Ice hockey fans still remember the fairy-tale victory when the US men’s team beat out the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics. And why do we remember? Certainly, a big part of it is about the context. Cold War politics and recession economics meant that people were yearning for something positive to unite around. But, this was also the win that put an end to a 20-year losing streak for the Americans. And you can bet that the coach, Herb Brook, had to work hard to get the US team to the top of the winner’s podium.
So what was Coach Brook’s strategy?
It was simple: get started and be steady. His eye stayed fixed on the long game and he instituted a multiyear process focused entirely on building a strong team culture. His goal was to turn individual stars into team contributors, and he supported his approach by choosing metrics that measured the right things.
It’s not so different than what you need to do on the manufacturing floor. Here are four ways you can start coaching your team toward a culture of process improvement:
1. Start joining forces
You can’t expect a team that never practices together to win. As a leader, it’s your job to get the people who play different positions – different departments, shifts, or units – together and to let them practice solving problems. Make a game of it, build interdisciplinary teams, and get competitive. Keep it easy by giving each group a task to work on together and watch their creativity, see them connect with each other, and celebrate their successes with them.
2. Start talking
If you want process improvement to be top-of-mind for your employees, you need to make sure they are hearing about it as often as possible.
And how do you engineer that?
Regular meetings. We’re big advocates of the daily 15-minute standing meeting (and you can read more about that HERE).
And why is that?
Put simply, those daily meetings have been the most important way we’ve found to institute process improvements. We spend a few minutes educating our team about Lean principles and practices and then give them space to talk. Every day. We’ve seen it increase our group’s morale and their commitment, and we’ve watched as these conversations have touched every single aspect of our organization, from scheduling to customer satisfaction. It will do the same for you.
3. Start mining talent
Guaranteed there are some golden nuggets hiding deep inside your people. Dig into that by giving people a chance to try new things. Cross-training between groups can help ensure workers get a chance to see and try different roles. New eyes on old tasks can help you see things differently and make adjustments that increase productivity and build a better product, bringing more value to your customers. This kind of training can also reduce the time, money, and effort spent on filling skill gaps and searching for new talent. Another great side benefits: when more people understand how to do a job, bottlenecks decrease and deadlines get easier to meet.
4. Start empowering
Ground-up innovations are the gold standard in most manufacturing firms. Everyone wants that technician or assembler – those people who know the ins and outs of your systems because they work in them every day – to have that lightbulb moment and say, “What if we did it this way instead?”
So here’s the question: What are you doing to give your people an opportunity to speak up? How are you empowering them to improve processes? Some outfits do it through big events like a FedEx day or a kaizen activity. Others spend time on the floor with their teams and ask for suggestions. Then there are those who have built the kind of trust that invites their employees to just come to them with their thoughts. An “open door, open mind” policy.
Whatever combination you choose, the point is to let your workers see that you have confidence in them: that you’re willing to try out their ideas. This kind of empowerment will pay off in the form of improved efficiency and reduced errors on your production line.
The big wins for manufacturers usually start with small changes. A tweak here and an adjustment there can create millions of dollars worth of opportunities. To find your way into that game, get your team practicing together, get them talking to you and to each other about the changes you need to make in order to win. Show them that you believe in their potential. Try out their suggestions. Let them play in different positions. Applaud when they score a goal and go back to the drawing board when there’s a miss. It’s all part of the same game, and while “fairy-tale” might not be the right word, the victory will still be there.