Division is the title for people on a submarine who are
assigned to operate together. If you think about it, that seems like a rather
strange name for a “team” until you recognize that the divisions are all part
of a larger team.
A group of people who are assigned to function together will
only be as effective as the structure they are given or develop. Assigning
strangers to a group does not make them a “Team”. They are really just a
collection of people with differing goals, objectives, needs, motivations,
ambitions and on and on. People in many modern cultures are groomed to be
individualistic by their very nature. We are taught to compete for grades in
school, scores in sports, and position in life. Assuming this is all true, why
then are we even remotely surprised that putting people together in groups
causes conflict? More importantly, since it is fairly accepted that operating in
groups can cause conflict, why don’t we do more in the workplace to proactively
Every large lean implementation model includes some attempt
to get to a team environment. The reasons vary but most can be traced back to
the Toyota model where small teams operate in harmony to create the goods and services
intended for the customer. The team is capable of creating small changes for
continuous improvement, deck plate problem solving (in the Gemba), and
generally running in a way that allows for the maximum efficiency. Who wouldn’t
want a team like that? On the surface, these teams function at a higher level
than groups for a number of reasons. But one of the most important reasons is
because they have learned how to manage conflict and channel it into a creative
What does a team look like in this environment? First, in
most cases it’s small. One of my favorite reasons on the “Master List of Why
Teams Fail” is wrong structure.
So many times management will design a model with cost as the only driver and
not provide the team with the proper resources to succeed. I have seen teams of
twenty five or more with only one supervisor and the results in most cases are
chaotic with a large splash of non-value added activity. In a large group, you
will normally find problem solving non-existent and many smaller subsets of
people who have taken it upon themselves to create the smaller groups that help
them with their individual goals.
The normal model based loosely on Toyota is a group of
people between five to seven with similar skills and training. This team is
capable of rotating through the designed work so that monotony and ergonomic issues
can be addressed within the team. This team is typically led by a Team Leader
who is actually another worker selected and given some additional training. The
team then would report to a Group Leader who normally would have four to seven
groups. The numbers can vary according to organization size and need but the
key is to have groups that can develop as teams.
Submarine teams are called Divisions. It follows a long
standing U.S. Naval tradition to routinely group people of similar skills and responsibilities
together for better resource management. My Division was always called the Auxiliary
Division and we were given specialized training in a wide variety of mechanical
and electrical equipment operation, maintenance and repair. The purpose was to
provide the submarine with a small group that could maintain operation
efficiency while underway. Larger repairs would occur in port with repair
groups from other commands, but while you are hundreds of miles from the
nearest base, you can’t afford for critical equipment to be inoperable.
This small group of people has several levels of leadership.
Normally, one of them will be appointed as the Leading Petty Officer (LPO).
This person is a blue collar who is still capable of fully replacing each
member of the team during periods where a member might be missing (for instance
because of illness or vacation). The LPO helps to manage problem solving
activities on a day to day basis and provides a certain level of guidance to
keep the team on track.
The next level will be a more seasoned individual with
advanced leadership skills. In many cases, this person is a Chief Petty Officer
(often considered the backbone of the Navy). The Chief has many years of
experience and provides an expertise in knowledge, skills and leadership that
govern the management of the Division. The Chiefs are also part of a separate
team in the Chief’s Quarters who provide yet another layer of problem solving
in matters that cross team boundaries. On a submarine, this happens more often
than not, so having a group designed to address this issue is critical to submarine
Finally, the team has a Division officer. This person has a
high degree of education, a finely tuned set of skills that will help to manage
ship operations in one way or another. They provide a higher level of leadership
keeping in mind the overall ship’s goals as a balance to the goals of each
division. They of course report to a higher level but you probably get the
A small group needs a sharp focus on their goals in order to
be successful and they need the resources required to be successful. When they
have managed through the initial conflict, they provide the best platform for
continuous improvement. Structure is an important way to help manage that
conflict. But in the end, it still comes down to each individual choosing to
operate within the structure you have designed. That frankly is the Golden
Grail of team development. Whether you operate in a union or non-union
environment, it is still the individual that needs the right motivation to want
to be a part of a team.
Being a part of a team means that members will sometimes
compromise their individual needs and desires for the good of the team. The
balance of this compromise is that each team member still needs to be heard and
have their ideas honored by the team in decision making and problem solving.
The issue is that at any given time, one of the team members may have a
solution to a problem that makes a genuine great leap forward. But if the team
is operating in a team where individual input is not valued, there is a
possibility that it will take much longer to reach the goal than needed.
Operating in a submarine environment, all of the dynamics of
team development become intensely obvious. Since there is no place to escape to
lick your wounds, conflict has a sharpness higher than that which might be
experienced in a nine to five environment. I think that is why submarine teams
and crews become so much closer more quickly (or disintegrate into chaos which
is not a god thing on a ship designed to sink). At the heart of conflict
management is the hard task of learning to trust each other. At the gut level, it understands that on any
given day, your team mates are not trying to gain some kind of advantage or
special position that will make you work harder. Trust means that everything
has to operate at face value every day. Can you say that about your working
The answer of course is that creating the right structure
will be a good start to start the journey of team development. But note to the
reader: Even the most well designed structure will fail if you do not
proactively address the dynamics of the people within the team. Just because
you have seven of the best workers in the organization does not mean they will
be the best team.
I would challenge you today to examine your team structure.
Was it evolutionary in design or designed by plan? Were leaders created or
appointed? Do your teams manage conflict for success or have conflict for
distraction? How do you manage inter-team conflict and dynamics?
In my short 39 years of experience, I can tell you that if you allow any of the above dynamics to
operate without deliberate attention and planning, you will not succeed in a lean environment.