Building High Performance Teams: Shifting Separate Functions to Systems Thinking

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Consulting and Coaching on Organization Development and Building High Performance Teams with a Manufacturing Company. An Impact Project Team was formed representing vertical and horizontal sections of the company.

We met and decided to use a systems-analysis approach to their issue. A machine broke down after a scheduled shutdown that went awry. This breakdown ended up costing the company millions per month in lost revenue.

This complicated and expensive machine required specialized skills and knowledge to manage and operate. The machine ran continuously with eight managers and operators. Each manager and operator was responsible for only their area of the machine and its operation.

Break downs in work caused by independent actions leading to team troubles Create Learning Team Building and Leadership

Each machine manager and operators were trained, experienced, and high performing employees. They were proud to have ownership and responsibility for their piece of the machine.

When we interviewed them, each stated in one form or another, “This area of the machine and ensuring quality completion from x to y in the SOP is my area of focus. My area has not had a breakdown in months.”

They were right.

During a scheduled machine maintenance, different managers decided to work with their operators on improvements. However, these improvements were only focused on their area of responsibility.

When the scheduled maintenance was over, they turned the machine on, and it didn’t work. The breakdown created and illuminated the following issues:

  • Increase in defective and incorrect product production
  • No employee knew all the changes made during the machine maintenance
  • No single person knew how – or even if – they could reverse the “improvements” made to the various machine areas

What they knew was that the machine was not working as it was supposed to and they were losing money


The Impact Project Team knew the people were competent, hard-working, and doing the best they could. This breakdown was not a “people problem.” It was a system problem and it required a change in their work system to change the behavior of the people.

The intervention was to find a means to integrate the manager and machine operators into a Machine Team with shared goals, roles, priorities, and acceptable thinking to make teams better and more productive Create Learning Team Building and Leadership


Here’s what we did to address the problem and ensure something similar wouldn’t happen in the future.

  • The VP of Operations was made accountable for the output and cross-functional teamwork of the people on the Machine Team
  • Clearly defined teamwork statement was created including goals and purposes – the statement was shared with the teams, respectively
  • The Machine Team collectively managed the whole process – no one machine manager or operator “owned” any one part of the process
  • Any improvements or changes were to be proposed and approved by the Machine Team moving forward
  • Improvements required research and investigation before being proposed

This became more than just creating and sustaining a team. We worked through a culture change.

It required a change in how the organization recognized and rewarded teamwork. A change in how the managers and machine operators thought of their work. A change in how work got done and who could approve the work. This happened while maintaining and respecting the autonomy and skills of the people. A change in how people related to each other.

Using real team building work moved the people on the team from:
  • functional autonomy to interdependence
  • lone experts to collaborative focused teams
  • impulsive to disciplined
  • using experience and instinct to using data
  • thinking in separate functions to systems thinking

Changing the system (how the work is done) can change people’s behavior. I believe everyone wants to do their best work, and systems drive behavior. Improve the systems, and unleash the capacity of people to do great work that they love to do.