Good Team Members are Like Swiss Army Knives

By on January 9, 2019
Good Team Members are Like Swiss Army Knives

I was walking through a large distribution center, talking one-on-one with workers about teamwork as part of collecting information that would help me prepare to facilitate a training series on teamwork. I opened our discussions with this question: How would you describe a good team member? Most responses described characteristics like cooperative, reliable, honest, friendly, knows how to communicate.”

And then there was Ted. His response to my question was unique. He thought for a minute and then said, “A good team member is like a Swiss Army Knife.” I asked Ted to tell me more about this idea.

Here’s a summary of his response.

  • Ted said that when good team members are asked to help take care of a problem, they agree to help if they can—even if the problem isn’t in their work area.
  • Ted said that good team members take advantage of opportunities to learn how to do multiple jobs.
  • Ted said that good team members are always ready, willing, and able to help the entire distribution center stay clean. He added that if they see paper on the floor, they pick it up even if they hadn’t dropped it there.
  • Ted said that if good team members see materials that are out of place, they either remind a fellow worker in the area to put them back in place or, if needed, they put the materials into their marked positions themselves.
  • Ted said that good team members live by the motto “Can Do,” not “That’s not my job.”

I thanked Ted for his very thoughtful response. I also said, “I believe you could do a great job of leading discussions on teamwork.” He smiled and replied, “I take a lot of pride in being a good team member. Glad to help you out with preparing for the discussions we’ll be having on teamwork.

Following this exchange, I thought to myself, “what an absolutely terrific example of the wisdom of line workers.” I also said to myself, “Ted’s response to my question grew out of very positive experiences he’s had working for this company.”

I know the company well, having consulted with them in support of their ongoing Lean transformation. Here’s what they do that helps nurture employees like Ted.

  1. Their leadership team demonstrates in many ways, large and small, that they respect and trust their employees.
  2. They provide training for their employees, continually improving their job skills.
  3. Their employees are proud to work at this company. When referring to their company they say “we” rather than “they.”
  4. They use multiple methods of mining the wisdom of line workers, including, for example, white boards in work areas, upon which workers can describe challenges they are facing as well as suggestions of methods to improve productivity.

These are the major things that are happening that help create a very healthy work environment. And there are many others.

So how is a work environment like this one created? Here’s what over thirty-five years of consulting have taught me regarding this question.

First, this kind of work environment is largely shaped by a company’s leadership team.

Second, this kind of work environment is shaped by a leadership team that creates a work environment in which respect, trust, and candor are the defining characteristics.

Third, like the company I’ve just described, members of the leadership team are known by line workers with whom they regularly have very focused, positive discussions on ways of improving work environments and work processes.

Fourth, line workers know that their ideas are needed by the company and that their intelligence and creativity are respected.

And finally, the success a leadership team has in creating a very positive work environment isn’t simply driven by what they do. The spark that ignites their positive behavior is what they believe. In the final analysis, what we do is driven by who we are. The leaders of Ted’s company didn’t do the things I’ve described because they heard they were good things to do. What they did were reflections of what they believe about the people who work for them.

I’ve done consulting work for some companies whose leadership teams, having learned the lingo of Lean manufacturing, try to play the role of a caring leader. It never works. Can leadership teams like this change. Yes, they can. But the change must be triggered by some intense examinations of what they believe about work and workers and how their behaviors impact morale and the ability of line workers to contribute their knowledge and creativity in improving the work environment and work processes.

And when this happens, what a difference it makes for both the leadership team and the companies’ employees. Both groups will experience the joy of working with many Teds in their workplace.

And Ted, thank you so much for your marvelous response to my question. Yes, good team members are like Swiss Army Knives.

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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