Cut Waste with Lean Teams
by Lewis E. Frees Ph. D.

Employees who spend time in cubicles and conference rooms may benefit from the lessons of the factory floor, where lean operations have helped to eliminate waste and improve production. The same principles that contribute to more efficient manufacturing can be applied to "lean teams," fostering high morale, creativity and bottom-line benefits.

Lean teams view themselves as value streams, with team members, the team leader, management and other stakeholders regarded as suppliers. The team's outcomes are the source of "pull" for all contributions. As is true for any value stream, the team's product or outcome moves forward from concept to completion with unbroken continuity. When a team is defined in terms of a value stream, any activity that does not add value is considered waste.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that as much as 40 percent of the time spent on most teams can be considered to be waste when using this definition. Any enterprise that routinely permits this level of waste has a hard time competing in today's marketplace.

Six Ways Teams Waste Time

How do you know if your teams create waste? Teams try to solve problems - and it is the way they approach problem-solving that can create the waste. If your teams are guilty of creating waste, you may want to "lean" them. Check the following six items for any familiar waste-creating scenarios.

Problem # 1: With so Much Work to do, Why am I here?

Team members often sit through meetings biding time, waiting for a discussion about issues that are relevant to them. One member of a product development team kept track of the percentage of time she spent in meetings listening to information that was irrelevant or redundant to her work. She concluded that 80% of the time was waste. She often ended up double tracking in order to work more efficiently.

Lean Team Solution: Contribute to the Value Stream

A lean team uses the value stream model, and contributing at the right time, in the right venue, is critical to the seamless continuity of a team's "value stream." Redundancy and irrelevance do not move the value stream, and are quickly eliminated.

Problem #2: Preparing Presentations = Postponed Productivity

Team meetings are often spent preparing presentations for management. One team reported that 30% of their time was devoted to preparing for or conducting "dog and pony shows" for upper brass. And, management must ink-in meetings that can take hours out of a day for these presentations. But how else can you stay informed?

Lean Team Solution: Continuous Access = Improved Productivity

With lean teams, you do not need pre-scheduled presentations. Instead, online access to the brainstorming and decisions of the team gives you a continuous read on their progress, and all at the level of detail you require. You also have the ability to provide feedback and guidance to the team at frequencies and levels of detail of your choosing. This eliminates presentation prep time for the team - and there are no surprises for you.

Problem #3: "Just a Minute" Participation

Team members often arrive at meetings unprepared. Time is spent leafing through reports and memos until everyone is caught up. This absorbs most of the meeting, leaving many agenda items unresolved.

Team leaders spend countless hours trying to avoid this scenario. They often invest the entire week before a meeting sending reminders to make sure everyone is up to speed. No matter how diligent the team leader is, however, someone almost always arrives unprepared, forcing the team to move at a snail's pace while the individual reads through background materials. By lean standards, that activity is waste.

Lean Team Solution: Just in Time Participation

The lean process places the responsibility of staying up to speed on team members so they can leverage the value of face-to-face or co-located meetings. This is achieved by having all pertinent information online, 24/7. Team members access information when they need it, and add their input and updates when necessary. Waiting till the last minutes becomes a thing of the past.

Problem # 4: You've Lost That Collaborative Feeling

We've all been to meetings that work like magic. The collaborative progress builds, and the problem-solving answers appear to be at everybody's fingertips. Team members leave energized, prepared to follow-up with information at the next meeting. When the meeting occurs, however, the feeling is gone. Without continuity between meetings, it is nearly impossible to maintain collaboration.

Loss of continuity is wasteful by lean standards because team members have to reconnect with the outcomes of the most recent meeting. This means that many important information-rich ideas get lost.

A parallel problem is the tendency of Senior Executives to spend their day shifting from one meeting to the next. Keeping the collaborative energy and mindset for different meetings is not always possible - and trying to do so can deplete even the most enthusiastic of leaders. It is not a strategic use of an executive's intellect or stamina.

Lean Team Solution: Continuity Ensures Collaboration

In lean teams, the meetings themselves are used to drive the team's collaborative process forward. The forward flow of the team's interactive work is continuous. There is never a break in the "value stream" of the team and, typically, fewer team meetings are required.

Problem # 5: Where's Joe?

Teams need decision-makers and experts at the meetings to move the team's process forward. Teams typically solve this problem by having everybody there, just in case they are needed - but this practice leads back to the wasteful scenario in Problem # 1.

Lean Team Solution: Continuous Availability

Lean teams provide the capacity to access decision-makers and experts online throughout the company and immediately bring them into the conversation. And, anyone from anywhere at anytime can contribute to a conversation without having to wade through information that is irrelevant.

Problem #6: A Climate of Distrust

Teams need a climate of trust in which conflict is effectively resolved and high quality dialogue occurs. In reality, team members often experience an atmosphere of selling and telling rather than listening, understanding and collaborating.

The typical solution has been to train team leaders, facilitators and team members in the tools and the skills of effective team interaction. Unfortunately, many of the most difficult issues occur outside of formal team meetings through e-mails, instant messaging, telephone and informal face-to-face conversations.

Lean Team Solution: An Environment of Visibility

With lean teams, all interactions are continuously visible to the team leader and other members. Issues and conflicts can be dealt with immediately and without disrupting or decreasing the momentum of the team.

How Lean Teams Work

Lean teams assume that the work is continuing 24/7, whether people are spread down the hall, across town or around the world. In addition to expecting effective interactive skills and processes, lean teams use a combination of process redesign and technology. The following are the characteristics of lean teams:

  • Lean teams operate as a value stream from concept to outcome. Team members, the team leader, you and your managers are suppliers to the team's value chain. Contributing at the right time in the right way in the right venue is critical to the seamless continuity of a team's value stream.

  • No matter what the venue (face-to-face meetings, conference calls, video conferencing, informal conversations, email or instant messaging), the gist of the conversation is entered online so that anyone can see it and contribute precisely when their contribution is needed.

  • "Dog and pony shows" or other management presentations are rare, because everyone can access the team's activity at any time online. And, managers not only have an insight to what is going on, but can introduce time-sensitive, critical information to help guide the team.

  • Because contributions from you, other members of your leadership team and from team members occur continuously and in small, updated increments, there are no major "re-dos."

  • Through the social network, people quickly anticipate what kind of expertise will be needed for a particular conversation using a "six degrees of separation" concept. People find who knows whom and invite them into the interactive process for precisely the kind of input that is needed. The person, because he or she can quickly sort through the relevant history of the conversation, can join the problem-solving process completely up to speed.

  • You, your managers and team members are proactive about entering the team and offering contributions rather than waiting to be called and reminded. The days of a team leader having to contact everyone prior to a meeting are over with lean teams. The software does it with a precision that no team leader could ever hope to match.

Technology Requirements for Lean Teams

Having the right software is key to making lean teams a success. Do not try to support lean teams through email alone. It is complicated to try to organize information in order to maintain continuity of a discussion thread. In fact, it can become another way to waste valuable time. Email is a useful for sending simple messages with pertinent replies. It quickly breaks down when a team is trying to sort through a complex issue.

Your lean team software package should provide the ability to:

  • Find relevant individuals exactly when they are needed to keep the forward flow of the value stream. Social software provides this capacity. Examples are: Ryze, Friendster and Linked In.

  • Accomplish team-related online activities by opening their email. Experience has shown that when team members need to go out of email into another software medium with multiple clicks, usage drops off dramatically. Kubi Software supports this function.

  • Perform robust collaboration such as brainstorming, sorting dialogue, and other forms of problem solving in a sustained way. e-Wings software supports this capacity and can also be bundled with Kubi and social software.

  • Manage and organize all the interactions and discussions on the team members.

  • Allow team members to go online at any time 24/7 to find out what issues are being addressed, quickly review the history of the issue and make a contribution precisely when it is needed. This capacity is also supported by e-Wings software.

  • Combine all of these qualities into unified software; the components of which are invisible to the user.


Lew Frees is the CEO of Harmony, Inc. He has over 25 years of experience consulting to businesses ranging from start-ups to Fortune 100 companies. He coaches, trains, consults, designs processes and systems and leverages technology to create high performance teamwork from the boardroom to the factory floor. He can be reached online at frees@harmonyinc.com . Visit www.harmonyinc.com for additional information.

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Copyright 2004 by Lewis E. Frees. All rights reserved.

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