Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Do you run a team or a gang?

Do you run a team or a gang?

Sharon Visser
August 27, 2020

FEATURE – The author discusses two ways in which people can work together in a group – a team or a gang – and explains why you will need both at one time or another in your lean transformation.

Words: Sharon Visser, CEO, Lean Academy Botswana

Over the past 30 years, I have been able to observe different types of organizations in Southern Africa, their cultures, and their management styles. I have done so from different perspectives: that of an employee, a customer, a service provider, a leader, and, more recently, a coach.

Over recent months, I have found myself thinking about the different ways people lead, how organizational culture is built, and how deeply this affects the success rate of a lean transformation.

I predominantly see two ways in which people behave when working together – as a gang or as a team. Every leader, including myself, has, at some time, run a gang or a team. We often run both consecutively.

Before you get all worked up about the word "gang," let's look at the origin of the term: the original word for "gang" (gangr) comes from Old Norse and refers to a group of people going together on a journey. Now, when I looked up the word "team" – which has Germanic origins – I was surprised to discover it was related to terms like "bridle" (as in, draught animals) and an Indo-European root of the verb ducere, which means "to lead."

So, it looks like a gang indicates a group of people traveling together under each other's protection and companionship. In contrast, a team is likened to a team of horses who are selected to accomplish a task. When team horses are chosen, it is for their stable temperament, equal size, strength, and pace so that they can pull heavy loads together. So, a team is all about balance (hejunka) and alignment to create pull at the same pace (or could I say takt?).

Looking at examples of gangs in literature, one does not need to go much further than Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. What is "The Fellowship of the Ring" if not a gang going on a journey together to destroy a ring? Each member had a different set of skills that they utilized at different times, and, during the battle, they used their ability to work together to overcome obstacles and defeat the Orcs – always with the shared goal of getting the ring to Mordor.

Let us take a stagecoach pulled by eight horses that are run by a teamster as an example of a team. This team of horses has a predictable route, and their task is "controlled" by the teamster, who knows and understands his horses and the dangers along the way. His task/motivation is to get the stagecoach from A to B within a set time. Everything is clear and reliant upon each horse, responding to the skill of the teamster. They have no choice but to pull forward together and stop together.

Now, what would this look like in a business environment? Imagine having a handpicked team to accomplish a task, that the job is made clear, that the equipment is available, that the mission is predictable, and that the standard work is made available detailing how long the task will take. The team leader keeps everyone aligned, and the job is accomplished without a glitch. When I look at this, it's clear to me how predictable work helps us to ensure everyone is on track and that the response from leadership is clear.

A gang, on the other hand, has an objective but is not always entirely sure of the route to take or the obstacles it will encounter in its path. It is a more individualistic environment that responds to circumstances (the unpredictable work we all have to deal with). In a gang, leadership can change based on the knowledge needed at the time – think Gimli, the dwarf king, leading the way into the dwarfs' underground kingdom. The success of the gang depends on the clarity of the target, the individual skills of the gang, and the strength of the leadership at that time.

In management, we often spend time "traveling" when we are not so clear on how we are going to get from A to B because we haven't been there before. As leaders, we are sometimes a Gimli and sometimes a Frodo, but we are hopefully aware of what can happen if the ring gets into the wrong hands.

So why do gangs get such a bad reputation? After all, the origins of the word are not evil, and a gang's motivations can, on many occasions, be noble.

Whether a gang chooses to be good or bad, I believe, rests with the leadership and the reason they lead. We can't see a leader's motivation by looking at the school they went to, the clothes they wear, their sex or sexual preference, their color or race, the language they speak, or even the religion they practice. The easiest way to see the quality of leadership is how they measure and what they do with the information, as this dictates their underlying motives. It tells us what behaviors they are trying to provoke in their employees.


Here's a little story to bring this discussion to life.

Imagine a simple vehicle sales target that ensures a franchise payout and, if not reached, threatens a loss of funding. Let us say that the franchise company called AUTO is offering 100 points for minimum sales of 50 vehicles per month and a bonus point for each car above the 50 target. This information naturally goes out to franchise holders. Two of them are the main characters in our story, and they couldn't be more different from one another.

The Sales Manager of Infinity Auto has a team that he built from scratch. When creating it, he focused on diversity in terms of ethnic group, sex, and skillset to allow the team to play to its strengths. This way, he felt that they were covering all the bases and enabling trust and communication within their customer base. The sales manager creates visuals to ensure that everyone understands progress made and makes sure that everyone knows that they are all responsible for both the successes and failures of the sales department. All the visuals implemented promote the understanding of the idea of value for customer and encourage people to always know if they were ahead or behind on KPIs.

When he receives the information regarding the franchise program, he has a meeting with his team and communicates the objectives of the franchise payout. He adds that, pending the approval of the Dealer Principal, there will be a joint splitting of a percentage of the payout with the Sales team, should they meet the criteria of a minimum of 5% net profit margin and the target.

During this period, the Sales manager works hard at perfecting stocking levels, ensuring that he is not overstocked so much that it damages the profit margin and cash flow of the business. He motivates his team by removing obstacles and coaching them through problem-solving, always making sure that value to the customer is the True North of all their decisions. He meets with the financial manager and the Dealer Principal regularly to go through current numbers and confirm that he is within budget. Critically, he gives feedback to his team and encourages them to work together to reach their targets.

Now, let's look at the other sales manager of Classic Auto. He has taken over someone else's team. He is known as a mover and shaker, taking his trophies from dealership to dealership. For a Dealer Principal who covets accolades, he is a "feather in his cap" who is going to take sales to new heights. "Just look at the level of sales at his last dealership" is the answer most commonly to the shareholders when they ask about him. Thinking there could be another trophy and a free holiday insight, the Sales Manager marches into his first sales meeting full of charisma and confidence. He says to the team: "We have a target to reach people, so let's pull out all the stops and sell, sell like hell."

He promotes a "let's get every deal we can" attitude and favors undercutting any opposition, whom he labels "the enemy." During this period, he works at getting as much stock onto the floor as possible, believing that the more he has, the more his people will sell. He then goes through every deal in the process to see how he can cut the price to get the sale.

In the first quarter, sales skyrocket but net profits go down. The Financial Manager asks the Sales Manager about the numbers, and he says that these are tough times and that the team is doing the best they can. In the middle of the second quarter, a sales consultant comes to complain about the lower profits on the vehicles affecting his sales commissions on net profit. He gets blacklisted as a complainer, and the sales manager makes his life miserable, eventually leading him to resign. When the Financial Manager comes to question the numbers again, the "inept" sales consultant is blamed for making mistakes at a cost to the bottom line, which is why "he had to go." This way, an unmistakable message is sent to complainers. Within days, two more sales consultants move to another company, taking their key accounts with them. The department costs increase as the new sales consultants need franchise training, and long service award payouts are due to those who left.

The Financial Manager approaches the Dealer Principal and complains about the Sales Manager's attitude towards the lack of profits on vehicles sold. Alas, the Dealer Principle and the Sales Manager went to the same college and play golf together, so he tells the Financial Manager that he will deal with it. The DP likes to surround himself with people from the same background as himself, people he can trust and be comfortable around.

After a game of golf and over a couple of beers, the DP brings up the problem raised by the Financial Manager. The Sales Manager tells the DP that he is fighting for every deal and that he has his eyes on the trophy for the company showcase and tells him it's all about the numbers. The DP's mind wanders back to his youth as a sales consultant in the 1980s and thinks, "Excellent. This guy is a street fighter. Financial people don't understand how vehicle sales work. They are just bean counters, and one can never trust them to understand sales." He thinks nostalgically of the mottos from his days as a sales consultant: "Sell, sell like hell" and "Stack them high and see them fly." Fueled by the thought of a new trophy in the display case, he starts imagining getting up at the annual awards ceremony to pick up that Dealer of the Year prize and the little envelope with the trip to Bali.

The next time the Financial Manager complains about profit margins, she is given a short response that tells her it is all under control and that she does not understand vehicle sales. As she shuts the door to his office, the Dealer Principal wishes that he had a financial manager who could be one of the boys, a go-getter, making a note to have a little chat with HR about the choices they make.

At the next sales meeting, clear expectations are set. In December, some false sales are recorded on the franchise system to make up the numbers. To be credited after the deadline. "Isn't that dishonest?" asks the clerk. "No, not at all. We can't play by the Queen's rules. It's a jungle out there," answers the Sales Manager. From that moment, anyone who objects is labeled as "not being a team player" when HR comes around for the annual assessment. With time, all voices in the Sales Department are a consenting team "protecting" each other from the harsh world outside.

I want to tell you that Infinity Auto won the trophy, but I can't because it's not the way it works in real life. They only came out somewhere in the middle, earning the incentive but not the prize.

But it's not over yet. The following year, a Black Swan event lands, and the economy is under pressure. The Sales Manager of Classic Auto starts in the red as the overstated vehicles from last year have to come out of the bottom line. The company begins to run into trouble on a botched deal that had been covered up by the team running up legal costs. The Sales manager goes to the DP complaining about his team, not thinking out of the box and their inability to diversify in tough times. In the second half of the year, he sees that he is not catching up the sales and profits have gone into minus, so he picks up his pretty trophy and looks for another dealership in another town. Classic Auto is eventually sold to a group as a company in distress. This circle of behaviors continues ad infinitum. We see this happening around us every day. I call it a "gang gone bad."

So what happened to Infinity Auto? Well, first of all, their new year started with a zero balance, not a minus. In a strategy meeting, a young Indian sales consultant went to visit an uncle with a fleet of taxis and managed to convince him to buy into a special fleet deal.

An older senior sales consultant worked through his trusted database and pulled out all the repeat customers he had and convinced them that this was the time to buy. In contrast, the exclusive service offer was made available by AUTO, and a creative young woman came up with a new marketing campaign that targeted women at work. This is how a diverse team worked together to reach a clear and straightforward target communicating two or three times a day to make sure that no stone was left unturned. The Sales Manager worked on creating new products to sell and motivating his team to give the best value to their customer. Using simple visuals, he kept them focused on the end goal. They came out of the Black Swan event bruised but stronger. I call this "a gang with a mission."

You might think that this is a fictional story but, if you look around, you will see organizations like the ones described everywhere – and not just in the automotive industry. I am hoping that, as lean thinkers, you will see yourselves in Infinity Auto and understand the shortcomings of the leadership model deployed at Classic Auto.

So, what should you aim for? A team or a gang? The truth is, both! For the survival of your organization, whenever possible and appropriate, build teams like the horses carrying out the predictable work set by standards and lean practices, with an excellent team master leading them. But don't forget that times will come when you are going to need a gang to go on a journey. When you do, make it as diverse as possible with a wide array of skills, so they are armed for an odyssey.

Become comfortable with uncomfortable truths so that you never punish those who speak the truth. When someone looks or acts differently to you, pay attention, you have something to learn from them, and they could become your greatest asset. And remember, not all things that shine are gold!


Sharon Visser photo
Sharon Visser is the CEO of Lean Academy Botswana

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