Thursday, September 01, 2005

In The Many Different Ways of Doing Things ... Ieper: Second Month

What make great leaders great? Socialist Europeans will be quick to answer: the team. True, but then, why are some teams better than others? To this, they will say: 'well, we have good, hard working people here in Flanders, ja?'

OK, fine. They are mostly right; at least based on my first impression. But we do have some good, hard working people in Memphis too.

Harvard Business Review, July-August 2005 / Best of HBR 1993
The Discipline of Teams

"We found that there is a basic discipline that makes teams work. We also found that teams and good performance are inseparable: You cannot have one without the other. But people use the word 'team' so loosely that it gets in the way of learning and applying the discipline that leads to good performance ... Teams differ fundamentally from (other) working groups because they require both individual and mutual accountability ... Think of it as a working definition or, better still, an essential discipline that real teams share: A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. The essence of a team is common commitment ... This kind of commitment requires a purpose in which team members can believe.": Jon R. Katenbach, founder and senior partner, Katzenbach partners / former director, McKinsey & Company, and Douglas K. Smith, organizational consultant / former partner, McKinsey & Company.

First, I don't think the people in Ieper are better, per se, but I strongly believe that we have a stronger team in Ieper. First, we are a small number of people. More importantly, we are all committed, and we all hold ourselves mutually accountable. If there's a problem, any problem, it's not uncommon for our support structures--such as lab, maintenance, or HR--to come forward, without being asked, and asked the production group what they can do to help remedy the situation. People seem to understand: it's not how many touchdowns he/she scores that wins the game.

From then on, it's just a virtuous cycle. When you know you can count on peers to do their part, there's the social pressure: you do not want to be the drag of the team. I've always wondered why in a country with such strong socialism influence, the company still felt highly entrepreneurial. I think I've found the answer.

The second--and more obvious--thing was that many people have been around for longer than I have lived. Not only this keeps all the expertise in house, but time also has helped the team gel together. I will assign this mostly to the fact that mobility in Europe is fairly limited and that the unemployment rate is a bit higher. But still, I also feel that the people-centered management style must have also helped.

And third, yes, I can see the work culture in general is a bit better. Again, with higher unemployment rate, there are a lot of reality checks going on.

However, although without doubt Ieper is the highest-performing facility in our company, I can always make a defendable case that Memphis is the most innovative. So it's not that the people in Memphis are of lower quality. I will always challenge this assertion. Memphis simply had to evolve to its different sents of challenges. We had to learn how to do twice as many product changeovers yet still scored a decent downtime. We had to figure out how to keep track the ten times the number of raw materials, five times inventory level, and twenty times different processes and product types. We had to manage the complexity. And I can say that we did this better than anyone else in the company (nobody else had had to do it). But as the cost of growth, Memphis simply has grown too big, too fast. See the definition of "team" again.

Simply put: Ieper's resources have been deployed to skin the few products that it makes; Memphis's resources have been deployed not to "solve the world's hunger" but to find creative get-arounds that work ... Ieper may know the science better, but Memphis knows the engineering better.