Five Cultural Pillars of Great Teams

What are some common elements of great teams? I call such elements the “cultural pillars of great teams.” The literature is full of definitions of each of these pillars. My purpose here is to illustrate what these pillars look like in action – as people are actually working as a team, writes Dave Hanna

  1. Mission/Vision/Purpose

Ritz-Carlton hotels are famous for their exceptional guest services. When something unusual happens, the ladies and gentlemen who work at Ritz-Carlton swiftly restore order. Like the guest who was battling a sore throat when he ordered room service. Imagine his surprise when his tray arrived including his breakfast and a throat lozenge. (The operator who took the guest’s order tipped off the waiter that the guest sounded hoarse.)

A senior executive once described to me how company leaders became aware that a hotel general manager had violated many company values, including not treating his associates like ladies and gentlemen. The general manager was immediately terminated. “But,” said this senior executive, “what was remarkable was that we had no indication of any problem from the guests who stayed at this hotel during this time. Our associates continued delivering Gold Standard service to our guests even though they were not being treated properly by their general manager.”

What explains such spontaneous associates’ teamwork without any supervision? Their whole-hearted devotion to a phrase in the Ritz-Carlton Credo that states, “(to) fulfill even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.” The Credo is not just an ornament at Ritz-Carlton. It is truly a way of life.  Small wonder the company leads the way with customer engagement scores above 90 percent according to Gallup polls.

  1. Solve Problems at the Source

A candidate on a recruiting visit at a Procter & Gamble manufacturing plant described his tour of one of the production modules: “We were walking between two production lines when all of a sudden one of the lines jammed and started spilling product on the floor. Then technicians from both lines swarmed to the area, cleared the jam, checked the equipment, and cleaned up the spillage – all in a matter of a few minutes. Then everybody went back to work on their own lines. In that moment, I knew this was a place where I wanted to work.”

It’s hard to describe the amount of organisational thinking and training that paved the way for such teamwork. To summarise:

  • All team members were trained in all operational and problem-solving tasks on the production line.
  • Extensive team-building sessions helped team members learn to work well together.
  • Team members rotated periodically between their team and support areas like the quality lab, technical workshop, and storeroom. Such teams rarely had to call on central resources for help.
  • Experienced team members could volunteer for leadership roles in the team, coordinating key performance areas like safety, operations, maintenance, quality, training, and cost. These coordinators received the same training their managers had received in each area. In time, these teams could operate without direct management supervision – frequently achieving record results.
  1. Develop More Complex Skills

Many companies have gained great advantage from organising multifunctional teams for greater strategic unity and faster response to changes.

For example, one product in Europe suffered greatly when natural disasters in the Philippines destroyed 90 per cent of the world’s coconuts. Coconut oil was a major ingredient in the product. Its profit margin went to zero overnight. The product’s multifunctional team met in an emergency session. Team members included a general manager and leaders from all functions (including HR). Here are some examples of the team’s 360º perspective yielding fast, practical decisions:

  • Product Development stated there could be no substitutions for coconut oil. However, Supply Chain said, “We have run experimental orders in the plant with various formulas without coconut oil. A few of these formulas have scored very close to the standard.”
  • Different countries had different preferences for product packaging, such as the colours and the placement of special stickers on the packages. But consumer research showed these “preferences” were not preferred by consumers.
  • The different packages also had cost implications for production runs and storage in the warehouses. Efficient production runs for small markets often led to their products occupying considerable warehouse space for many months.

The team considered these and other issues against the new, urgent priority of profitability. At the end of the one-day meeting, changes were agreed to that would restore the profit margin to its original level in a matter of weeks!

  1. Commitment to the Customer

The Shihatsu department store in Tokyo has earned great customer loyalty due to experiences like this one:

While vacationing in Tokyo, a married couple went to Shihatsu to buy a portable music player. A clerk showed them different models and the customers made their purchase.

After arriving at their relatives’ home where they were staying, they pulled out the player, but the machine wouldn’t play! They finally determined this player had nothing inside its shell! They planned to return to the store in the morning.

The next morning before they had a chance to leave, there was a knock at the door. Some visitors were there for them. In the living room were a distinguished-looking man with white hair and the clerk who had sold them the music player! They had some packages in their arms.

The older man introduced himself as a vice president of the Shihatsu department store. He explained to them that after they had left the electronics counter, the clerk realised he had put the player demo shell in their box by mistake. He immediately alerted security to watch all exits for them, but they had already slipped out.

They first contacted every hotel in Tokyo where American business people typically stayed. No luck finding them. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, they had persuaded the credit card company to give them the couple’s home phone number in the United States. They spoke with relatives, who were babysitting their children, who gave them the phone number and address of the relatives in Tokyo.

“We have had some difficulty finding you, ” the vice president smiled. “But we want to correct our mistake.” He then pulled out another player, showed them this one worked, and traded it for the demo model. “Because of the inconvenience we have caused you, we hope you will accept these gifts.” They handed the astonished couple the packages containing lovely bathroom towels. Shaking their hands, they then excused themselves again and left.

  1. Sacrifice Self For Others

In 1991 Yuri Kirillov knew he needed help if his machine tool company, Krasny Proletary, was to survive the transition in the Soviet Union from its ultra-authoritarian ways to a free market economy. He took the unusual step of inviting a few westerners to guide him and his associates in the transition.

Yuri was deeply committed to Krasny’s survival. He was willing to try new approaches despite many protests from the veterans of the old system. For example, when traditional customer orders for Krasny came to a standstill. Yuri visited many farmers in his region and arranged a “win-win” deal whereby Krasny associates worked in the farmers’ fields to bring in their harvest. They were paid with the food items they had harvested. Krasny families survived at a time when many others were starving.

This dynamic showed everyone that Yuri’s unorthodox changes were focused on their survival and well-being. Now they, too, were being asked to sacrifice their traditional thinking and their work habits to help the company win in a new economy. Workers, who had done one job their entire career, now were needed to assume new responsibilities customer service, develop new products, do marketing, and focus on earning profit.

Implementing what they learned from their consultants, Krasny leaders structured their operations into 15 self-sufficient profit centres. Each department developed a win-win relationship with its partners. Leadership training helped leaders act consistently in the “New Krasny Way.” For example, Krasny’s leaders employed their recently-acquired brainstorming skills to solicit from the workers some ideas for alternative products that could deliver more profit.

Krasny leaders were stunned when the different work groups supplied nearly 200 product ideas from their brainstorming! The company ultimately developed 12 new products, including such things as a portable, self-contained brick-maker; oil pipeline equipment; steel doors; nails; and consumer lathes. The new products proved to be very profitable.

Bottom line, Krasny survived at a time when 75 per cent of the companies in its industry went out of business.

Common Threads
Do you see any common threads supporting these five pillars? People in organisations resist new strategies, structures, or training all the time. What explains the differences in these five cases?

The foundation supporting all of them is a deep personal connection between their people, their teams, their company and their own personal success. The pillars are not owned by the hierarchy alone; they are owned by everyone because they are rewarding to each one of them. They represent better working experiences, more mutual respect, a greater sense of achievement, and personal security. Everyone wins!

Image Source: Pixabay