Do you know that the 4x100m sprint relay record is faster than four times the 100m record and even quicker than the 400m race? With additional steps of handing over the baton, something that needs to happen with much precision being a potential point of failure, should we not expect a delay element in the flow that slow things down? How is then the sum of four turns out faster than four times one?
According to the Track & field experts, the secret is in how runners prepare for their leg. In the 4×100 m relay, only the first runner has to start from a stationary position. The next three runners have the advantage of a running start, after which they need to exchange the baton in the “exchange zone” which is a 20-meter zone. Typically, a world-class runner starts running in the exchange zone and hits close to top speed after 10-meter. The baton exchange takes place usually in the second half of the exchange zone. So effectively the following three runners have the advantage of hitting close to top speeds before taking the baton.
What do we see in a typical business context when a set of people, representing different functions, have to work together along a value chain? The result is either achieved with high stress or is suboptimal, primarily when the organization has grown too big or scaled fast. Why? Because the focus quickly shifts to processes to achieve efficiency. Traditionally designed processes introduce SLA at each handover point. The Operations team gets in the action, adding measurement and tracking systems so that when the result is not favourable, they can trace precisely who in this value chain failed to deliver and initiate corrective action. In turn, the focus shifts to defining SLAs, keeping in mind process capabilities. The teams rally themselves around their personal or departmental goals. In the bargain, the customer expectations on delivery time, quality of service, or in some cases, the experience gets compromised.
One of our clients from the e-comm industry was facing the same challenge. At one point in the engagement, it came down to addressing longer working capital cycle and reduced customer experience. As it would be with any supply-chain business, the number of functions involved from sourcing, category management, warehousing, customer support, and 3-tier logistics including last-mile delivery partners – the chain was long. What we realized is that though the team was highly motivated and committed, processes were reasonably straightforward, SLAs defined, and delivered at each stage, the results weren’t satisfactory. Everything looked healthy in parts, but the sum of all wasn’t what business was looking to achieve.
We took the approach of creating a multi-disciplinary team to break-down the silos and to bring everyone’s focus on a single objective. We implemented some critical rituals to improve collaboration, sharpen the focus on the end goal, encouraging them to share their challenges so that group as a whole can come together to solve it. In short, we were building a genuinely self-managed team. Very soon, we saw the group becoming more proactive in resolving each other’s problems with little or no help from us or “management”. No one was talking about individual SLAs and how they are doing their best. Instead, the focus was on how the team as a whole was meeting organizational KPIs. And the performance improved on both KPIs dramatically in less than three months.
The same set of people, who were earlier involved in the end-to-end process were part of this newly formed team. They were broadly using the same infrastructure, processes, and technology. There was no additional training provided on functional skills. Then, how did the performance take a dramatically favourable turn? Was it just forming a multi-disciplinary client-focused team that did the trick?
It was that and something more. With increased transparency, trust, and autonomy; a new behaviour emerged. Every team member was preparing themselves better for her part of the process. Earlier they were operating with a chess-clock of their own that starts when a transaction hits their table and ends when they pass that to next person in the chain making sure this handover happened within their defined SLA. Like a relay team, no one was now starting from a “standing position”. Armed with complete transparency about each transaction, information on hand about challenges others could be facing; they were anticipating and preparing to run their leg even faster to adjust for the lag if any, in the previous leg. Unlike relay teams, it wasn’t part of our game plan and neither we were consciously coaching people on it during our engagement. Strong alignment to the purpose and shared commitment towards the outcome had triggered a sense of ownership, shaping their response.
Indeed, “a sum of four faster than four times one” is logical in the right culture, whether the context is sports or business. One can create a conducive environment and design specific game-plans for teams to take ownership, but finally, it works best when it comes from within. That is what differentiates winning teams from the rest.