When we’re working through improvement cycles, we’re exposing ourselves to all the pain of the current state, and it’s easy to get stuck there, in a tar-pit of negativity, anger and pain. Handled — and more significantly, timed — right though, and it’s that very anger that will lift you out into the new world of ‘better’ with team relationships strengthened.

Last year, I was working with a team who had real problems. Quite apart from the many process and process operation problems, the team was split into two functions, in very different locations, one supplying the other, and with a fundamental breakdown of trust between them.

The customer-facing group felt the supplier team were being obstructive and using documented process as a shield for a strong culture of unhelpful “More than my job’s worth.” On the other hand, the supplier group felt constantly compromised by the customer-facing team’s promises, made without any insight into the very real constraints they had to work under, while being treated as lowly back-office underlings. It’s a situation you see a lot, but this had gone beyond the normal levels where simple appeals to “One Team” and “Customer First” can help. I’d been very careful to be even-handed, and — as with many intractable conflicts — could see that both teams justification for how they felt.

My coaching was sponsored by the customer-facing team, so I was based with them, and the cost and time of travelling to the supplier team was prohibitive. After a few weeks on-and-off work, we had some understanding of the current process and its problems, along with a few ideas on how to make it better. Rather than the leader of the customer-facing group (who was the overall leader) engaging with the remote team, I was quite clearly dispatched, with an explicit instruction to “Go and tell those guys where we found the problems and how we’re going to do it in future.” I was very firm in pushing back, and insisted that we involve them, including their insights into our assessment and ideas into the Future State Components.

I was in the remote location for a short (Monday afternoon to Thursday) working week, and planned to follow a PDCA outline. The most senior guy dedicated to this team and his boss were a bit elusive early on, but I finally managed to track them down at the end of the day on Tuesday. I didn’t want to be directive — and certainly wasn’t going to follow the simplistic agenda of the other team — so met with them together and deliberately set expectations that this was to be an open session for them to talk through their pain points in the process.

And did I ever get what I’d asked for. It’s possibly the most emotional meeting I’ve ever had in a work setting.

As they talked through the process, and how they didn’t feel valued and trusted to operate their end, their body language flooded the room with their pain. The senior dedicated guy was furious — eyes bulging and finger pointing. His boss on the other hand normally stands out and radiates gravitas and poise, but she spent the meeting often close to tears, recalling the close relationship she had had with the overall leader, and how that had all gone wrong somehow.

It was at that point, I knew I’d failed.

The relationship was irreconcilable, and no matter how much process fix we implemented, without trust it was never going to work, and these two had clearly Had Enough.

I left for my hotel disconsolate and sure I might as well pack and head home the next morning. If I’d had business class tickets, I might have just done that too.

Travelling on the company dollar, I thought I’d better at least go in to the office the next day.

Come with me as I exit the lift and head towards the team area.

Oh. The senior guy is coming towards me. I’m going to get the hairdryer treatment again. Too late to turn around and head out again. Manners kick in and I actually listen to what he’s saying.

“I couldn’t sleep last night for thinking about all our problems. And I think I’ve got some ideas. Have you got 10 minutes to talk through them?”

That 10 minutes was 2 hours, and at the end, we had an amazingly elegant solution to the process problems, that took care of both teams’ needs, and by the end of the week, we’d worked out how it would operated and had the remote supply team fully bought into it.

Group Dynamics Reinforcing Improvement Cycles

Reflecting on this on my flight home, I was trying to work out what had happened and how it had been rescued from the ashes, because I knew that the sudden turnaround wasn’t any of my doing.

And it hit me.

The Tuckman cycle.

Teams go through a distinct set of behaviours when they get together — and also when any significant change is introduced.

At first, when everyone is being nice and positive about the thing they have come together to do, everything goes well. This is known as Forming.

[lightbox thumb=”http://everydaylean.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/tuckman-300×214.png” lightbox_link=”http://everydaylean.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/tuckman.png” title=”Tuckman Curve” thumbwidth=”300″ thumbheight=”214″]

However, shortly afterwards, doubts start to creep in. You discover that things aren’t what you expected, and some of your colleagues are frankly annoying. You haven’t got the role you wanted, and you have to cope with how you’re working not being how you’d like to work. You start Storming.

If you are fortunate, you work through these problems, and find the compromises and norms of behaviour that let you work together effectively. Your performance and team mood starts improving through this Norming as finding these compromises becomes a shared task in itself.

Finally, if Norming works well, the compromises become part of your shared values, rather than something you need to work on, and you can apply your effort to the real work. That’s when you become a high Performing Team.

When you’re a coach, you occupy a very powerful position[1], and your arrival can be a major disruption to existing team dynamics. What I’d done with this team is kick off a mini version of the cycle simply by being the coach dispatched from afar to sort things out. Everyone had spent my first day or so being nice to me, but I hadn’t understood that there was a storm coming.

By pure luck, the timetable of the session allowed the storming to happen exactly at the point when it had built up to its most powerful, and by setting it up as an open session to listen and accept all that pain and anger, I had allowed it to all come out, but not directed at me. And as a result, that leader was able to move past the pain and into constructive territory.

Timetabling Tuckman

I also thought back to a previous life.

I lived for a while on the fairly remote Scottish island of Iona, working in the Iona Community. For those who don’t know this extraordinary organisation, it seeks to bring together spiritual and secular outlooks, with a major commitment to Community, Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation. The island is a significant centre for pilgrimage, with visitors from all over Scotland and beyond staying for programmed weeks.

While each week had a theme, all weeks follow a similar structure.

[bs_tabs] [bs_tab title=”Forming”]Saturday is arrival day – it takes most of the day, and two ferries, to get to Iona even from Glasgow, the closest city. It really does feel like pilgrimage, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have started meeting your fellow pilgrims along the way. The options for private transport diminish as you go — and you can’t take cars onto the island at all — so you’ll be forced more and more to start forming Community with these strangers through the day. Ferries and weather permitting, you’ll arrive on foot at the Abbey in the late afternoon.

Most — but by no means all — visitors have some kind of a church background. But all have high expectations, as the place and people achieve almost mythic status as you look forward to your visit. Sunday is designed to be a very soft landing. Daily worship is very traditional and is comfortable enough, while introducing some new notes to start matching those expectations.[/bs_tab] [bs_tab title=”Storming”]Through Sunday and Monday though, things start to niggle. The Abbey is often cold. Visitors are required to help with cooking and cleaning. Not all your expectations are met, as there’s a diverse range of views on offer from residents and co-visitors, and you’ll find at least some too radical, or not radical enough. So you’re getting into Storming.

Monday evening’s worship and Tuesday’s activities are explicitly timetabled as focusing on Peace and Justice — everything that’s wrong with the world. This gives the temporary community a constructive channel for its anger, and that Monday evening worship is nearly always filled with pain and anger that carry forward into the next day. You can feel it as you walk about and see it in everyone’s faces. It’s the day all the arguments come out, even in the resident team.[/bs_tab][bs_tab title=”Norming”]You can’t leave people feeling that way all week, however.

So Tuesday evening’s worship is focused on Healing, and this is used to draw the Storming to a close and start to bring people back together in Norming. Wednesday’s activity is a full day walk around the island, both forcing people to be together while giving them some space to work out compromises and an understanding of how the rest of the week will run.[/bs_tab][bs_tab title=”Performing & Adjourning”]As you might expect, Thursday is a really productive day, with a lot of outcomes on whatever the week’s programme focus happens to be. The community is in Performing.

As the week moves towards its end, Thursday evening has a service of Commitment, starting the guests thinking about the stage that teams go through as they disband: Adjourning, and specifically how they are going to move on from their week and take its lessons back out to their home communities when they leave on Saturday morning.[/bs_tab][/bs_tabs]

Anger in Improvement

The anger is inevitable. You’re dealing with process pain. One improvement I worked on recently used red-dot voting in the wider team to prioritise pain points on a fishbone diagram. The team — entirely unprompted — started calling this The Measles Chart and I think the language is telling.

My experience, backed up with the long evidence from Iona, powerfully demonstrates how you can make the anger useful in an Improvement exercise.

If you catch it at the right moment, you can direct it towards the problems and pain you’re trying to address, with the result that the team’s relationships are maintained. This is the place to feed in Dr Deming’s 95% message, and to keep the team focused on improving the actual cause — the system — and not blaming the people operating it.

PDCA puts a strong emphasis on deep diving into the problem at an early point. This resonates with the Tuckman curve. Use the co-incidence and draw out and channel the anger.

Bibliography & Bootnotes

  1. See Ed Schein’s ‘Helping’ for more on this.
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Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
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