High Performance Teams

48 Walkley Road,
West Hartford, CT

phone: 860.232.9858
fax: 860.232.9438

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General Business
by Jack Veale

The challenge of a growing company is to build an organization that is flexible, adaptable and results-oriented to anticipate and solve tomorrow's problems. Like our own bodies, an organization requires continual exercises in stretching, strengthening, and endurance. And like athletes, companies also require continual, not sporadic training, with a strong dose of discipline and coaching. A High Performance Team (HPT) culture is very similar to that of the athlete, as it requires discipline, coaching and continual training and education.

Commitment and involvement from the top is a critical component to any team building process. In working with privately held, family owned businesses, we sometimes find that the entrepreneur or founder/CEO desires change, but holds a double standard for who must go along with that change. This manifests itself in resistance by owners who don't want to give up control or do not want to abide by new rules established by the team.

We have found that building HPTs releases the owner from daily tasks, and develops the next generation of management to build experiences for succession. We have also found that HPTs create training disciplines that build flexibility and adaptability into the culture. A properly developed HPT also manages its own performance by building reliable measurement systems that assist it in improving problem-solving abilities. We have found that the long term chances for success in any business, large or small, are directly related to the ability of these organizations to solve problems effectively and promptly. Good decisions are always predicated on GOOD INFORMATION, not 'gut' feelings.

At this point, take a moment and grab a pen and a piece of paper. Now before you read further take 3-5 minutes and write down the top 5 problems your company is facing today. Then, rank them in order of importance and indicate how long the problem has existed. For example, of the 5 you listed, one was your company's inability to keep customers.  Let's say you ranked it #2, and you have known about this for 5 years, and have tried numerous ways to correct it.

Now, focus on your number one problem and ask yourself this: If I were your boss, how would I rank your ability to solve problems? If your organization hasn't been able to solve it, how should I rank its ability? What if I sat down with your top 10 managers and ask them to write down the Top 5 problems; what would I get? Would that help you understand THEIR point of view? Would their problems be similar to your problems? Could some of their problems be the cause of some of yours?

To develop an HPT your company requires the involvement of lots of people at all levels. There must be a purpose for the team. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote about two habits that have much meaning to HPT formation:"Begin with the End in Mind," and "Seek to Understand, Then be Understood." Forming teams must have purpose or a result to be created in order for the team to make sense to the members (beginning with the end in mind). Forming a team to stop the loss of customers could include the sales department, collections department, the delivery or shipping department, and possibly the customers themselves. By organizing cross-functional or cross-departmental teams, managers are encouraged to share of points of view about how the actions of other groups affect their part of the business (seeking to understand and then be understood).  This results in a holistic approach to solving problems and increases the chances for success. The result is the entire group begins to understand other people's points of view and develops new approaches to solving problems.

At PTCFO, our process to develop High Performance Teams involves four (4) basic stages: "Forming," "Storming," "Norming," and "Performing."  The "forming" or formation stage involves the development and selection process of a team. It serves as a way to set the tone of what is expected by the team members in order to get the desired results. We use action-planning worksheets to document understandings, agreements and deadlines. An action planning worksheet should be developed early in the formation stage so that consensus is developed. Some of the key items on the worksheet are:

  • A problem definition statement
  • A statement of the desired results
  • A statement of understanding of the team as to their purpose: Will they solve problems, recommend solutions or just analyze problems?
  • Start and ending dates, including frequency of meetings
  • Milestones of progress or goals to achieve
  • List of members, leaders and any experts who will add knowledge but not membership to the team as well as the responsibilities of all members

The "Storming" or brainstorming stage requires the collection of data and brainstorming ideas to solve a problem. The collection of data requires getting information or measuring systems that best illustrate the performance of the issue. One example of this would be surveying former customers to ascertain why they switched suppliers. Brainstorming rules usually include: "No negative remarks about an idea," "Everyone must participate," "Avoid agreeing too early," and "No discussions about an idea until the idea generation process has finished." We use large easel pads, giving everyone a chance to write down their ideas and post them on the wall. From there, we assist the team in working through various ideas to arrive at an agreement on what ideas to try first.

In many cases we use "Process Mapping."  Process Mapping is a way to depict, using flow charting software, the process flow of a work cycle. For example, creating an invoice is a work cycle called the "Creating Invoices Cycle." It is also a sub-process of the "Sales Cycle." Within the Creating Invoices Cycle are several other processes, such as the "Input Cycle," the "Print Cycle," and "Filing Cycle." Flow charting the decision trees identifies the relationships and timing of each cycle and provides a comprehensive view of how each task interconnects. With this knowledge, new ways of thinking evolve and efforts to change procedures and drop redundant steps emerge.

The purpose of the "Norming" or benchmarking stage is to develop benchmarks and strategies that will best identify the facets of the business that can be changed or improved. For example, we might learn through this process that one of the reasons the company has lost customers is the incorrect invoicing of customers' products.  We would then spend time assessing the extent of the problem and determine what corrective actions should take place, which might include automated billing software and enhanced training for operators or sales people. Once we have determined the plans of action to take to address these issues the team must implement the change.

"Performing," or implementing the changes necessary, usually requires some testing of an idea before it becomes an enterprise-wide process redesign. Usually one of the team members is required to test the new process or the team has the process tested for reliability and improvement using other approaches. Feedback is critical in this stage as resistance to change sometimes alters the outcomes. "Tweaking the system" is usually warranted in this stage as small changes, rather than wholesale changes, allow for acceptance by all parties concerned. We find that teams find their best value during this stage as they try to see if their ideas work. We have seen many a team get excited during this stage, since they may have spent weeks or months in the early stages, and are now on the threshold of a tremendously successful experience.

During the early stages of High Performance Team development we encourage groups to focus small and easily fixed issues.  This allows the newly emerging team to gain acceptance for the process and develop confidence in the team concept. Over time the project scope should widen and become more complex, with a higher inter-dependence among team members.

In The Learning Organization by Peter Senge, the author states that businesses succeed or fail based on the ability of their employees to go beyond current business functions and to deal effectively with problems.  Some family businesses tend to center their critical knowledge around the founding family members without considering the benefits of non- family members, who might producing equal to or better results. Including non-family members in these HPTs allows these key people to broaden their skills, contribute to the success of the company and develop the experience and knowledge that will help the company during growth conditions.

High Performance Teams are not for every company. Small companies usually act as HPTs because all of the employees are very close to the owners or entrepreneurs.  Therefore, having a formal process makes little sense. Larger companies on the aging side of the Business Life Cycle (see "The Business Life Cycle" article on this site) are suspect of teams.  These businesses live to maintain the status quo, so change is not very attractive. An aging business, with little profit creating ability left, may require a significant change in leadership FIRST, before teams can become an effective work style.

Replacing John Akers, a long-time IBM CEO, with Lou Girstner, was an essential step in moving IBM to a team environment.  With 70% of IBM's workforce intact following the leadership transition, change began to happen. Those remaining employees learned to embrace change through teams and the new leadership took on a very different and improved role with its workforce.

We have found that the fears of retribution or ingrained cultural issues stifle the team process. If the organizational culture is too intolerant of change and people are fired for taking risks, new leaders will not emerge in the new team environment.  Unless trust is present, leadership development will not take place, problems solving abilities will not develop and members will only given token involvement to the team's outcomes

One common complaint about teams is that the "leaders" are not skilled facilitators. Team leaders with great operational or technical knowledge may not have the time management or organizational skills to keep the team moving forward.  What can happen is that people resent wasting their time, complain that nothing is getting done and begin to duck their responsibility to the team.

At PTCFO, we understand the delicacy of the formation of the HTP process and work to ensure that teams are not subjected to disorganization and untrained leaders. We believe each company is different, both in process flow and culture. For this reason our HTP process is not a cookie-cutter approach.  We get to know the nuances that set a company apart from its competition and then help the High Performance Team grow from its strengths and deal effectively with its weaknesses. Our consultants know how to coach and train team members, to help build the successes early on.  We succeed when your company has initiated and instilled a High Performance Team that will continue long after our work is done.


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