By: Steve Crom (CEO & Partner, Valeocon)

Suppose You Have Chartered Four…

…operations improvement teams, one in France, Germany, the UK and the US. Each has been given the charter to reduce manufacturing cycle times in four identical facilities that produce comparable products and packaging, with the same technology. Given an equal degree of management support, with the same improvement approach and equally capable team leadership, the teams’ approaches and visible rates of progress will differ dramatically.


The American team gets off to an enthusiastic, fast start. During the event that launched the project, the Americans participate actively, asking the presenter for clarification. Although they react to the goal of reducing cycle-times by 75 percent with some doubt, they agree to “go for it.” Good at generating innovative ideas and quick to experiment, a number of changes are implemented 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. They 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.


During the kick-off event, the German team listens quietly to the proposal and is skeptical. They take twice the allotted time to agree on their charter as a team. At issue is whether the organization structure is within their remit and when it should be considered. They are uncomfortable with first redesigning the process, then considering how the organization structure should change. They complain, “Our American colleagues believe things get done despite the organization 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 their pride that things are done the way they are today because they have been analyzed and engineered. New ideas would risk upsetting the established protocol of how things are done and who is responsible for what. Over the nine-month project, the team makes regular incremental progress, like steps on a staircase. The fundamentals of effective teams are universal. The personal engagement of local country and functional leaders is the single biggest ingredient for success.

Each increment reflects the team’s methodical approach and follow-through. In fact, the goal is achieved right on time. And the ensuing changes to organization structure comfort everyone that the gains will be maintained.


The first challenge is to get the French team together to start the project. Only after a mandate from the local company president will people agree to devote the time for the launch meeting. Once they 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 road map 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 to develop a new planning tool, they assemble their ideas and began experimenting. Once they have a collective vision of a new “pull” system, the team is off and running. Though no visible progress was made in the first six months, improvements in cycle time were dramatic thereafter. This team’s preference was to sort out the entire system based on careful analysis. “If we get the system right, the results will follow,” comments one team member.


The project kick-off meeting was a cordial event. The setting seemed appropriate for the occasion, not too luxurious; but, away from the plant—marking a departure from the normal way of doing business. The team behaves 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 in the meeting, 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 could 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 current job,” 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 work.” After an initial breakthrough, it is not until roles have been renegotiated that full implementation occurs.

Figure 1. Collaboration: Different Cultures, Different Approaches

Expect teams from different countries to take very different approaches to achieve similar results. Be aware of your own bias about what “good teamwork” looks like. From the outside, it will seem like they are working at very different speeds. Do not micro-manage. Be patient, resist the temptation to pull up the carrots every two weeks to see how fast they are growing. The fundamentals of effective teams are universal: a shared goal, clear roles and responsibilities, agreed team ground rules, open and regular communication between team members. It is the personal engagement and commitment of local country and functional leaders that is the biggest single ingredient for success. Vive la difference!