How to Create Individual Accountability

One by one, each team member volunteered some specific action where they had contributed to an overall slowdown in throughput on the floor. Julia listened well. Ed wrote the ideas on the board.

The group had come full circle to Ralph, the remaining hold-out. “Well, I still don’t think I contributed to the problem. But if I did contribute, the only thing I can think of, is that, about a year and a half ago, I stopped filling out the weekly production schedule. Things had become so routine, I didn’t think we needed it. I am not sure that we need it now, but, anyway, that’s my idea.”

“Thank you, Ralph,” Julia said softly. “Ed, write that up on the board.” She looked around the room. They had added eleven more ideas to the original sixteen. But these were different.

“I want to thank you all for taking this first step. We have 27 things we need to look at, but more importantly, you, as a team, are now in position to make something happen. Until this morning, you all thought the problem was with a machine or a batch of bad materials. Only in the past few minutes, you each talked about how you, individually, were responsible for the way we work.

“It is only when you understand that you are responsible for the problem, that you can take responsibility for fixing the problem. I can’t fix it, only you can fix it. As a team, we are ready to take the next steps. Let’s take a break. See you back here in ten minutes.”

Posted in Accountability, Culture | Tagged , ,

How to Find Unproductive Behavior

The team worked for another 40 minutes. They had sixteen ideas on the board, but Julia wasn’t satisfied. “These ideas are good,” she said, “but not sufficient. Let’s take a different approach. I want you to think about yourself. How have you individually, contributed to the lack of throughput around here?”

Ralph was quick out of the gate. “It’s not my fault!” he proclaimed loudly.

Julia smiled. “Ralph. I know, but I still want you to think about it. It’s not your fault, but if it was your fault, how have you contributed.”

Ralph was a little surprised. No one ever dared asked him to consider that he might be the problem.

“I’ll go first,” said Max, letting Ralph off the hook. “When I am bringing materials into the warehouse off the truck, I just start stacking them up in the receiving area. But, we have so much stuff coming in, I stack it too close to the first staging area. Before they can set up the first staging, they have to move everything I just stacked up in the way.

“I had thought about saying something, but I was too pre-occupied with getting the truck unloaded.” Max had just laid it out there. Again, there was silence. Julia let it build.

“Ed, write that up on the board,” she said.

“Who has the next idea?”

Posted in Accountability, Culture | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

How to Get a Team to Grapple with the Real Issue

Ralph began to fidget. By all counts, things should be better than ever. Volume in the department was up, but profitability was sinking. Julia, the new department manager had put the issue on the table. “How do we get the red line to turn up?”

She had warned me earlier that there would be friction. “Things get uncomfortable. Your stomach turns upside down. But you know you are dealing with real issues when your stomach is upside down.

“We can go one of two ways. We can avoid the issue so our stomachs feel better. Or we can work through the issue and make real improvements.”

Ralph spoke up first. “Well, I think we need a new machine on the line. We were promised a new machine by our last manager, but he got fired before we got it. I think our problems would be solved if we just got the new machine.”

In my briefing before the meeting, Julia told me they would blame the problem on one of the older machines. Truth be told, she said, that old machine had more uptime than any of the other equipment on the floor. There were never any materials stacked in front of it waiting. The old machine was definitely not the bottleneck, it was just an excuse covering up the problem somewhere else.

“Ed, write that on the board,” said Julia.

“Write what?” said Ed. “You mean the machine. I don’t think the machine is the problem.”

“Doesn’t matter. Ralph thinks it might be the problem. We are going to look at it, so write it up on the board. Alright, who has the next idea? How do we get the red line to turn up?”

Posted in Accountability, Culture | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

How to Confront Reality with Your Team

Julia invited me to sit in the back of the room. I love to be a fly on the wall.

“I have had a couple of team meetings, already,” she explained, “but, for the most part, they were steeped in pretense. They weren’t very productive, but we did get all the nicey, nice stuff out of the way. Today, there will be friction.”

At 9:00am, Julia locked the door. Ralph and two others had yet to arrive, but Julia started anyway. Thirty seconds later, there was a soft tap, tap at the door. Julia motioned for Michael to attend to the late arrivals. As Ralph and one other entered the room, she directed them to chairs up front, next to her. As they were sitting, the last remaining person burst into the room, the team was now complete.

At each place, was the 3×5 card that Julia told me about. She had prepared these in her 1-1 conversations with each team member. They had each seen these cards before and now they would be the basis for a brand new conversation.

“Today, the subject is purpose. In front of you is a 3×5 card that we prepared together during this past week. These are your words describing an accomplishment on an important project.”

Julia paired them up to trade their stories of purpose past. Two minutes later, each pair was recording their work on a flip chart, one writing, one telling the story to the group.

Twenty-five minutes later, they had a written record of significant accomplishments during the past two years.

“Where do we go from here?” Julia asked.

“We just do more of the same,” Ralph chimed in.

Julia’s eyes met with each team member around the table. Without looking down, she pulled out a large chart with two lines on it. One line was moving up, colored green. One line was moving down, colored red.

Julia explained that the green line was the incoming work. It was a good thing. The red line going down was the department’s profit. That was a bad thing.

“How do we get the red line to turn up?” Julia asked the group.

All eyes turned to Ralph. “Just do more of the same?” he repeated, but this time it was a question.

“I know you can do it,” said Julia. “Since the meeting started, we have talked very seriously about how well we work. But something has changed. Something in our process is slipping, or missing, or we may be doing something wrong. Together, we need to find out what it is.” She stopped. The room was silent. For what seemed like ten minutes, she let silence do the heavy lifting. In reality, it was only twenty seconds.

“The question is still on the table,” she said. “How do we get the red line to turn up?”

Posted in Accountability, Culture

How to Establish Purpose Across a Team

Julia was working quickly, but there were times when it seemed she was going oh, so, slow.

“Sometimes, you have to go slow so you can go fast,” she explained. As a new manager, working with a veteran crew, she had some significant hurdles to overcome. And the team had some significant changes to make. Though the volume in their department was growing, their profitability was sinking to barely break-even. This whole service line was in trouble.

“We have to make some changes and we have to make them fast. But first, I have to build a platform to make those changes.” Julia was firm in her belief about the steps she was taking.

“So, tell me about the slow part?” I asked.

“Instead of arguing about the way we do things, I have to establish discussions of purpose. I started with Ralph, then two other guys who have been around a while, then the rest of the team. All the conversations were different, but they all ended up in the same place. I got every team member to talk about a significant project and why it was important. In each conversation, I wrote the essence of the story on a 3×5 index card. Tomorrow, I am going to use that as leverage.”

Posted in Accountability, Culture | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

How to Build Team Momentum Quickly

“Why was it so important that you moved Ralph to a conversation about purpose?” I asked. As a new manager getting pushback from a veteran crew, Julia was working quickly.

“As their manager, I have goals and objectives that I have to reach. I have purpose in my role just like they do. The sooner I can engage the team leaders in a discussion about purpose, the sooner we can find an intersection and get started to someplace new.”

Julia stopped. She knew she had made her point, but there was something else even more important.

“You know, I told you that Ralph seemed proud that the team ran off their last manager in three months? Here’s the thing. I don’t have three months to fail. I have three days to get this turned around and three weeks to show positive results.

“I can’t afford to wait and see. That is why these conversations are so important. And conversations about purpose are the quickest way I know to get there.”

Posted in Accountability, Culture | Tagged , , ,

How to Get Employee Engagement

“So, they ran the last manager off in three months?”

“Yes,” replied Julia.

“How do you think you broke through?”

“Well, the story about the previous manager was all pretense. Ralph was posturing to see how I would react.”


“I could have responded the same way, but I didn’t. Instead, I asked him questions about the way things were being done. Fact-based questions allow the ice to be broken. Then I moved from facts to purpose.” Julia’s plan was emerging.

“How did you do that?” I asked.

“First, I asked him about their most significant achievement, as a team. Everybody likes to brag so he told me about a particularly difficult project that had gone very well.” Julia stopped. “And then, I asked him why that was important. The level of the conversation had moved from pretense to purpose. And I had moved it in only four questions.”


“And I still have a long way to go, but it’s a start.”

Posted in Leadership | Tagged , , | 1 Comment