Too Many Cowboys, Not Enough Pit Crew Members

By on November 8, 2017
Too Many Cowboys, Not Enough Pit Crew Members National Guard

In one of his great talks, Atul Gawande, MD, author of the award winning book “The Checklist Manifesto,” discusses the great difficulty he had in getting surgeons to use a checklist he had developed for the World Health Organization. It was a checklist intended to cut down on death rates during surgery. The checklist was developed with help from Boeing and when used in eight hospitals around the world it cut the death rate in surgery by 47%.

Armed with these spectacularly good results, Dr. Gawande took the checklist to hospitals and introduced it to surgeons, assuming they would embrace its use with great enthusiasm. They didn’t. In fact a large number of surgeons said they wouldn’t use it.

How can this very illogical behavior be explained? Dr. Gawande’s explanation was elegantly simple and on-target. He said: “We’ve hired way too many cowboys and not enough pit crew members.”

I’ve encountered a lot of cowboys in my thirty-five years of work as a consultant. I suspect many of you have also. They’re the folks who rebel at the idea of standardized work. They’re the folks who rebel at the use of cleanup checklists. They’re the folks who see teamwork as trivial and, in many ways, a barrier to their being able to just do their thing. In short, they’re the folks who have the lyrics of an old Frank Sinatra song playing loud and clear in their heads, “I’ll do it my way.”

So what does all of this have to do with organizational performance? The connection can be very simply stated:

Organizations that employ a lot of pit crew members are productive and profitable. Organizations inhabited by a lot of cowboys aren’t.

The same is true of sports teams. Teams win championships through team work. Fragmented collections of “stars/cowboys” doing their own thing don’t win championships.

So how are fragmented groups of cowboys transformed into championship teams made up of pit crew members?

Here’s where it all starts: WIIFM. “What’s in it for me?” We’ve all heard this statement or variations of it. It’s often dismissed as largely meaningless banter.

It shouldn’t be. WIIFM is, in fact, the foundation of continuous improvement.

Unless every employee understands with great clarity exactly WIIFM, continuous improvement just isn’t going to happen. And after WIIFM is understood, messages from the company about improving productivity and profitability start to become persuasive. Before this happens, they mean virtually nothing to the “cowboy” employee.

Recently, a line worker said to me, “You know, George, I heard the owner talking about increasing the company’s profitability. That means nothing to me because all it says is that more money is going into the owner’s pocket.

From one perspective, this is an annoying comment and could trigger a reply like, “Don’t you get it? If the company’s more profitable you can look to a better future with the company.” Unhappily, that kind of a reply is almost completely unpersuasive. It’s way too abstract. Too far in the future. WIIFM has to be about the here and now.

What might a WIIFM response be? Here are a couple for starters:

One is profit sharing. If the company’s profit is X, you get Y.

Another could be a reward and recognition program that provides a process for catching employees acting like pit crew members and rewarding them for it.

And another could be an employee engagement process like the Idea Board, an exceptionally simple yet powerful way of transforming cowboys into pit crew members. Watch a video of employees discussing the power of the Idea Board.

Another could be a company’s leadership team regularly engaging in Gemba Walks, Lean lingo for going where the action is, talking with employees on the line, showing genuine interest in their work and respect for their knowledge and intelligence.

As cowboys gradually come to appreciate the relationship between the company’s well-being and their own, they are on their way to becoming pit crew members. Once there, they’ll never regress because there’s nothing, literally nothing, as rewarding as being a member of a well-functioning team. Being a pit crew member beats being a cowboy any day of the week. When this happens, WIIFM will also undergo a transformation. It’ll become What’s In It For Us. In addition, when this happens the tune playing in employees’ heads won’t be “I’ll do it my way,” it’ll be “Let’s do it our way.” And when that happens, there’ll be no beating your team.

St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Development Group has a number of training and consulting resources that can help transform your cowboys into pit crew members. I’d appreciate having the opportunity to brief you on these resources. I think you’d find it time very well spent. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s talk.

Photo: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on pit road, as his team completes a pit stop during the 2008 Dodge Challenger 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 10, 2008, by the United States National Guard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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