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Keeping on Track: Rules for Effective Teams
By Eileen O. Brownell   Printer Friendly Version

-Savage: Life Lessons

The first railroad in America was created in 1829. It served as the number one mode of mass transportation of people and goods for well over one hundred years. Trains were efficient. They could move large quantities of materials and products faster and cheaper then wagons and horses or ultimately trucks. Many pioneers moved west via the train rather then chancing the sometimes-hazardous wagon trains. Trains provided excitement for travelers with the ever changing scenery, the possibility of bandits and an occasional band of Native Americans who would chase the iron horse.

Railroads created jobs. Not only was there staff on the train, there were also switchmen, freight loaders, maintenance workers, station masters and clerical staff. All helped keep the trains running even though their job did not require them to ride on the train. They supported the main function of the railroad. Back in the eighteen hundreds, they never heard of teamwork. Staff came to work, did what they were ordered to do, worked long hours usually six days a week. Decisions were made by supervisors and nobody ever questioned the choices they made. To do so, might mean instant dismissal.

Our work life will continue to speed forward into the future at a never-ending fast pace. The creation of new technology has made some jobs easier by providing us with quicker ways performing tasks, computerizing some jobs and providing us with more information then we ever conceived possible. It is important that we take the time to examine effective teams and their characteristics. It will be through teams that we will continue to accomplish our major work tasks as people become more specialized and technology increases at a steady pace. We can no longer operate like the railroad companies once did where everything was done manually. The commonsense railroad rules that were in principle, sound in the eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds are worth re-examining in context of how they affect teams today.

RULE 1: Know your destination. There are numerous places for a train to head. Where the train will ultimately end it's trip, is established before the engine even revs-up. Every successful team must establish its goals and objective before they can begin to provide valuable service to the internal or external customer. An effective team has a clear purpose, which includes a vision, a mission, goals and objectives. Everyone on the team is clear about where they are going.

RULE 2: Turn a moving train slowly. Once a train has established its destination, it gathers momentum. To change directions abruptly without discussion and consensus can be disastrous. If it becomes necessary to alter your course after your team has already begun to create its vision, it is important that everyone be a part of the discussion process. Not everyone may agree with the final outcome. The turn however, will be easier if everyone has the opportunity to be a part of the decision process.

RULE 3: Successful trains stay on track. If the train jumps the track, a disaster will surely occur. Teams stay together by moving in the same direction. Once the goals and objectives are established everyone goes about doing their individual tasks to help the train get to its ultimate destination. If it leaves the track however, it will never arrive. If the train needs to make a detour, there are clear signs that indicate the changes that need to be made, so no abrupt turns can force the train from it's ultimate focus.

RULE 4: When catching a moving train, get up to speed quickly. When you join a team already in existence, don't stop, don't slow down. You have a lot of catching up to do. You did not begin the trip with the team. They formed, established a destination, decided the best route to take, made assignments and established the time schedule. Your task is to get up to speed as quickly as you can without creating havoc and delaying the trip. The team can assist you in that process by providing you with a complete overview of the projects they are working on. Establish if you have the necessary experience to complete the task of the individual you are replacing. If not, then it must be determined how best to train you for the tasks ahead. Finally they must make sure you are also involved in all future discussions.

RULE 5: Stop when the wheels locks up. Everyone on the team must be encouraged to participate in the team process. When one or more people withhold information, refuse to be part of the discussion or fail to complete their assignments, it is a sure sign of trouble. Just like the locked wheel will hold the train back, if everyone on the team is not participating in the process, the team will be slow to complete their vision.

RULE 6: Listen for a change in the rhythm. If you have ever ridden a train, you know the sound of the wheels riding the rails. There is a certain rhythm that occurs. You know instinctively when there is a change in the speed of the train or a problem. Members of a team use effective techniques to listen for the changes in the attitude of team members. To clarify someone's input, it is important that members paraphrase, question and summarize to make sure they have received the message as intended.

RULE 7: Keep everyone on board when the train is moving. Team members must feel free to express their opinions and feelings. They must not feel that if they provide input or make suggestions, they will be thrown from a moving train. A painful experience indeed. The effective team has no hidden agendas. Members feel comfortable communication during and members outside of meetings. Team members must not be afraid to voice their opinion for fear of retaliation.

RULE 8: Work assignments and roles are clear. The conductor would not think of driving the train nor would the engineer come back to the passenger cars and take tickets. Work is distributed among team members fairly and according to job skills. There are specific expectations for each job assignment and team member. Everyone is willing to accept their part of the total team responsibility and complete the assignments on time.

RULE 9: Everyone is a leader. There is a formal leader for every effective team. Leadership functions can shift however, depending upon the circumstances, group needs and individuals skills of the team members. For example, I have watched the conductor jump in to help the dinning car cashier when the crowds were backing up on a long distant train ride. This was certainly not his normal task, but at the moment his skills were needed to help keep the customers happy. Team members are not afraid to shift focus when assistance is needed.

RULE 10: Be flexible. Trains don't always arrive on schedule. I do not think I have ever been on a train that arrived on time. The staff of the train kept us informed of the reason for the delays however, and gave us regular updates of the anticipated arrival time. When tasks are not completed on the determined time schedule, the rest of the team must be informed and adjustments made. Frequently the next step in a process cannot be started until another task is completed. An effective team member is flexible and continues to move forward on other responsibilities regardless of possible delays.

RULE 11: Stop to refuel. Conduct regular maintenance. An effective team stops periodically to examine how well it is doing. Self-assessments are conducted regularly to establish what is interfering with progress of the team. If additional training is needed for individual members or the entire team, arrangements are made. A train cannot run without gas and a team cannot run without nurturing, training and regular input.

RULE 12: It takes more then the staff on the train to make it go. The engineer, conductor, brakeman and dinning car staff are not the only individuals involved in making the train run. There are station managers, baggage handlers, track maintenance staff, ticket sellers, bulk freight loaders and the list goes on. The staff running the train are dependent on other individuals to help them complete their tasks. They must develop positive relationships and build credibility with important players in other parts of the railroad system.

RULE 13: Nobody wins when there is an accident. If you have ever seen pictures of a train hitting a car or truck, you know even though the train may still be standing, nobody wins. Team members must be prepared to have disagreements, confront conflict and feel comfortable enough to resolve issues as they arise. Failure to resolve issues and compromise on challenges as they arise is a sure fired way to create an accident further down the track.

RULE 14: Celebrate when you arrive at your destination. Whenever a train arrives at it's destination, there are always people waiting for the passengers. It is fun to watch people greet each other. Usually there is much excitement and happiness. Effective teams take the time to celebrate the completion of their goals. They pause to recognize individual as well as team accomplishments before moving on to the next task.

RULE 15: The tracks don't end at your destination. A team extends its vision beyond the current task. The effective teams know they have an obligation to future passengers to provide a safe, well-maintained, clean train. They realize their attention is not just on the tasks immediately at hand, but also on the future success of the total railroad.

All thought the railroad may not be as popular as it once was for rapid mass transit and the transportation of goods and products; it still provides us with a clear picture of how important teams are in the workplace. Employee trends through the turn of the century are discussed and described in Workforce 2000. The book predicts that in the next century, individuals who do not have experience working in team-based organization will be challenged to find employment. It is imperative that you, your organization and staff get on board now for a fast ride into the 21st century.

Copyright © 1999 Eileen O. Brownell. All Rights Reserved.

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