Executive Briefings

Secrets to Building Successful Teams for Transportation, Distribution

A conversation with Marie Robinson, senior vice president of supply chain with Smart & Final Stores.

Based in City of Commerce, Calif., Smart & Final is a warehouse retailer of groceries and restaurant supplies. It operates more than 235 stores in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and northern Mexico. In a conversation with SupplyChainBrain that took place at the annual meeting of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) in Anaheim, Calif., Robinson demonstrates how a basic understanding of human nature can help to ensure the success of a team.

Q: Why is teamwork so important in the area of transportation and distribution?

Robinson: If you don't know how to motivate people and get the most out of them, you'll never be as successful as you could be. Understanding different methods of leadership, and ways to motivate and lead teams, is very important in our industry.

Q: What's the difference between a "team" and a "staff"?

Robinson: Most of us work day-to-day in groups that could best be called "staffs." They come together for the purpose of sharing information. The most common denominator is probably that they all report to the same person. But their jobs, responsibilities and goals are not interrelated. Typically they will each have their own area of responsibility. They're accountable for their results to their bosses, but the results are not interdependent with each other. If you can change that - create an organization that's much more horizontal, and have the goals be the same  - people become really interdependent. At that point in time, they come to look more like a team as opposed to a staff.

Q: Share with us some fundamentals that might be put into practice in order to effectively manage  teams.

Robinson: A good team has to have three basic skills. First of all, it must have problem solvers - someone who, if the team gets stuck, doesn't allow it to go into "analysis paralysis." A team also has to have a strong technical person, who knows the business, the system and what needs to be done. The final element that's really critical to any team is interpersonal skills. Someone on that team has to assume the role of the scheduler - making sure everybody's fed and watered, as I like to say - and that the agendas are set and the notes taken.

Q: How do you select a good team member? How do you determine whether a particular individual is a good person who works well in a team?

Robinson: Not everyone can thrive in a team environment. It's not a judgment of the person; it's just a facet of personality. There are lots of theories about how you can do this. There are some time-tested psychological analyses. Most of us are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. That one is interesting - it's really good as a tool to teach someone about himself. Everyone has to first be self-aware. We need to understand what makes us tick,  and how it enables or hurts us as we begin to interact with other people. Those kinds of tools are very useful in an entry-level leadership program, to help people learn about themselves. However, they're not necessarily the best in predicting success in teams, because they can be complicated. They're very good at identifying lots of things about you, but not at helping us to understand how you're going to work with me.

There is a test that research has begun to suggest [is effective]. Study after study has said that it really can predict both your likelihood of being a successful team contributor and of being successful in a role, or as a leader in life. It's called the Big Five traits model. It basically says that five factors underlie all the other facets of personality, and the variations between humans. Those five traits are conscientiousness, openness to experience, agreeableness, emotional stability and extroversion. The first, conscientiousness, really comes into play when participating as a team member. A person who is conscientious will be a highly contributing team member. They have the ability to sense when another task is needed, and they'll shift. What's really important to them is isn't their own success or satisfaction, it's the success of the larger organization. So if you're going to build a team, it's important to determine whether you have enough of those people within your organization.

The second trait that's important as you go to build a team is openness to experience. To be a good team member, you really have to want to hear what someone else says, and you have to be willing to look at things in a different way. The trait of agreeableness or disagreeableness is one to really be careful of. One highly disagreeable person will destroy a team. They just can't function that way; they're probably more effective in a work environment where they're more isolated. As for the other two - emotional stability and extroversion - while they're extremely important in the field of leadership, they don't necessarily correlate either way to team membership.

Q: What are some of the most important elements that should be considered when building a team?

Robinson: First of all, you have to train these people. It's unfair just to throw a group of them together and think they're automatically going to know how to perform as team members, because they placed a high school sport or something like that. You have to take them through these things - educate them in things like the normal stages of formation that a team will go through. An industrial psychologist named Bruce Tuckman, in 1965, published his model of team formation, and it has stood the test of time. It explains to us that all teams will go through five stages. The first stage is "forming." This is the stage of tension - no one knows each other, you don't know what the rules are, you don't know if you're going to like each other, you don't really know why you're there. When the team members have accepted that they're part of a group, the forming has ended.

The next phase is "storming." Again, it's a phase of tension. People are figuring out rules - whose are we going to follow, what roles are you and I going to play. This is when being part of a team starts to erode your individualism. It's another tough phase to go through. We know that phase is completed when the members have given up a little bit of individualism and have accepted team goals.

The next phase is called "norming." When team members get here, things have started to gel - I now understand my role and yours. I might shift into a different role to complement the team. I understand the rules we're going to play by, and I understand what we need to accomplish, and it's starting to get fun. Those tension-filled times are past us, and now we've started to come together as a team. You know this phase is ending when rituals have developed. Songs may have become important; we laugh about shared jokes.

After that, a team is able to go on to "performing." When the members perform, they have come to trust each other, routines have been built, and they're able to quickly move into action. The final phase is one that comes into play with temporary teams - it might be cross-functional or consultancy teams - and that's "adjourning." There's a natural point where teams break up, and members go their separate ways and on to their next mission in life. If people don't understand that, it can be kind of frustrating, because every team every has to go through each of those stages in order to get to "performing." You can't rush it. It gets faster if people have worked together before, or if the company has very clearly defined objectives and roles. But you have be aware of that.

Q: Any other points to consider?

Robinson: There are a couple of other key things to keep in mind. One is the optimal size of a team. Science now tells us that the magic number is seven. It has statistically been proven over and over that teams with fewer than five people don't have the diversity of thought and experience to accomplish their objectives, and that teams with more than nine people start to encounter some other problems. If you get much larger than 10, everyone won't speak equally. People will begin to dominate conversations and the team won't really represent all of its members. If the size of a team is more than nine, you might want to consider breaking it into two smaller teams. When you get above 10, there's a problem called social loafing. That's where people can hide a little bit. It has actually been tested a lot - if you think about tug-of-war, a person who's pulling on a rope by himself will pull with a certain amount of force. Industrial psychologists have proven time and time again that with each person that gets added, the [degree of] individual exertion starts to decrease.

Resource Link:

Smart & Final, www.smartandfinal.com

Based in City of Commerce, Calif., Smart & Final is a warehouse retailer of groceries and restaurant supplies. It operates more than 235 stores in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and northern Mexico. In a conversation with SupplyChainBrain that took place at the annual meeting of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) in Anaheim, Calif., Robinson demonstrates how a basic understanding of human nature can help to ensure the success of a team.

Q: Why is teamwork so important in the area of transportation and distribution?

Robinson: If you don't know how to motivate people and get the most out of them, you'll never be as successful as you could be. Understanding different methods of leadership, and ways to motivate and lead teams, is very important in our industry.

Q: What's the difference between a "team" and a "staff"?

Robinson: Most of us work day-to-day in groups that could best be called "staffs." They come together for the purpose of sharing information. The most common denominator is probably that they all report to the same person. But their jobs, responsibilities and goals are not interrelated. Typically they will each have their own area of responsibility. They're accountable for their results to their bosses, but the results are not interdependent with each other. If you can change that - create an organization that's much more horizontal, and have the goals be the same  - people become really interdependent. At that point in time, they come to look more like a team as opposed to a staff.

Q: Share with us some fundamentals that might be put into practice in order to effectively manage  teams.

Robinson: A good team has to have three basic skills. First of all, it must have problem solvers - someone who, if the team gets stuck, doesn't allow it to go into "analysis paralysis." A team also has to have a strong technical person, who knows the business, the system and what needs to be done. The final element that's really critical to any team is interpersonal skills. Someone on that team has to assume the role of the scheduler - making sure everybody's fed and watered, as I like to say - and that the agendas are set and the notes taken.

Q: How do you select a good team member? How do you determine whether a particular individual is a good person who works well in a team?

Robinson: Not everyone can thrive in a team environment. It's not a judgment of the person; it's just a facet of personality. There are lots of theories about how you can do this. There are some time-tested psychological analyses. Most of us are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. That one is interesting - it's really good as a tool to teach someone about himself. Everyone has to first be self-aware. We need to understand what makes us tick,  and how it enables or hurts us as we begin to interact with other people. Those kinds of tools are very useful in an entry-level leadership program, to help people learn about themselves. However, they're not necessarily the best in predicting success in teams, because they can be complicated. They're very good at identifying lots of things about you, but not at helping us to understand how you're going to work with me.

There is a test that research has begun to suggest [is effective]. Study after study has said that it really can predict both your likelihood of being a successful team contributor and of being successful in a role, or as a leader in life. It's called the Big Five traits model. It basically says that five factors underlie all the other facets of personality, and the variations between humans. Those five traits are conscientiousness, openness to experience, agreeableness, emotional stability and extroversion. The first, conscientiousness, really comes into play when participating as a team member. A person who is conscientious will be a highly contributing team member. They have the ability to sense when another task is needed, and they'll shift. What's really important to them is isn't their own success or satisfaction, it's the success of the larger organization. So if you're going to build a team, it's important to determine whether you have enough of those people within your organization.

The second trait that's important as you go to build a team is openness to experience. To be a good team member, you really have to want to hear what someone else says, and you have to be willing to look at things in a different way. The trait of agreeableness or disagreeableness is one to really be careful of. One highly disagreeable person will destroy a team. They just can't function that way; they're probably more effective in a work environment where they're more isolated. As for the other two - emotional stability and extroversion - while they're extremely important in the field of leadership, they don't necessarily correlate either way to team membership.

Q: What are some of the most important elements that should be considered when building a team?

Robinson: First of all, you have to train these people. It's unfair just to throw a group of them together and think they're automatically going to know how to perform as team members, because they placed a high school sport or something like that. You have to take them through these things - educate them in things like the normal stages of formation that a team will go through. An industrial psychologist named Bruce Tuckman, in 1965, published his model of team formation, and it has stood the test of time. It explains to us that all teams will go through five stages. The first stage is "forming." This is the stage of tension - no one knows each other, you don't know what the rules are, you don't know if you're going to like each other, you don't really know why you're there. When the team members have accepted that they're part of a group, the forming has ended.

The next phase is "storming." Again, it's a phase of tension. People are figuring out rules - whose are we going to follow, what roles are you and I going to play. This is when being part of a team starts to erode your individualism. It's another tough phase to go through. We know that phase is completed when the members have given up a little bit of individualism and have accepted team goals.

The next phase is called "norming." When team members get here, things have started to gel - I now understand my role and yours. I might shift into a different role to complement the team. I understand the rules we're going to play by, and I understand what we need to accomplish, and it's starting to get fun. Those tension-filled times are past us, and now we've started to come together as a team. You know this phase is ending when rituals have developed. Songs may have become important; we laugh about shared jokes.

After that, a team is able to go on to "performing." When the members perform, they have come to trust each other, routines have been built, and they're able to quickly move into action. The final phase is one that comes into play with temporary teams - it might be cross-functional or consultancy teams - and that's "adjourning." There's a natural point where teams break up, and members go their separate ways and on to their next mission in life. If people don't understand that, it can be kind of frustrating, because every team every has to go through each of those stages in order to get to "performing." You can't rush it. It gets faster if people have worked together before, or if the company has very clearly defined objectives and roles. But you have be aware of that.

Q: Any other points to consider?

Robinson: There are a couple of other key things to keep in mind. One is the optimal size of a team. Science now tells us that the magic number is seven. It has statistically been proven over and over that teams with fewer than five people don't have the diversity of thought and experience to accomplish their objectives, and that teams with more than nine people start to encounter some other problems. If you get much larger than 10, everyone won't speak equally. People will begin to dominate conversations and the team won't really represent all of its members. If the size of a team is more than nine, you might want to consider breaking it into two smaller teams. When you get above 10, there's a problem called social loafing. That's where people can hide a little bit. It has actually been tested a lot - if you think about tug-of-war, a person who's pulling on a rope by himself will pull with a certain amount of force. Industrial psychologists have proven time and time again that with each person that gets added, the [degree of] individual exertion starts to decrease.

Resource Link:

Smart & Final, www.smartandfinal.com