Manufacturers can learn from the Marines

Fred White, ThomasNet
Tags: manufacturing

For Marines, teamwork and the esprit de corps can spell the difference between life and death. For manufacturers, collaborative communication, automation and innovation replace guns, grenades and bombs. Yet for both groups, cutting losses depends on better teamwork.

The U.S. Marine Corps may be one of the best-run enterprises in the world. For more than two centuries, the Corps has been a paragon of excellent leadership, excelling in the areas of motivation, training and management, not to mention teamwork. While it is composed of “a few good men,” Marines must work together as a cohesive unit to fight battles and help win wars. Each Marine is valued highly, but the Corps succeeds because it is a team of highly skilled men and women.

As business owner, author, speaker and former Marine sergeant Dick Biggs puts it at BOLD! Online:

A Marine is the ultimate team player — fiercely independent and proud; totally dependent upon the Corps for mission success; and respectfully interdependent on the other military branches in preserving the many freedoms of our nation.

In the recent age of downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, one’s livelihood is on the line. Moreover, these days Toyota has gained not only auto industry market share; it has also gained more respect by many. A worker for one of The Big Three might ask, “Are Toyota’s teams performing at a higher level than ours? If so, how and why?”

It could be argued, the exemplary employee is not only independent, but also trusts those on his or her team enough to depend on them, and is “respectfully interdependent” on other teams in the organization; this to achieve greater efficiencies, whether on the shop floor or in the boardroom.

An Outline for Teaching Teamwork
Can you teach teamwork?

Lori Breslow, Ph.D., of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, thinks so. Breslow provides an outline for a teamwork course taught at the school. How to Create a High-Functioning Team appears both general enough to serve well in most environments but also comprehensive enough to prevent most interactional problems among team members.

It is tempting to wonder where the page on motivation would be, but perhaps Dr. Breslow feels that “commitment” flows from “trust,” and if it wasn’t generated, then the team hadn’t done its work thoroughly. Yet, according to Learning Center, “Trust is the antidote to the fears and risks attendant to meaningful commitment.”

The Learning Center, which provides customized team and leadership development solutions to industry worldwide, also emphasizes that people need to be specific about what commitment means, i.e., so many hours or accomplishments or dollars of increased sales.

Trust and commitment? Marines are known for their esprit de corps, or the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion and strong regard for the honor of the group, as Biggs points out. “It’s a brotherhood.”

Personal pride in the Corps, business and manufacturing play a major role in the overall success of the organization. That is to say, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Yet while individual pride is encouraged, excessive ego is not tolerated. As with project members or the entire workforce of an organization, each Marine depends on the team to accomplish the mission of the Corps.

Critical Communication
Communication means different things at different levels. More specifically, according to Veryard Projects, “The subject of discourse is the relationship between the speakers.”

When introducing new products today, efficient collaboration across the extended life cycle of a product is growing more critical to the pace of innovation and business, particularly in the product design stage. Manufacturers face pressure to speed time to market, improve profitability and meet compliance requirements, thus requiring experts to share information with the extended team; that is, it requires better communication.

To provide timely and efficient communication, manufacturers and engineers need to simplify the exchange of design information. They need the ability to engage — from initial design to development of technical specifications through procurement, production and delivery.

Simply put, they must communicate to collaborate with anyone anywhere, bring products to market faster and cheaper, and manage and control intellectual property (IP). This is essentially the distillation of collaborative working as a concept. Collaboration’s emergence as a guide for speeding up the product development life cycle, then, should hardly come as a surprise.

As for the Marines, without a collaborative, interdependent team attitude — including communicating, say, over the howl of a chopper — not just with one another but among all of the armed services, the Marines and the military forces as a whole would be vulnerable and less victorious.

Beyond the mechanics of do’s and don’ts for individual team members, motivation to work more productively and creatively than ever before, and to give 100 percent effort, can represent the difference between the team surpassing expectations or failing to meet a goal.

As for motivation, one of the first tasks includes defining the line between what is in a team’s control and what is not. In a series of articles, change management consultancy L.M. Dulye & Company offers such employee motivation tips as, “Make employees part of the solution. Employees need to be involved in decision making, because their buy-in is critical for motivation and performance. They should be involved in even the most difficult decisions.” The communications specialist also recommends using measures to evaluate performance through time.

Further, varying responsibilities can challenge bored employees to revive or jump-start their team spirit:

• Job rotation involves cross training workers, or teaching employees each other's jobs.
• Job enlargement involves giving a wider breadth of tasks and responsibilities.
• Job enrichment involves increasing the depth of your employee's responsibilities, not by increasing the number of tasks — but by increasing the complexity of the tasks.

Earlier, we alluded to motivation among Marines. So, it seems apt to include a comment from iSixSigma’s forum earlier this year:

My opinion comes from a military background. Here is a quick model I work from in attempting to influence others, which is simply to effect a change in behavior. I work off the assumptions that influential effects are cumulative and sequential, with one being of greater influence than number two, etc.

1. Influence through principle — action based on the “right” thing in terms of principle, policy, mission, etc.
2. Influence through expertise — action based on the subject matter experts opinion and research
3. Influence through reference — action based on the fact that you like someone
4. Influence through coercion — action based on what someone can give you or take away

The poster concludes by saying that the strongest position of influence comes from “being highly principled, being the smartest guy in the room on your subject matter, be well liked, and have the ability to give something and take something of value away from those on the team.”

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