Jamie Flinchbaugh of JFlinch: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team

Authority Magazine
Nov 17, 2021 · 9 min read

People need empowerment and engagement, but they also need direction and purpose. Managers recognize the need for empowerment, but take it too far and end up abdicating responsibility to their team. Then when the team, or an individual fails, it is still their failure instead of management’s failure. Empowering people requires that we set them up for success with the required skills, information, perspective or whatever they need to make it work.

a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie Flinchbaugh.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is the author of the newly released People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem. He is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, Consultant, and Board Member with 30 years of learning-oriented experience spanning a range of roles across exceptionally diverse industries and functions. Throughout his career, Jamie has held leadership positions with JFlinch (Founder), Qorvo (Executive), Old Dutch Group LLC (Founder), Lean Learning Center (Co-Founder), Rev! Motorcycles (Co-Founder), DTE Energy (Change Agent), and Chrysler (Operational Leader). As the Founder of JFlinch, Jamie helps teams accelerate their journey by solving their challenging problems and providing the resources, education, and tools needed to make lean leaders successful.

During his 15 years as Co-Founder, with Andy Carlino and Dennis Pawley, of the Lean Learning Center, Jamie built the organization to become one of the premium providers of lean transformation and advisory services, with their educational programs earning the highest marks. In 2006, he co-authored the lean bestseller, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road, and he has worked with over 300 clients spanning manufacturing, healthcare, utilities, technology, government, and professional services, including Harley-Davidson, Intel, Mars, Amazon, Crayola, Fidelity, Whirlpool, among others.

Jamie has been a Contributing Editor for IndustryWeek and columnist for Assembly Magazine. His education includes two Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan, an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Lehigh University, where he has served in numerous volunteer capacities. He resides in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife and 3 children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

grew up in and around manufacturing, including working on the factory floor as a kid cleaning up and eventually doing things like running machine tools. This got me interested in manufacturing and operations. If you combine my entrepreneurial mindset with an interest in how organizations run and work, this naturally leads to the exploration of lean concepts, which I explored in my first book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean. Whether as an advisor, board member, or executive, I’ve continued to search for and experiment with the most effective ways to lead, transform, and scale any organization.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Perhaps the most interesting isn’t one thing but how my experiences have come together. I’ve had the opportunity to work with and visit over 300 companies, ranging from healthcare to manufacturing to financial services. It’s been fascinating to see what makes each company unique, as well as the common patterns that can be observed across them.

To share a specific story that I haven’t told often, but also illuminates some of what I believe is common, goes back to when I was working in automotive manufacturing. There was a broken piece of equipment preventing us from running properly, and the department manager came to me as the supervisor to find out when we would be back and running. He didn’t like what he heard, and in a fit of rage, threw his 2-way radio at my head, which busted in several pieces on the wall behind me. I spent much of my remaining time in this organization trying to avoid engaging this particular so-called “leader.”

This moment helped me realize simultaneously two important things. First, when leaders act in ways that create fear, the organization becomes less effective and certainly less open. Second, I felt empathy for him, and while not excusing his behavior, there were clearly things going on for me that weren’t easy. That empathy led me to be much more curious about why many senior leaders act as they do.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The stupidest I’ve perhaps ever felt was when I was a young supervisor at Harley-Davidson a long, long time ago. My boss was not suited for manufacturing, nor for managing for that matter. He would avoid almost all interactions with people. He believed that the fork-truck drivers of the factory were driving aggressively and too fast. He wanted me to essentially set up a speed trap: two markings on the floor and a stopwatch. He believed either that this would send a message or that he’d actually get validating data.

At first, I just pretended like he was joking, and when that didn’t work, I pushed back. He persisted, and so I caved and set up shop. It took about half a second before everyone knew what I was doing, and about a second more to realize who’s brainstorm this really was. They set up signs saying “speed trap ahead” and would drive really fast up to the line and then the slowest they could possibly go through the marked zone. The whole effort was a complete waste of time, demonstrated a lack of trust, and further deteriorated the relationship between management and the workforce.

Fortunately, most of the people took pity on me knowing that I was just the fall-guy, but I really should have pushed back harder or just refused to do something so stupid. They all had their fun with me, as they were quite justified in doing. This taught me both the importance of having the courage to speak up about things I think are wrong, as well as the value of tackling a problem more directly with people rather than trying to set them up for failure.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

People need empowerment and engagement, but they also need direction and purpose. Managers recognize the need for empowerment, but take it too far and end up abdicating responsibility to their team. Then when the team, or an individual fails, it is still their failure instead of management’s failure. Empowering people requires that we set them up for success with the required skills, information, perspective or whatever they need to make it work.

Key inputs that help that success are providing direction and purpose. In what direction are we headed, and why? Some think that this is about the company, or the founder, or the CEO. Sometimes that is true, especially when someone’s individual work directly translates into the realization of the company’s vision. For most employees in most organizations, however, the company’s purpose doesn’t carry enough weight to really impact them day to day and affect their direction. More often this sense of purpose is created at the team and manager level. The purpose does not need to be to save the world. Sometimes the purpose is just to provide excellent service to an internal customer. People need to know what is important in their work, and direction and purpose provide that perspective.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

Underneath a large team, you need a fundamental operating system that allows all the pieces to work in sync. There are a lot of ingredients to this, but it includes common processes, a common language, and in particular a common way to engage in and solve problems together.

Teams have entropy, meaning that left to their own devices they gradually decline into disorder. Each disruption, abnormal condition, change, or problem contributes to that disorder. Teams must have the culture and capabilities to engage in problems as they occur. This is done either to reestablish that order and provide stability, or is done to actually make improvements and take the team forward.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

  1. You need an operating system, an underlying set of rules and processes that enable a team to function. Without that, you end up with chaos. Some people might like the chaos, but that doesn’t make it effective. Establish your core processes that ensures that people know how to work, and how to work together.
  2. Establish a team culture. Whether this focuses on a single core behavior or ends up as a whole set of rules, how people behave is a massive leverage point. As a leader of a team, no matter how many other influences there are, you are the greatest impact on shaping behavior. Everything you say, do, and decide creates experiences that in turn, shape people’s beliefs and their behaviors. You will either end up with an accidental culture, perhaps one you don’t want, or a deliberately designed purposeful culture that you have helped to bring about.
  3. Create tension, not stress. Stress is knowing that where we are is not acceptable, and we don’t know what to do about it. Many people, and many teams, are under stress these days. Tension is still uncomfortable, but is quite a different energy. Tension is knowing where you are and understanding why, knowing what good looks like, and having at least steps to start to close the gaps. If I drop you off in the middle of the woods blindfolded, that will be stress. If I drop you off in the middle of the woods with a map, show you where you are on that map, point out where you need to be, and at least in which direction to start walking, you still have a lot of work to do but you have much better energy towards getting it done.
  4. Build a core of trust. Trust is a raw input to almost any team’s success. No matter what the larger organization is doing, a manager can either build or destroy trust through their own actions. There are four key ingredients to building trust that I call the 4Cs. Demonstrate that you Care, Communicate the way of what is going on, build or grow the Capabilities needed so that we can be successful, and finally do all three of those with Consistency.
  5. Create space to make improvement happen. Problems happen. If teams have no slack, permission, or mechanism to engage with problems and drive improvements, why should they have hope that tomorrow will be a better day. We might be waiting for someone to show the initiative to make something happen, but their initiative is against the momentum to not improve. Leaders must create time and space to help solve problems, otherwise your direction and purpose will never be fulfilled on a consistent basis.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

You can be astounded not just by what people can accomplish, but how they can accomplish it in a way that is different from your way. When I was a soccer coach, I would sometimes mutter instructions under my breath, or to my assistant, about what I hoped the player with the ball would do next. They would do something different, and it would work, and so I would add “or do that, that works.” I did this in part to remind myself that my answers were only that: my answers. They were not the only way to be successful.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

We must be able to name the problems we experience without aggregating them with other problems and making them so large they could never possibly be solved. Are people horrible, or do you have a specific bad relationship that needs to be repaired or removed? Are people not working, or do you have a combination of problems related to both retention and hiring and utilization?

When we overly aggregate a bunch of similar conditions into one problem, there is neither one solution big enough to solve it, nor one solution that is equally effective for all of those different conditions. When we learn to see each problem as its own opportunity to improve, we drastically improve our chances of actually making a difference rather than being the victim.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A quote that has always stayed with me is Gandhi’s “Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever.” I have always prioritized learning, but perhaps often thought about it as an investment with a payback period. The older I get, the more I realize that it isn’t about what learning will give you, it is its own reward. I don’t look at it anymore as an investment but really immerse myself into learning for its own benefit.

TO LEARN MORE: www.jflinch.com, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Thank you for these great insights!Thank you for these great insights!

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