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LEAN Techniques: Building & Fostering Teamwork [part 4]

By Bruce Tulgan, excerpted from Bridging the Soft Skills Gap

This is part four in a four-part series on LEAN Techniques. You can read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here.

Implementing LEAN in the workplace requires the efforts of every single person in the organization to affect change. No matter how much of a LEAN champion a leader or manager may be, if their team members don’t put forth any effort, nothing will change! That is why a culture of teamwork is important, and it’s especially tricky among Millennials and other new workers unfamiliar with the dynamics of working relationships. So how can you foster team building with your Millennials?

It should be no surprise that peer relationships are extremely important to Millennials. After all, they are the social media generation. Their entire lives, they’ve been plugged into a virtual peer network and mediate much of their experience through these hand held mirrors of interactivity.

Does that mean that employers should be scrambling to leverage social media to try to develop Millennials’ team connections? You can … but be very careful. The best way to create positive employer branding on social media is to have lots of very “loyal” young employees. That’s your social media strategy in a nutshell. But it’s nearly impossible to reverse engineer the process: Social media is far too diffuse and rapidly evolving to artificially manipulate those organic discussions – especially the viral type – that spread out among networks of networks of networks in the organic peer ecosystem of social media.

Many of our clients have been experimenting with other strategies to leverage Millennials’ strong inclination toward peer-networking and peer-bonding:

  • Some employers have tried to facilitate peer bonding by creating so called “self-managed teams.” It turns out there is no such thing as a “self-managed team”; somebody always takes charge; sometimes the right person; and sometimes a ring-leader who causes trouble.
  • Other organizations have tried to implement “best-friend at work” programs, where they try to help employee form friendships with colleagues. Most young people either shrug or cringe at these “best-friend” programs.
  • Some organizations encourage employees to form affinity groups around shared interests, activities, or even causes. These tend to be more or less harmless, unless they become a way to affirm cliques; usually they are only slight distractions at work, although distractions nonetheless.
  • Some organizations promote socializing among colleagues through meals, happy hours, events, and parties. Most people of any age can appreciate an employer sponsored events or meals or beverages, unless they become another way to affirm cliques; or lead to selective exclusion. After work socializing inevitably excludes those who just want to get home after work… or to the gym… or to walk the dog… or whatever. And often those young employees who appreciate the after-work partying the very most find themselves embarrassed in front of their colleagues (and sometimes even on their way out of a job) as a result of some major “social” misstep.

As with social media, it is usually a mistake when employers try too hard to artificially co-opt Millennials’ peer-bonding inclinations. For one thing, there are many pitfalls to avoid, some noted above. More to the point, it usually just doesn’t work.


Our research shows consistently that Millennials are least likely to form significant lasting peer-bonds in workplaces with less challenging work, less structure, less supervision and less interaction with authority figures. The greater the challenge, structure, supervision, and interaction with authority figures, the more likely Millennials are to form significant peer-bonds in the workplace. Yes, the key to creating those so-important authentic personal “loyalties” among your Millennial employees – like the personal loyalty we see among young people working together in the military – is creating conditions in which they can do lots of challenging work together under the strong direction of a highly-engaged leader.

When young soldiers, airmen, Marines, and sailors talk about their “loyalty,” they invoke first and foremost their commitment to each other – to their peers and to their most immediate leaders. But those peer bonds are hardly forming organically: They are not “self-managed,” but rather have a strict chain of command with clear leaders who are strong and highly engaged. They don’t get to choose who is going to be on their team. They don’t get to choose their own peer leaders. They don’t get to choose their own mission. They don’t get to choose their own positions on the team. Not everybody gets to be the MVP. Not everybody gets a trophy.  The peer bonding is not forced, but all of the conditions are forced and the peer bonding follows.

Of course, the military has a rare combination of profound patriotic mission, life threatening gravity, and extraordinary resources. Those are hard conditions to approximate for most leaders in most workplaces. Still, you can be very thankful that lives are not on the line. And you can still draw many great lessons about building the conditions to support great teamwork: The strongest peer relationships among young people in the workplace (and people of all ages) form in environments with a strong focus on the shared mission, the shared work, and the common ground.  Yes, it is important to value and leverage everybody’s different strengths on a team. But the key to supporting the spirit of “teamwork,” per se, is focusing on what everybody has in common:  Nobody on the team chose the team or the mission or the positions or the leaders. But everybody on the team did choose to be in this job at this time. As long as they remain here, they are in this together. They must depend upon each other in order to succeed. So they must each be dependable to each other.

Yes, your best employees can see that they pull more weight than the weaker members of the team.  Sometimes they have to be reminded that, no matter how much weight they carry on their own, they are not doing their job 100% unless they are also helping their other team members succeed.

Have your team consider and define these dimensions of teamwork:

  • Playing whatever role is needed to support the larger mission
    • How would you describe the larger mission of the organization?
    • How would you describe your role in relation to the mission?
  • Coordinating, cooperating, and collaborating with others in pursuit of a shared goal
    • Who are the people with whom I must coordinate, cooperate, or collaborate with at work?
    • In what ways do these people rely on me? In what ways do I rely on them?
    • How do you need to improve? What do you need to change so this person can get more from you? Or so you can get more from them?
  • Celebrating the success of others
    • Who are the people you should be supporting and celebrating at work?
    • What does success look like for each person in relation to their role in the organization?
    • What do you currently do to support and celebrate their success?
    • What else can you do? How can you improve?

Don’t forget that another key part of effective teamwork is using the influence of yourself and others to get things done. Consider your options when it comes to the following strategies for using influence:

  • Build and draw on interpersonal influence. Conduct yourself always in a businesslike, professional manager. Be the person other people do not want to disappoint.
  • Use the influence of specific commitments. Clear timelines for deliverables with reminders along the way are more likely to be fulfilled.
  • Seek to influence through persuasion. Use good reasons to convince other people to deliver: “This is why you should do this for me. This is why it’s a good thing for you, your team, and our company. This is why you should put my request first. This is why nothing else should get in your way.”
  • Influence through facilitation. Do everything possible to help support and assist other people in the fulfillment of their part. What are all the things you can do to make it easier for other people to deliver?


About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website