the obligation of the leader to convince them to follow.

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