Improving Team performance

Team Building

Anthony C. Griffin asked:




In June 1999, I was contracted to lead a twenty-four hour team-building intervention with a group of twenty Managers, Supervisors, Lead personnel, and journeyman production employees of a major truck body manufacturer. This privately held company was founded in 1971 and is guided by its President and a General Manager who began as a shop floor laborer, and worked his way up the organizational ladder to his present position. Operating in three shifts, the 200-person company has 150,000 square feet of manufacturing, warehouse and office space in Southern California, and is the largest service body company in the western United States. Its clients include Ford and Chevrolet. My involvement was requested because of the need to design and deliver training in both Spanish and English. Audience characteristics are discussed in more detail, below.

This effort was a partnership between the California Manufacturing Technology Center (C.M.T.C.), based in Hawthorne, California, the Center for Economic Development at West Los Angeles College, and the Employment Training Panel, State of California, which funded the project. This author and C.M.T.C. identified the client’s main needs to be:

-Significant growth in production capacity and financial performance, especially during the last 2-3 years. This rapid growth has given rise to thousands of hours of overtime to meet customer demand; an increased accident rate; difficulty in recruiting skilled workers, particularly in the Fabrication Department; a “firefighting” approach to problem-solving and decision-making by management, which is mirrored throughout the organization; and unexpected stresses on equipment, machinery, and work processes. These stresses, in turn, have generated production bottlenecks and contributed to the “management by crisis” atmosphere of the plant.

-A stable workforce (see Table 1, below) who were reluctant, according to C.M.T.C., to adopt the new technology and work processes required by Lean Manufacturing. For example, a manufacturer’s representative who regularly services the plant as an account, reported that “veteran” workers resist learning new requirements, processes and materials, because of they feel their present their present technology and methods for painting truck bodies technology and processes they know well are adequate.

-A lack of reliable means to measure the actual amounts of scrap and re-work produced.

-Unpredictability of job scheduling associated with changing customer requirements and sporadic Company use of reliable scheduling tools.

-Re-occurring production bottlenecks on the shop floor, particularly with regard to the line producing their standard (vs. custom) products.

-Organizational “firewalls” between certain units and departments (e.g., Standard vs. Cargo vs. Sport production lines) that result in production and organizational inefficiencies. For example, the customized jigs and fixtures designed and built by a company Engineer for the particular requirements of one production line, could be effectively adapted for use on other production lines. However, production inefficiencies resulted from employee resistance to adapt or combine this customized equipment with the older equipment, used on other production lines.

Given these issues, management decided to act. Seeking to grow market share and to continue to build its long-term customer base, the company contracted with C.M.T.C. to prepare for the formation of a cross-functional (e.g., Production, Purchasing, Accounting, Engineering, etc.) team of 5-6 people. This team, to be selected from the group of 20 training participants, would lead continuous improvement efforts at this company. More particularly, the team would use Lean Manufacturing technology to identify and resolve issues associated with one particular product line. This core team would, in turn, guide the formation of other teams from the shop floor, whose representatives were participating in this training.

Successful implementation of Lean Manufacturing depends on building effective work teams. My role in this process was to design and conduct a series of six, four-hour team-building workshops, over a three-week period, that would lay the groundwork for subsequent Kaizen events. Following my work, a bi-lingual Kaizen consultant from the C.M.T.C. would follow-up with sixteen hours of intensive training in Lean Manufacturing. At the conclusion of the six-week training, the client would begin working together in using newly acquired skills to identify and resolve issues for continuous improvement.


The outstanding characteristic of this training group was its cultural and linguistic diversity. Of the twenty participants, only four were native English-speakers. All other participants were native Spanish-speakers, from Mexican ancestry. The plant Manager and two other Supervisors, who are of Mexican decent, speak and read English fluently. The remaining 12-13 Spanish-speaking participants were uncomfortable with both written and oral English. An estimated 20% of these Spanish-speakers experienced difficulty in reading and writing Spanish.

There were also important differences in cultural values and assumptions that were reflected in the training design, and training materials. These related to such issues as: how time at work should be used, how power and authority should be exercised, how day-to-day relationships between peers should be carried out, the appropriate exercise of discipline, perceptions about the formal and informal reward systems, how much participation in decision-making and problem-solving is appropriate and desirable for hourly employees, etc.

For example, many hourly wage-roll participants in these team-building meetings openly expressed reluctance to “intrude” on the decision-making responsibilities of their bosses a common feature of work relationships in Latin American cultures. To become involved in decision-making and problem solving is perceived as a management role, and sharing power and authority was commonly seen by most participants as a sign of weakness, and undesirable. The openness and trust that productive work teams require was frustrated by a Latin cultural perspective that emphasizes the solitary nature of the human being, and his or her essential and necessary isolation from non-family members. For a definitive discussion on this point, the reader may wish to consult the work of the Mexican author, Octavo Paz, in his seminal work, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1).


Training design and materials needed to reflect these data. Therefore, the training design and presentation of the material emphasized these points:

1.Build trust. In Spanish, the word “‘confianza'” is loosely translated as “trust.” Velásquez’ New Revised Spanish-English Dictionary (1974) also translates this word as “honest boldness, ” “assurance,” “firmness of opinion,” as well as describing a relationship that permits a certain secretiveness and privacy. As is generally well known, it is normative in Latin America for “confianza” to play a large role in shaping interpersonal relationships. It is also an important mitigating factor in working and organizational relationships. This certainly extends to the training arena: if ‘confianza’ is not earned and present – both among training participants and between trainees and instructor – trainees will “shut down” and learning will dramatically suffer. The usual repertoire of training tools to elicit participation and involvement will likely fail when ‘confianza’ is not present. This is particularly relevant for interpersonal communications skills training where such concepts and skills as providing relevant feedback, active listening, and self-disclosure are not only highly valued as elements of training design and delivery,
but indeed are deemed by most training pract
itioners as fundamental to this type of training.

Therefore, the instructor’s ability to gain and maintain ‘confianza’ with the group is critical, and he or she should avoid behaviors that participants may interpret as confrontational. In virtually all Hispanic cultures, interpersonal confrontation is considered negative and potentially destructive – it is likely to be viewed as a personal challenge and an exercise of power and dominance. It does not have an “up” side, and is not valued for its own sake. U.S trainers, however, are much more accepting of confrontation, who see it as tool that can be brought to bear to resolve conflicts and differences.

Among the most effective ways to bridge the gap between these two worldviews is to consistently “model” trust-building behaviors during training, and to avoid situations, at least in the beginning, that participants consider confrontational. This often means that training is at a “slower” pace than it would be with non-Hispanic audiences – in other words, it takes a little longer to accomplish training goals. This author’s experience is that a typical “soft” skills training program is lengthened by a factor of about 20% because of these factors.

2.Stress basic skills. The training design provided many opportunities to practice new skills (e.g., active listening, conflict-resolution, problem solving in teams, decision-making approaches, etc.). Where in another training situation I might give two to three practice opportunities to learn a concept or skill, here I used anywhere from five to six or even seven opportunities to teach active listening skills, for example.

3.Minimize reading and writing. While each participant was provided a workbook of materials relevant to each training module (i.e., managing change in the workplace; interpersonal communications skills; team-building; and problem-solving in teams), it became apparent on the first day of training that most participants were struggling to understand workbook materials. Therefore, written materials and exercises were subsequently used only to reinforce concepts, case studies, role-plays and other exercises that could be verbally presented, demonstrated, and practiced.

4.Formalize Discussion. Hispanic cultures generally value politeness and formality in interpersonal relations, compared to North Americans. These values permeate virtually all facets of daily life. For example, whereas North Americans tend to generally appreciate frankness and openness in interpersonal relationships, it is safe to say this is not generally the case with Spanish-speakers who view directness as potentially confrontational and disrespectful. Therefore, training presentations, role-plays, simulations, group discussions and all the other tools available to the trainer should reflect and demonstrate these differences in cultural views. This is probably best accomplished by: (1) verbally acknowledging these differences, with the training audience; (2) making clear to participants the training objectives of the course, and what particular challenges may be posed by training.

5.Aim for clarity. The circumstances outlined above reinforce the importance and utility of being unambiguous and clear in giving directions, setting-up classroom practice opportunities, asking for participation in exercises, etc. I found that this audience required that the objectives and methods for each exercise, each small group discussion, each training intervention be discussed beforehand, and in more depth than otherwise might be required with a group of monolingual English-speaking participants.

6.Teach a common “vocabulary.” Participants had no shared sets of effective interpersonal skills that they could apply to working together. Cultural and language differences exacerbated this situation. Orders, requests, memoranda, and indeed virtually all other communications from management first had to be interpreted from English to Spanish and “filtered” down to the non-English-speaking employees on the shop floor, through bilingual supervisors and lead personnel. Inevitably, communication effectiveness suffered. This interpreting of data and communications resulted in loss of efficiencies and effectiveness that, in a monolingual work environment, would likely not have occurred.

7.Practice-practice-practice. Use many real-life examples to make a point and teach a skill. While using examples to train is recommended for virtually any training situation, in this circumstance it was advisable to minimize the use of analogies or examples that participants would probably consider to be too abstract; that is, the examples used were all from manufacturing and production, and were situations involving production Leads and Supervisors.

8.Reward performance immediately. It was particularly important to be on the lookout for and immediately reward participants who made honest efforts to learn. Because most participants were unsure of and naïve to this training material, any trainee performance that approximated or that accurately reproduced the desired behavior (e.g., effective listening) was promptly rewarded by verbal prompts and specific expressions of approval. For example, when John, a Foreman, accurately demonstrated active listening with others in the group, I said to the group, “John, you really summarized Joe’s point very well. That’s a great example of using active listening;” or, “Did anyone notice how Justin used ‘clarification’ to better understand what Juan was saying? Justin, can you repeat exactly how you used the clarification technique with Juan just now?”

9.Mix it up. Depending on audience readiness, mood, level of interest, and expressed desires, I used both Spanish and English interchangeably during training sessions. For example, I wrote key points on the flipchart in English, and summarized them in Spanish; or, I conducted one role-play in English, and another in Spanish. Other techniques were to:

produce key workbook materials and job aids in both languages. Encourage bilingual participants to summarize key points for their monolingual colleagues, and;

10. Invite trainees to participate in either English or Spanish, with the proviso that either they, a colleague, or I would immediately translate the substance of their remarks to others.


Was training successful? Impacts of this program should be measured after implementation of the total package including the Kaizen interventions. At that point, it will be possible to indirectly evaluate the extent to which these training sessions resulted in application of these skills to shop floor situations. Why only indirectly evaluate impacts? Because, to draw causal relationships between this training and improved workplace behaviors, the effects and influence of the Kaizen events would have to be eliminated, or considered. Given the present state of evaluation technology this does not seem possible now.

Written evaluations of each session asked to what degree trainees learned new skills. On average, eighty percent of trainees responded that they had acquired the targeted skills and knowledge in that training session. The training group, the Kaizen instructor and C.M.T.C. independently agree that this first effort has given the necessary impetus forward for Kaizen to begin and to be successful.


1.López Aqueres, Waldo, Ph.D., “Business Traits, Market Characteristics, and Employment Patterns of Large Latino-Owned Firms in Southern California.” 1999: Tomás Riv4era Policy Institute: Claremont, CA

2.Macmillan Visual Almanac (1986). Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press

3.Paz, Octavio (1961). The Labyrinth of Solitude. New York: Grove/Atlantic Press.

4.Riverside, Press-Enterprise, October 21, 1999.

5.U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1999. Population Estimates Program, Population Division. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.


C. Griffin holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Educatio
n and has worked as a Training Manager and Director of Training for the international operations of Ray-O-Vac Batteries, Hospital Corporation of America, Technoserve, Inc., and ITT Industries. Since 1994, he has headed his own consulting firm, Teamworks, in Riverside, California. He is a member of the American Society for Training and Development, the Association of Professional Consultants, and the International Association of Facilitators. Phone: 951-784-9330. Fax: (951) 784-5003 Email: Web site:

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