Automation is a Team Sport

March 26, 2012
A few years ago, I visited the Florida home of Thomas Edison. It provides a wonderful glimpse into the life of one of the world’s most prolific inventors. The house has a lab which shows that Edison did a lot of his work on his own.

Today, just about everything in automation is done by a team. End users, engineering contractors, and suppliers all have projects assigned to teams. The days of a lone ranger operating in a closed universe are gone. Teams can do great things, but they present a real management challenge because team dynamics can impact the overall results. My experience has shown me that the ultimate success of a team is directly related to how the team is formed and launched. Here are some ideas on how to build a successful team.

This may sound obvious, but the first step to building a team is to write down a clear definition of success. When you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. What must the team accomplish? How important is this project to the business? The project dictates the team and not the other way around.

It is also important to pin down priorities before selecting team members. Most projects have multiple tensions such as schedule, cost, quality, or level of innovation. In my view, it is perfectly fine to demand all these things from the team. Life is not supposed to be easy. But if the project hits a stress point, then it must be clear, for example, that quality trumps schedule or that some facets of the project will have to be postponed to meet a schedule. The best way to do this is to make a list of must-haves and nice-to-haves.

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The next step is to pick the members of the team. If this project is truly important, then the best possible people must be selected. Again, this sounds obvious, but my experience is that many teams are doomed from the start because the really good people “are in important jobs and can’t be taken from them.” Take the best people for the most important projects. We’re talking about the success of the business here, not trying to make life easier for a given manager.

Select The Right Team
How do you select the right people? For this, I prefer an old-fashioned point system. First, list the kinds of knowledge and experience that will be needed. Make the list long in the beginning. Do the same thing for personal qualities. Then go over the list of possible candidates and assign a number from 1-10 on each of the points, with 10 being the best. Some personal factors to consider are honesty and integrity, accountability, communication, work ethic, and lack of arrogance. The process can be more sophisticated with weighting, but the idea is to eliminate politics and favoritism. Get down to an objective evaluation of the possible team members.

Finally, every team needs a clear leader. I refer you to some of my earlier articles (visit on leadership because those qualities are exactly what are needed in a team leader. Sit down with the leader and agree on some form of periodic progress review. Some teams drone on forever and lose sight of the goal. It is the team leader’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Edison may have been able to do it all himself, but automation is a team sport. 

John Berra, [email protected] recently retired as Chairman of Emerson Process Management.

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