Using Horse Sense When Understanding Teamwork

This is part two of a two-part story.  Part one of the story, covered two weeks ago, was the narrative of harnessing a young draft horse and how it related to the topic of change.  This article continues with that same young horse being hitched to a wagon and what lessons we can learn from this story on the basics of effective teamwork.

It was now late morning as we were finishing the harnessing of the young gray Percheron mare. She was harnessed and standing in the stall calmly eating hay. Dad left the barn for a few minutes and returned leading an older Percheron mare into an adjacent barn stall to begin harnessing her.  She was a few years older, much heavier, and would probably be able to pull much more than the young mare. After asking questions about the older mare, my dad explained to me that in order to maintain a level of control in the training process, a young horse is generally teamed with an experienced horse. Because she was trained and experienced the older mare would facilitate better control of the wagon, provide pulling power, and be a stabilizing influence for the younger horse.

As we harnessed the horse she was almost oblivious to the routine and stood in the stall unconcerned as both of us worked around her.  With my limited help it took less than ten minutes to harness her.  We paused to drink a cup of coffee and watched both horses munch on the hay. We talked about the next step, hitching the horses to the wagon, and decided to take the wagon out to the farm ground nearby and bring back some hay bales to the barn.

Finishing his coffee my father led the older mare out of the barn and near the wagon.  Leading her along the right side of the wagon tongue he connected the front of her harness to the neck yoke, a short bar crossing the end of the trailer tongue, and then tied up her halter rope on her harness.  Gently pushing on her right rear hip he nudged the horse over towards the tongue and then attached the two pulling chains on the rear of the horse’s harness to the single tree.  This single tree is attached to the end of a long, pivoting bar – about four feet in length – that is connected to the trailer tongue by a heavy pin and bearing. This bar is called the “two-horse evener” or “doubletree” and is what transfers all the pulling force of the team to the tongue of the wagon. In addition, it is also used to split or level the pulling load between the two horses, and if need be, can be adjusted to compensate for the different pulling capabilities of the horses.  After she was hitched up the mare stood there calmly chewing on her bit.

Reentering the barn, my father emerged leading the young gray by her halter rope, talking to her as he led her to the wagon. This time he walked down the left side of the wagon tongue and hooked up the front of her harness to the neck yoke and tied up her halter rope. Moving to the rear he pushed on her rear hip to move and tentatively she shifted over next to the trailer tongue. Cautiously he hooked the pulling harness to the pulling tree and stepped back.  The young gray immediately bolted ahead taking the slack out of the pulling harness and jerked the wagon ahead a few inches.  The other horse was pulled back as the doubletree pulled on her harness.  The older mare was alarmed by the sudden movement but stood her ground.

Still fearful of the sudden confinement the young gray stepped over the tongue with her right rear leg. Immediately the older mare kicked the young horse and she instantaneously stepped back over the tongue.  Both horses now stood there, ears back and nostrils flaring. The young horse now knew the extent of her boundaries. Seeing she was settled down a bit we quickly hooked up the reins and then climbed on the wagon. My father cracked the reins and, with a sudden lurch, the horses started the trailer towards the road.

As we pulled onto the road the older mare established a steady walking gait. The young horse was lagging a bit and Dad snapped her reins and she sped up, trying to carry the full weight of the wagon by herself.  A few moments later she again started to lag back, there was a snap of the reins, and again she raced ahead.  She repeated this behavior for the full three miles to the farm.  As we stopped to open the gate at the haystack we could see that the young mare was covered with sweat, both from her fear and because of trying to pull the full weight of the wagon alone.  The older mare was fine, showing little sign of exertion. Once inside the gate my father guided the wagon alongside the haystack, the horses straining to pull the wagon through the knee-deep snow.  After stopping parallel to the haystack we loaded about 40 bales of hay on the wagon. We talked for a while and gave the horses twenty minutes to rest.

Next we climbed onto the wagon, pulled out of the gate and I jumped down to close it behind us. Climbing back on the wagon my father cracked the reins, and with the horses laboring in their harnesses, we started off down the country road.  Loaded with the hay the wagon was definitely harder to pull.  Flexing against her harness the older mare instinctively established her gait while the young mare again lagged back against the heavier weight of the wagon.  My father cracked the reins to speed her up and she pulled forward on the load, once again trying to pull the entire weight of the wagon. This happened several more times and then suddenly, the point must have hit home. She backed off a little and began matching her walking rhythm with the older mare. Soon she began trying to keep her head even with the older horse and only occasionally did we have to prompt her with the reins.  The young gray Percheron was now pulling steadily and both horses were sharing the load, making it easier for both members of the team. Even though the load was substantially heavier on the return trip the horses appeared to handle the load with less effort. The horses worked well together for the balance of the trip.

Arriving at the barn we unloaded the hay and unhitched the team. We led them into two adjacent stalls, pulled the harnesses off them and brushed them down as they ate hay.  Afterwards we led them out of the barn and released them into the field. The two horses ambled off together towards the water trough.

It had been a great experience to watch the horses learn to pull together as a team.  As I considered the wagon ride I could see many parallels that can be drawn with teamwork in an organization. Listed below are the parallels I believe are appropriate to us.

  1. Team up inexperience with experience.  In the story above, the young mare was teamed up with a seasoned horse to both provide control of the wagon and provide consistent pulling power. In a work environment, the quickest way to integrate new employees is to put them into existing experienced work teams. In these teams, they have someone to mentor them, answer their questions, provide a personal connection with other employees, plus insure that their efforts are productive in supporting the organization’s objectives.
  2. Uniqueness on a team is not a problem.  The two horses were dissimilar in capabilities, both from a knowledge and pulling viewpoint. In my opinion, the most successful teams are ones that have members with a variety of skillsets and capabilities. In these teams, there is a better environment for crosstraining and therefore workers will learn a broader variety of skills and do so much quicker.  Finally, the unique skills tend to make the members see the big picture, produce more output and perform less rework.  The individuals on the team both supplement and complement the skills of their teammates.
  3. They had unique development needs. Each horse was in a different stage of development and would require unique attention to optimize individual performance.  Obviously one was contributing more to the pulling of the wagon while the other was making many mistakes and perhaps working too hard for her pulling contribution. Because of the development needs at the time most of the attention was given to the young mare. In a team environment, one must understand that much of the training will need to be performed on an individual level and obviously with the newer employees. However, training programs should be tailored to supplement the skills of the senior employees also. In both cases, these newly acquired skillsets will improve the team’s overall performance.
  4. They had common objectives.  Both horses were attached to the same wagon and were sharing the load through the doubletree. Likewise, members of a team must be connected to the completion of one major task as a team. As individuals, each team member may make a different contribution to completing the task but they are tied to one common overall objective.  Another point to consider is that all participants will not contribute to the same level.  The doubletree on the wagon could be adjusted to allow one horse to pull more. Likewise, teams will always have individuals that are top performers and they will naturally carry more than their share of the load.
  5. There was synergy in the outcome. In a given instant, either horse could display tremendous strength and perhaps set a new personal record in pulling. However, on an ongoing day-to-day basis, a team of horses will out perform the level of work done by the two horses working separately. In my years of experience, I have seen the following team dynamics.
    • Team members expect more of each other and will push each other to achieve higher levels of individual and team performance.
    • They will assist each other as the need arises, whether in training, physical assistance, or personal encouragement.
    • If there are poor performers on the team that will not step up their personal performance to meet the expectations of the team then the team members themselves will often press to have them replaced.
    • Teams will be self-directed in developing ways to optimize their performance.
    • Turnover will be substantially reduced once someone is fully integrated into a team.
    • In general, teams will share some resources and will work together in closer proximity to each other and will therefore generate more output for a given amount of floorspace or other resources.
    • The bottom line is that the synergy of the team will allow higher performance levels than could be achieved as individuals working alone.  One plus one can equal three!
  6. Equal rewards for all team members.  At the end of the day both horses were rewarded with the same amount of hay and personal care even though one horse may have pulled more than the other.  In many team environments, there are individuals that are compensated more because they are in a leadership role or are technical experts. However, to make the teams work well together a portion of their pay must be tied to meeting team objectives. This can include customer service and quality objectives as well as pay for applying new skillsets that improve the team’s overall performance.
  7. Team leadership is critical.  There was a third team member that we did not talk about much and he was the most important. He was the wagon driver or team leader.  My dad was able to optimize the pulling of the team of horses by continually reviewing the performance of each horse during the pull. He would then make immediate corrections with either horse to insure the team achieved maximum performance at all times.  Likewise, team leadership must be intimately involved, actively working within the department or cell, reviewing outcomes, and immediately making corrections. In all of the team environments we have created, we believe that the team leader always plays the most important role.  Also, there is no team too small to necessitate having a leader.  In some instances, we have set up successful two-man teams with one being the team leader.

In the last 100 years in the United States, we have seen major changes in how to improve the productivity of the average worker.  At the start of the 20th century Henry Ford perfected the assembly line process and today there exists machining and assembly systems that are integrated with robots that work in a “lights out” factory environment. Both of these systems are very productive but in most cases they are costly, inflexible to change, and only work within a narrow set of design parameters. Starting this current century many companies are looking for other options to continue increasing their productivity. They are looking for simpler, less costly, and more flexible business and production systems. I believe studying simpler, low tech team models, such as depicted in this story about the team of horses, will furnish us with the new methods necessary to provide superior customer service and financial performance in a more cost-effective manner. In two weeks, another published article will cover teams in more detail.

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