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