AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

For Whom the Team Toils

Copyright 1997 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.

For Whom the Team Toils

This is the text of a keynote address Darcy Hitchcock presented to our 7th Annual Symposium on Self-Direction in Oct, 1997

Courtesy Grant Cochrane, Freedigitalphotos.net

Courtesy Grant Cochrane, Freedigitalphotos.net

I’d like to share with you some of our current thinking about teams and how they are being used (and sometimes abused) in organizations, and perhaps how they could better serve us in the future. Work teams have been demonstrated over 50 years that they improve performance. What I’ve been wondering about is what do we do with the time or efficiencies. Do we just use the efficiencies to do more of the same ­make more product, offer more services, or do we use the time to do something else. Or in other words, with apologies to Ernest Hemmingway, I’ve been wondering,

…For Whom the Team Toils.

If there were such a book, I used to think it would only have three chapters.Now I think there should be five. Let me go through my chapters of For Whom the Team Toils one by one.

Chapter 1: The Owners

Chapter 1 in this book in most organizations eyes is the Owner. By owners, I mean those who care most about the bottom line–stockholders, management,the board.

If an organization does a good job of implementing teams, owners are usually thrilled. For example, those of you from General Tool, raise your hands. These people have done a great job of implementing teams (though,I’m sure they’d tell you there are still problems.) But the owners are extremely proud and delighted with their progress. They have been able to sustain20% growth per year for three years while paying out some healthy profit-sharing bonuses.

The problem is, sometimes owners think this is the only chapter in the book. They get surprised that implementing teams means changing their job too. I remember an exec. VP at an insurance co. tell me, “We didn’t implement teams to be nice to anyone; we needed the performance improvements.”He was frankly alarmed when the teams started to push back against him,wanting the power to do new things, wanting to change the structure of the organization, expecting him to change his role. The effort in his organization failed soon after.

For those executives who allow themselves to be influenced, they usually find it a relief to share their burden. Ricardo Semler, head of an extremely successful Brazilian firm, brags that his organization is not dependent on any one person, including himself. He prides himself on taking long vacations and that several times when he’s come back, his office has been moved and each time it was smaller.

Chapter 2: Customers

Teams toil for the benefit of customers as well. When work is redesigned into teams, you gain flexibility, accountability and quality. I remember at Consolidated Freightways where the health benefits group was redesigned.It had been taking them 5 weeks to process a health claim. When they implemented a pilot team that got the process down to 3 days (instead of 5 weeks), the executives, who were one set of internal customers, lobbied furiously to be the next ones served by a redesigned work team.

Chapter 3: Employees

But our heart has always been with the employees themselves. Teams increase the sense of control and satisfaction that most employees feel at work.About a decade ago I consulted with one of the major automakers. When I  went into the plant, it was a scary place. They told me dreadful stories about how they had been treated by management. Whether or not they were true didn’t’ matter because the stories became their truth. Things like someone dying on the assembly line and the managers wouldn’t stop the line but just hauled the person out by their feet and threw in another worker.the anger and resentment they felt played out in different ways. There was the usual game playing–electricians not being willing to hand a wrench to someone because they weren’t pipefitters. Some people even confessed to me that they were afraid of being stabbed by their coworkers. Since it wasn’t safe to take it out on managers, they took it out on one another.

There were times I was not sure I would survive this assignment. I figured someone would find me upside down in a hazardous waste drum some morning.

But six or nine months later, things were so different. One work team had resolved a long-standing issue with another team. Welders confronted a worker who for years had been abusing alcohol on the job and got him straightened out. The powerhouse team felt so empowered that they put together a 5-yearbusiness plan to shut their plant down. UAW union workers saying, we know this isn’t an efficient plant and there are better ways to get you your steam and here’s where we’d like to be redeployed once this plant is closed.Even management hadn’t had the guts to whisper this as an appropriate option.

So far, we’ve discussed three chapters in my book of For Whom the Team Toils, owners, customers and employees. Marsha and I have always been attracted to teams for this reason: it’s a win-win-win.

But lately I’ve been wondering if we shouldn’t add a couple more chapters.

Chapter 4: Local Community

Our organizations are intimately interdependent with the communities in which they live. The quality of education, crime rates, health issues all affect our organizations and are affected by our organizations. Progressive leaders are discovering that working in the community is not just an act of charity or an obligation; it needs to be an integral part of their strategy.

But who has the time? We seem to have far less time to invest in our communities. When most women didn’t hold paying jobs, they did a lot of community service. But now, most people are in the workforce.

How many of you regularly volunteer your time in your community away from work?

How many of you regularly volunteer time to your community as part of your work (as in adopting a school, participating in Cash for Kids, or providing work experience for high school kids)?

Do you member back in the 60’s when people had signs on their desk that said “Think” Then in the 80’s we had less time to think so it became, “Don’t work harder, work smarter.” Now people don’t have time to think at all so the signs should just read, “Just Do It ­Faster!!!”

One of the popular assumptions in business these days is that the world is speeding up. Tom Peters talks passionately about this (but he talks passionately about everything) as he reveals his fears about not keeping up. New computers come out every month, making obsolete those that came before. I have trouble seeing some of my friends because, between their jobs and their kids soccer practice, they have no time. Everyone seems crazy-busy. We work more and more hours to earn more money so we can buy more things, but we have less and less time for things that really matter.

A very personal example: My husband and I were one of the unlucky ones this year to lose our house to a mud slide. Late in December, the land started sliding away in front of the house, but it kept caving back further and further until we were hanging over a 25 ft cliff. Our neighbors across the street who were in the direction of this movement, didn’t even come look for 4 months. When the husband finally came by, he apologized and explained that he’d been working 60-80 hour work weeks. I really wonder about our priorities sometimes. Forget that he didn’t have time to come help us evacuate.He didn’t even have time to come see how much danger his own family might be in.

As Thoreau put it,


What are we busy about?


Where is the chapter in our lives called community? Isn’t the whole point of working to make our lives better, not worse? Don’t our organizations have an obligation to the communities within which we work, not only to provide living wage jobs and needed products or services, but also to provide our employees the time to be part of their community? During our disaster,the people who were most helpful were retired or had non-traditional jobs.Two-career couples, especially if they have kids, are stretched to the max.

The work week has continue to rise; Instead of gaining us leisure time,technology has allowed owners to keep us working more and more. There is at least one person at this conference, for example, whose organization requires that she check email and voicemail even when she is sick or on vacation. The owners seem to be saying, you toil for me–24 hours a day.

It seems we went from the arms race to the economic race. But we forgot about the human race.

We don’t make time for community anymore ­and we pay the price in teen delinquency, crime, depression and stress. And these things will comeback to bite our organizations.

We forget sometimes that there are people who have not bought into our frenetic culture. A couple years ago I was in the Northern Territory of Australia. It was incredibly hot and humid that time of year. I remember watching work crews directed by White people ­What they called Europeans ­sweating as they put in new roads and walkways. Nearby, I saw Aborigines sitting in the park under the trees, playing games and eating with their relatives.I really pondered which group was smarter and more productive: the Europeans who were changing the landscape and using the earth’s resources, or the Aborigines who put the emphasis on building communities instead of roads.

But we’re road builders, so to us it seems the world is speeding up.But it’s a matter of scientific fact that it’s not; the world is actually spinning just a teensy bit slower. So the “world” we think of as speeding up is human-made, a figment of our reality. So if it’s not serving us well, why don’t we change it?

Chapter 5: Global Community

I now think we also have an obligation to add another chapter to our book, the global community. Because we seem to be exporting our life style which is affecting other societies and the environment. Let’s talk about humankind first.

If the sun is not actually passing overhead more rapidly, what is fueling this faster-faster, overwork phenomenon, what some are calling Affluenza?

Part of what seems to be driving this is the unexamined maxim that “Grow this good.” This is of course, also the management philosophy of a cancer cell.

A few years ago, I was on a Mayan cruise with my parents that stopped in Honduras. My most enduring memory was not of the Mayan ruins­ which were spectacular ­but rather a fleeting moment on the bus trip. We were in a ridiculously posh, air-conditioned bus driving back from the jungle past billboards for gasoline and Coke, through an area where families lived in mud floor, one room houses, . For entertainment, kids would watch the traffic go by. At one point, we passed this little girl, perhaps 5 years old­, bare feet, stained dress, and she was holding a 1/2 oz. package of Cheetos.

Now, it’ s not just that they turn your fingers Day-Glo orange. It’s that they have no nutritional value, probably cost half a days wages, and are wrapped in non biodegradable plastic.

I guess I don’t have a problem buying the stuff if you’ve met your RDA of vitamins and minerals. I’m not sure quite where Cheetos fits on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I don’t know that eating Cheetos has much to do with being self-actualized, but certainly if you’re in the bottom two rungs ­without basic necessities, you need something else.

Just because we can….should we?

Please realize, I’m not vilifying Frito Lay or their parent company, PepsiCo. They are just doing what most organizations think is expected of them: to grow by double digits each year. And this addiction to growth drives organizations into emerging markets like Honduras. But just because our market economy allows us to sell Cheetos to the dirt poor, is it right?Is it moral? And if we have to take this girl’s money, don’t we have a obligation to give her some nutrition. If General Mills can pack 100% of RDA of vitamins into Total cereal, can’t we hide a little vitamin C or beta carotene in the orange stuff?

When you look at nature, survival is not achieved by growth; it is achieved by adaptation. Why do most organizations think they must grow (instead of adapt)? Won’t there come a time when we have enough Big Macs or shampoos or computer chips or credit cards? Clearly this growth is not sustainable;we are having devastating effects on the environment.

And Marsha and I have worried that perhaps we are inadvertently contributing to the problem.

What if, by showing our clients to improve their productivity, we are helping them deplete the world’s resources, better, faster, cheaper.

Organizations are undoubtedly the greatest consumers of the earth’s resources ­either for their own use or in the creation of products and services. But few organizations  really factor in the environment into their decision making.

One tiny example: a couple organizations regularly send me things in these envelopes, the ones with bubble wrap, which I haven’t been able to recycle. When I approached one of them about using different envelopes,
she suggested I reuse it. I had to explain that I already had too many to reuse, and even if I did, someone would have to dispose of it. Why not use these padded envelopes which are recycled and recyclable? We should all be focused on using the most benign products available and finding replacements
for ones that are hazardous or non-renewable. Now, someone could argue that since the bubble wrap envelopes are lighter, that when you factor in transportation costs, they are actually better for the environment. I wouldn’t mind the argument. I mind that we’re not having the argument.


We travel together, passengers on
a little space ship,

dependent on its vulnerable resources
of air and soil;

all committed for our safety to its
security and peace;

preserved from annihilation only by
the work, the care, and, I will say,

the love we give our fragile craft.”
­ Adlai Stevenson


The funny thing is many people still don’t understand that promoting green practices can also help your bottom line…save money, gain customers, reduce legal liability and other good things. For example, the University of Oregon recently did a study that found that green organizations had a better rate of return than those with average or poor environmental records.

But two years ago, when Marsha and I were inviting people to our roundtable on being strategically green, far too many clients responded, “But we recycle all our paper….” as if that was the extent of their responsibility.

We’ve somehow learned to take for granted that business exists primarily to make a profit and to provide shareholder value, that we have no real obligation to our community or the environment except for minimal compliance or if there’s a bottom line return. But this has not always been the case.

Did you know that originally, corporations were created to meet very specific social needs that government couldn’t meet…Like the Hudson Bay Trading Company or the Pony Express. According to Ralph Estes who wrote Tyranny of the Bottom Line, corporations had very narrow charters that could be revoked and most were limited to 25 years. So originally corporations were created to meet societies needs and were not expected to live very long.

Over time, the focus has changed. Many of the early corporations were involved in trade which created a need for accounting practices. According to Estes, once we had accounting measures, the numbers somehow became paramount,elevating finances and the needs of owners. You get what you measure.

How Teams Have Helped Write the Chapters

But interestingly, teams have played an important part in making all of us recognize the need for the other chapters in our book. The quality of work life teams in the 1970’s introduced the needs of employees, empowering them but only in a cursory way. TQM and quality improvement teams added the customer as a critical stakeholder. If teams helped write the chapters on employees and customers, couldn’t they also lead the way on community and society. Actually, they already are.

For example, Vancouver Housing is doing work design and implementing teams in part so that they can free up time for their employees to volunteer:teaching skills to those in their housing units and helping them find living wage jobs. This is not a philanthropic effort­ charity. It is an integral part of their organizational strategy. They recognize their interdependence with the community. If they can help people get good jobs so they’ll move out of public housing, then Vancouver Housing doesn’t need to build as many new units. In fact they can never build enough low cost housing. So helping people get on their feet has become part of their mission.

Other organizations have become active in the schools because they realize that if the kids don’t come out of school with the skills they need, their business will have to train them.

Fewer organizations have really understood their potential to affect the environment, but many manufacturing organizations are using green teams to address environmental issues, usually saving the organization lots of money at the same time.

I believe we are moving into a time when social responsibility will be the focus, that your organization will be judged on how well it balances the needs of all its stakeholders: society/environment, community, employees,customers and owners; that your financial success will be dependent upon your ability to satisfy the needs of all these stakeholders.

In fact, this is already happening.

Whether we like it or not, we are already being judged by all of these chapters. Take this quick quiz. What’s the first thing you think of when I say…


Nordstom ……. Customer service?

Exxon . ………. Valdez?

The Body Shop …….Trade, not aid?

Kathy Lee Gifford’s clothing ……Sweat shops?


What would people associate with your organization’s name?

Your image around socially responsible issues affects your ability to recruit excellent employees, gain customer loyalty, build a new site, and maintain profitability. You absolutely can do well by doing good things…for your customers, employees, community and society at large.

Starbucks pays above average wages and provides benefits to part timers.British Petroleum is the first oil company to acknowledge global warming and make a commitment to solar energy. Monsanto is divesting its chemical businesses to focus on finding ways to improve agricultural yields to feed our exploding population without devouring more land. Utilities have banded together to plant trees to offset their carbon dioxide emissions. You may not like some of their solutions or products, but at least they are thinking along the lines of social responsibility.

And for those think only Wall Street matters, the Domini Stock Index of socially responsible companies has done as well or better than the Standard and Poors 500.

Maybe this is just the right time to change.

I believe we are at the headwaters of a major social change. Chaos Theory teaches us that there are moments when a system is much more susceptible to change, when it is already destablized. I believe that we are at one of those rare moments–now and in the next few years. We have a confluence of factors coming together right now.

According to Paul Ray, author of “The Great Divide: Prospects for an Integral Culture,” Americans can be identified with three different world views: traditionalists (at 29% with religious, “small town”values), modernists (at 47%, linked to the modern middle class, valuing science and consumerism) and a new group, cultural creatives, whose values are more idealistic and spiritual. They have more concern for relationships and psychological development and pay more attention to environmental issues.Can I see a show of hands. We all have pieces of all three of these worldviews. Sure, I’d like to have a wife to come home to and sometimes I go shopping just for recreation. But in your hearts, how many of you feel the greatest affinity with the cultural creatives? Look around you. We are in good company.

This last group already comprises 24% of the population and is the only group that is growing. 24% is considered large enough to be critical mass ­large enough to change the larger system, but we tend not to be well organized,even know that there are others like us.


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Indeed, it’s the only thing that everhas.”

­ Margaret Mead


In addition to the rise of values-oriented cultural creatives, we have the rising power of corporations. I remember Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s talk about his misgivings that in the past, religion and then government were the most powerful institutions, and at least ostensibly they existed to serve the needs of society. But now business is the most powerful institution and in his view, business only cared about the bottom line.

But what if business cared about and was measured by how well it contributed to all stakeholders? When you put cultural creatives in charge of these corporations, things will change. Couple with the strength of corporations,you have the Baby Boomers with vestiges of 1960 idealism. We are gaining power in organizations and we also have huge IRA investments which can influence the direction of organizations. We also have the approaching millennium,a time when societies are often marked by reflection and turmoil. If there ever was a time to push for change ­at least in our life times ­this is it.

What’s AXIS Doing?

Marsha and I are trying to make a more positive contribution to these last two chapters of local and global community. In the past, we’ve hosted a think tank on sustainability and a roundtable on green practices. Currently we are doing the Values Survey that’s in your conference packet which is intended to measure the degree to which your values align with those of your organization. I would like you all to participate in the survey and anyone who participates can get a copy of the results. You can drop your survey into the Symposium boxes which are at the back of all breakout rooms.

We have each also adopted a non-profit for a year, giving them a free day a month of services. In the future, we plan to offer a class through Washington State University called Get Control of Your Life and they have asked me to sit on an advisory committee to help them develop a curriculum focused on balance and sustainability.

I’m most excited about our prospects for doing a symposium like this one on the topic of socially responsible business practices. We want to invite organizations that are doing great things for their employees, community, and society so we can all learn from their experience. We just don’t know if anyone would want to come. So if you think it’s a great idea or can thinko f possible speakers or even have a great story to tell yourself, let us know.

I’d like to leave you with the words of Winston Churchill:


What is the use of living if it is not to make the world a better place
for those who will live after we are gone?”


And maybe also for those of us who are living now too.

For whom the team toils?

It toils for thee and for all of us.

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