The Mother of all Processes – Why Sustainable Success Requires Highly-Connected Teams

by Patrick Cowden and Rene Junkes

If companies and their leaders truly want to optimize in a manner both rigorous and sustainable, then they must start where every process starts: with the employees and the quality of their connectedness. This is because it is precisely those employees, whose teams display strong personal connectedness, who unleash their collective potential in every possible way.

It can be a moment of truth when employees and their managers find themselves gathered in front of a shopfloor board. After all, at these regular meetings the relevant information from a business unit is supposed to be put on the table, that is on the board. Usually the focus is on numbers: costs, deadlines, work-related accidents, rejects and productivity. A series of numbers with which those involved can assess trends and goals, problems and paths to improvement – all at a glance. Shopfloor management is efficient right at the point where decisions are made. The responsible manager is no longer hidden in an office or in meetings, working through emails and Excel lists. She is at the very locus of value creation. There where strategy must be implemented, new technologies used and where some things don’t go according to the plans set down in the theories of those responsible.

For managers the biggest opportunity is in direct contact with their employees. They get to know the individuals whose own experience can best determine why a machine is producing too many rejects, why a delivery chain is crippled or why the cooperation in the team is weaker than desired.

It’s not a lack in the numbers, but in connectedness

Unfortunately, managers and their teams don’t always hear the whole truth on the shopfloor board. The shared discussion centers primarily around numbers. Managers analyze their employees according to the key indices and at the same time provide them with targets based on them. But there is a lot that this information misses: How much trust is behind the actions of the participants? Do they support one another? Is their social cohesion, their team spirit strong enough to take on the next, big challenge?

Studies show that business success is closely correlated to these interpersonal factors. Yet most managers pay little attention to these factors as long as the current results remain within the expected boundaries. This fails to realize the full potential of shopfloor management, as seen in the approach to defects. For, whether everything is put up on the shopfloor board, whether an employee sees problems in the system or even admits to their own mistakes, that depends first and foremost on how safe and trusted he feels in the relation to his colleagues and supervisors.

A continuous improvement process is only possible when the relationships in the team and throughout all levels of hierarchy display a pronounced willingness to admit to mistakes by those who make them. As the originator of a mistake we want to be sure that our admission will not change anything about the trust and appreciation afforded us in daily business.

Why do we take care of machines, but not people?

The quality of the relationships in a team and every member’s sense of wellbeing in their immediate environment are extremely important for successful shopfloor and lean management. Companies and their managers should therefore devote themselves to the quality of those processes that significantly impact the performance level of every other process in the organization, namely interpersonal connectedness and interactions. Companies invest billions every year in restructuring measures, in the development and implementation of new technologies, and in the optimization of production and process sequences. Significantly less is invested in the employees who bring these strategies and processes to life, who use the new technologies and who are tasked with leading change projects to the desired results. The assumption in most companies is the same: how productive employees are, how well their teams function, that is best influenced by financial incentives or targeted directives. But this is not human nature. Human nature is to want to accomplish things together with others. This natural desire for community and inclusion is left to chance by management far too often. Such an approach would be unthinkable in relation to machines.

TPM – Total Productive Maintenance – dominates the machinery of most companies in Germany. Of course, the regular maintenance of machines is part and parcel of that process. Stoppage in production is taken into account in order to ensure long-term performance through proper maintenance. Companies have grasped that embellished figures don’t make any sense when it comes to the uptime of machinery. What would happen if we applied this understanding not only to machines, but also to employees and teams? If we didn’t simply leave our need for social connectedness to chance, but actively invested in this factor of business success?

Highly-Connected Teams are the Difference

Every company has highly productive teams, teams who are more successful in their discipline, in their market than other teams from the same company and better than every competitor. Whoever has spent time with the members of such teams quickly notices that things there are different. The secret of their success: the high degree of care in and for the team, between colleagues, managers as well as external partners and clients. Why? Highly productive teams are always Highly-Connected Teams.

Scientific studies show that highly connected teams work especially well together. They approach their responsibilities with enthusiasm, with a high level of engagement and with great speed. As teams they develop an extraordinary resilience while remaining creative and productive even without any external motivation or pressure. They learn faster, react more flexibly to changing conditions and find new pathways to desired goals on their own. Therefore, if processes are to be optimized to their highest degree and the entire value chain is rendered efficient, then companies need not just one, but many Highly-Connected Teams. These teams rarely arise on their own. The foundation of human connectedness, upon which all other processes are based, must be consciously built by management.

Investment in the quality of human relations pay off. Highly-Connected Teams are more satisfied and healthier, even with large workloads. And they achieve the best results, precisely because it’s not the numbers or balance sheets that are the center of attention, but always the people themselves.