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The psychology of team management and how Google learnt from the manufacturing industry

· People Management

Google conducted a massive research project to figure out what made their best performing teams tick in the end it was research in the manufacturing industry from 1999 that gave them the answers they were looking for.

The Team Management problem at Google

In your average company a lot of things can get in the way of team performance:

  • Lack of resources
  • Lack of overarching strategy
  • Lack of interesting challenges
  • Lack of talent or skills
  • Lack of motivation / deadwood

Google is a real exception to this, it has an environment where resources are practically unlimited, the strategic scope is immense, the challenges are fascinating and good talent is on tap.

Yet even Google found that even in these conditions some teams flew, while others flopped.

They threw resources at trying to understand this because at the end of the day everything they did as a company was done by highly coordinated teams, not rock star individuals.

The secret to high performing teams
They found that what it really boiled down to was how much team members trusted each other.

Higher performing teams trusted their team mates to:

  • To speak up, even when it was difficult.
  • To actively look for feedback so they could improve.
  • To trust individual strengths in team members they didn’t have themselves, to let them do the things they were good at.
  • To have the best interests of the team at heart and to prioritise this over personal gain.
  • To give everyone a chance to speak, not just the person with the loudest voice, or even the person with the most expertise on a particular topic

These things were found consistently in teams that performed well and lacking in the poor performing teams.

How can you create an atmosphere that helps teams to function this way and how can you do it in a way that allows teams to deliver, without having to stop everything when work is busy.

Enter the Retrospective.

The retrospective is a simple tool that comes from Agile (the application of Lean manufacturing principles to software development).
The retrospective is simple tool , on a regular basis get your team together and cover the following:

What went well in the last period?

This is a chance to talk about what is working, what is good within the company, to float up things that are good that management might not be aware of and to make sure that good things don’t get lost when change happens.

2) What could have gone better?
A chance for honest feedback about what isn’t working so well, a chance to hi-light problems.
It is really important in this stage to let people honestly express what is going on, you want to encourage the idea that feedback is positive and useful, even if it is hard to hear.
3) Group the issues
Group together all of the PostIt notes into common themes, e.g. “Getting Stuck on support enquiries”, “Office temperature to iconistent”.
4) Vote
Then ask everyone to vote on what issue they would like to cover. Each person gets three votes, usually done by just marking next to the groups of PostIt notes on a whiteboard. People can split their votes however they want, including putting all three votes against one issues. This lets really painful issues float to the top.
5) Pull together an action team / plan for dealing with the number one issue.
Now that you have identified the issue that the team want to sort pull together a plan for how you are going to resolve or make some progress towards this issue before the next meeting.

Why this can help improve team culture

Everyone’s voice is heard. The PostIt note means that everyone gets the opportunity to put forward their view of what is working and what isn’t.

Feedback is valued. It gives the management team a chance to demonstrate that feedback is valued and not to be feared.

Speaking up. Overtime, with changes actually being delivered in response to feedback, it means that the team get to recognise the value in speaking up even it is hard.
Modelling the change. If you want your team to be open to feedback, new ideas and have open and honest dialogue this can give you a great chance to demonstrate that. When feedback about something you could do differently comes up, respond with curiosity, openness and interest instead of being closed, defensive or aggressive, this will help your team to understand how the company really feels about what is going on.

Have you tried to use Retrospectives within your manufacturing environment?