Effect teamwork does not happen by magic. Becoming a better Six Sigma project team – no matter what the starting point – only takes a little discipline and a lot of practice. Here are some principles help provide the needed structure

By Max Isaac and Kevin Carson

The scene opens on a lucky group of employees who have been asked to serve on a Six Sigma project team called T.M.I.T.E. (The Most Ineffective Team Ever – pronounced tee-mite). Mr. Magoo, the team leader, welcomes everyone to the meeting…

Mr. Magoo: “We have a lot of information to cover. I have the list up here.” (tapping a pen to his temple) “I may or may not decide to share it with you. Right now, I want all of you to share your worst team stories, so that we can build a list of norms for T.M.I.T.E. You there, girl in the first seat, why don’t you go first.”

LaToya: (bristling a little at the use of “girl,” but since Mr. Magoo is several rungs above her on the organizational ladder, she swallows hard and then speaks up) “The first meeting for one project team I was on was scheduled to start at 10 o’clock. I showed up on time and was the only person in the room. The team leader showed up 10 minutes late. One guy was on the road and we were supposed to call him, but nobody had his number and there wasn’t a speaker phone in the room. It went downhill from there.”

Mr. Magoo: “That’s great. I’d write that down on a flipchart, but then we’d have a record of what you said, so I won’t…. Who wants to go next?”

Jack: (clearing his throat) “At one team meeting I went to, this one guy passed around a 20-page technical report with a lot of equations, gave us five minutes to skim it, then we had to make a decision right away. Nobody really knew what was going on.”

Mr. Magoo: “Wonderful. I won’t write that down, either. Anyone else?” (then, looking at Toni sitting at opposite end of the table) “How about you, young lady?”

Toni: “I don’t really know why I’m here.”

Mr. Magoo: “That’s perfect. Next?”

Marvin: (sitting next to Mr. Magoo) “Well, my last team kept going around and around and around without ever making any decisions. There were these two women who couldn’t seem to agree on anything. And they wouldn’t listen to anyone else. They’d just keep rehashing the same points over and over again. Then we’d run out of time in the meeting and have to start the same discussion all over again the next time around. We met every week for three months and had nothing to report.”

Mr. Magoo: “That sounds ideal for our purposes. “I do so love the image of such unbalanced participation.”

Brenda: (with some excitement) “I can top all of this. I was on a team once that was told to start developing new products – something that company had never done before. We spent six months fleshing out a new product development process, figuring you had to have that in place before you could do any products. Our manager went ballistic when we presented the results. ‘We wanted to launch a new product by the end of the year, and you guys have been messing about on a new process,’ he yelled at us. Six months effort, down the drain. The lost time alone must have cost the company a hundred thousand dollars or more.”

Mr. Magoo: (smiling) “This is all terrific. I’m so pleased. Anyone else?”

LaToya: (starting to raise her hand) “I have another story, if that’s okay.”

Mr. Magoo: “No need to ask permission. We don’t have to be respectful on this team. Just speak up anytime you want, preferably when other people are speaking.”

LaToya: “My former company went through this big empowerment thing a few years back. There were all these posters around telling us to take responsibility, to be in control of our own processes. Anyway, I was put on a new team to handle a redesign of the office space. The team wanted to meet on Thursdays late in the afternoon, but Frank, our manager, said that wouldn’t work, that we had to meet Friday over the lunch hour.”

Mr. Magoo: (nodding encouragingly) “I like where this is going.”

LaToya: (picking up the thread again) “We wanted to interview all the people in the office space to get their input on what the new space should be like, but Frank thought that would be too disruptive, so we didn’t get to do that. We worked for a few weeks coming up with a sketch of a new design we thought would work then presented it to Frank. He said it didn’t match what he had in mind, and told us to start over again.”

Mr. Magoo: “I just love this. Is there more?”

LaToya: (nodding) “You bet. We went back to the drawing board, not having a clue what Frank wanted. He wouldn’t tell us. So we spent another month coming up with a different vision for the workspace, but Frank didn’t like that one either when we showed it to him. At that point he said, ‘I can see you guys just don’t get it. I guess this is one of those situations where if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. I’ll take it from here.’ And that’s what he did. He redesigned the space coming up with something that none of us in the office liked. But it got done.”

Mr. Magoo: (saying with glee) “Okay, okay. So, on this new team I’ll keep telling you all that you’re empowered but then I’ll veto all your input and make every decision myself. Terrific.”

Nearly Everyone Can Relate to This Farce

Well, anyone who has spent even a day in corporate life will surely relate to the situations in this little farce. Yet surprisingly, many companies throw people into a room together with no training on what it takes to get the most out of the team collectively. They act as if they expect effective teamwork to appear as if by magic. In fact, effective teamwork only seems like magic because it is so rarely seen.

Throughout the history of business, there undoubtedly have been teams that were run informally or without robust structure but still achieved or surpassed their goals. However, once a person has worked on and gotten used to having a team operate with pit crew-like efficiency, they will never want to go back to the haphazard way of doing things.

Most teams fall somewhere between Mr. Magoo’s and the pit crew. Becoming a better team – no matter what the starting point – only takes a little discipline and a lot of practice. The following principles will provide the needed structure:

  1. Run tight meetings: Effective teams send out agendas prior to the meeting that clearly state what topics will be covered, by whom, and what the goal is. This allows people to come to the meeting prepared. Effective teams manage their meeting time. They use discussion techniques that ensure everyone has an equal chance to contribute.
  2. Use ground rules: Good teams lay down a few simple guidelines to govern how they will operate, covering topics such as decision making, participation and meeting behavior.
  3. Plan: Effective teams always make time to plan their activities, from the agenda to the goals, actions and responsibilities of each phase of the project.
  4. Document and display progress: In effective teams, the emphasis is always on collective learning and decision making. To that end, leaders make sure that information is documented and displayed in ways that are accessible to all team members. This ranges from jotting down discussion notes on a flipchart to posting data charts and plans in common workspaces.
  5. Use feedback: The hallmark of excellent teams is the constant hunger for ways to get better and better, even if the team is currently run by Mr. Magoo. They conclude each meeting with a quick check (What went well? What could have been done better?). More formal reviews are performed periodically during a project (Did the team have a plan? Was the plan followed? How did that affect results?).

Teams that do not consistently perform these basic tasks produce inconsistent results. Worse still, team members often begrudge the time spent in meetings or on team activities and eventually become reluctant to participate at all.

After all, everyone has been there, right? And everyone has a horror story they could share with Mr. Magoo’s team…

About the Authors: Max Isaac is the founder of 3Circle Partners consulting firm. He is a leader in the field of organizational behavior and leadership with more than 30 years of general management and consulting experience in North America and Europe. He is co-author of the books The Third Circle: Interactions That Drive Results and Setting Teams Up for Success. His knowledge of how to weave change initiatives into the fabric of an organization provides an added dimension to the standard discussion of how to launch Lean Six Sigma. He can be reached at [email protected]. Kevin Carson is a senior partner at 3Circles Partners and has 15 years of process improvement and consulting experience in North America, Europe and Asia. He also has held various management positions in product design, Lean manufacturing, purchasing and finance. His focus now is primarily on the design and deployment of the infrastructure and tools required to ensure the success of Six Sigma initiatives. He is a co-author of the book Setting Teams Up for Success. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author