The challenge of global teams: friction

Global teams face the same challenge as global supply chains:  friction. Friction in a supply is like throwing sand in the engine of a car: everything seizes up very fast. Lean manufacturing means that a hold up for customs, security, paperwork or old fashioned logistics problems means that the most sophisticated supply chain can be undone by problems with a simple component. The same is true of global teams: the whole team depends on everyone else delivering and failure in one part of the system affects every part of the system.

Friction on a global team comes from the following sources:

  • Time zones, which means that communications have to be asynchronous, not real time. That can delay decisions and problem solving.
  • Cultural differences which lead to misunderstandings
  • Communication and language problems: even in one language, what you say and what is heard may well be different. Language differences simply raise the communication challenge.
  • Mistrust between the hub and the rim. The hub does not trust the rim to do the right things when the hub is asleep; the rim is not sure that the hub is looking after their interests
  • Goal alignment: goals which are very clear at the top are rarely clear at the bottom of the firm, especially where there is tension between meeting global and local needs
  • Decision making processes which may not be well understood and will be different around the world: how far should decision making be consensual or directive, hierarchical or egalitarian?
  • Legal and regulatory differences which force different priorities on different parts of the team

As with global supply chains, global teams are seeking to build frictionless teams. Lean manufacturing becomes the lean team in which every source of friction is identified and eliminated one by one. Borrowing from the world of TQM, the best teams start with the biggest challenges, eliminate those and then work in the next set of challenges. The challenge most teams have to start on is trust: without trust communication, delegation, autonomy and accountability become hard to achieve. As with TQM, eliminating friction is the role of the team: the solutions have to come from the team and be implemented by the team, rather than coming from the boss.

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