February 1, 2011
Survival instinct overrides territorial instinct. Being a part of success is more crucial than finding a way to become personally indispensable. Yet in jammed-up, fouled-up situations where the stress of results (or an absence of them) pushes tension over a breaking point, referred to by organizational behaviorist Larry Wilson, founder of Twin Cities' based Wilson Learning as "back-up style," things can go haywire. A back-up style is simply the dark side of frustration and anger; once tension runs beyond reason, behavior temporarily takes a non-negotiable turn for the worse. Once, during my Navy days, a sagacious commander remarked, "In a battle situation, when a person loses their temper they're only a step away from losing their nerve."
The case for team play is easy to post on the bulletin board; much harder to instill and sustain. Yet when team play engages and lasts, team energy takes on a life of its own. In the immortal words of the Kikuyu, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. In one of his early books, Pat Riley reminisced about a miracle turnaround he witnessed which had nothing to do with the NBA. As the late '70s melted into the '80s during another distressing time for the State of California, General Motors had a plant in Fremont on the southeast corner of San Francisco Bay. It was a failing, dysfunctional next-to-last car making factory in a state that at one time claimed five such plants running full-time.
That plant, said Riley, was populated by individuals who were champions at protecting their own territory at the expense of everyone around them. If you've lived in the Bay Area you'll remember the GM plant at Fremont was dubbed "The Battleship" because of its gray, three-million square foot shape with a bunch of smokestacks. "Battleship" carried a duplex message; based in part on the factory's appearance and because it was the scene of constant warfare between labor and management. GM spent millions as productivity sank.
Finally, GM closed the books on the worst disciplinary story in the entire company: The battleship was mothballed ... and would have stayed that way had GM not stepped back to take a look at why Japan was gaining market share on American companies. Simultaneously, Toyota was strongly encouraged by the U.S. Government to start making some cars in America.
Behold, Toyota and GM joined with out-of-work trade unionists to form NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc). GM agreed to provide the setting and sell cars while Toyota put up millions and agreed to run the operation. In the early fall of 1983, NUMMI and the UAW signed a letter of intent. But unlike the epic battleship days, this was a 15-page agreement based on a spirit of teamwork.
Under the agreement every faction had participation and was a stakeholder in the success or failure of the sweeping venture. Newsweek called it "a model of industrial tranquility." Fortune deemed it, "the most important experiment in labor relations in U.S. history." The plant transformed itself, generating over 5,000 jobs and $300 million into the Bay Area economy. To move that far, that fast, a lot of people with formerly selfish agendas had to extricate themselves from their protective bunkers, pool their efforts, and trust in the mission.
While the NUMMI legend may seem far afield from other endeavors, it's a monument to what human beings can accomplish, no matter how beaten down or off-plan things appear. Even a catastrophic slide can be reversed if team members set aside their agenda for the greater good. We must either find a way or make one.