Fear and Opportunity Working with Geographically Remote Teams
By Bernardo Dibildox, Global Business Services and Enterprise Program Management, FLEX
The outsourcing model has been well accepted in the manufacturing industry, especially in services like finance, HR and IT. Nowadays it is much more common for companies to move complex activities to low labor cost countries, even when there is resistance to change or hesitation about the capabilities of the people of these countries. We have heard forever the cliché about the internet erasing borders and reducing the distance between countries. In this journey I have learned, while we see products, services and markets moving as easy as a mouse click, we still fear this change, especially moving the day to day activities of manufacturing.
I have been in EMS operations based in Mexico for more than 20 years and am a natural skeptic. I was used to doing everything in person. I hated e-mail, messenger tools and I was pushy with the teams to get together whenever needed. I even had a hard time with Millennials “talking” to each other via text.
Now I am based in Mexico and leading a remote organization in India, working with customers all over the world! You can imagine how difficult it was for me when I started this position and much of my team was far away. I was trying to adapt to their schedule without truly understanding their strengths and capabilities. I had to change the way I organize myself, be clearer in my requests and polish my scheduling techniques (pulling my meeting early in the morning and pushing out the solo work in the afternoon). As well, they had to learn from me what I was expecting (the same way you do with a new leader or team). But once we understood and learned, I saw the opportunities, as the team would be working while I am away to have information ready for my morning meetings.
Now I can be anywhere; as long as there is an Internet connection I am “there.” India is an amazing country. Once I got over being astonished about their places, temples and culture, I had the joy to learn, understand and see the capability of the people, their maturity and professionalism to deliver services. By seeing the cities full of talented, helpful and hardworking people, working 24/7, adapting to the best time zone of their colleagues on the other side of the world to get the same goal –that was when I truly understood the Internet Cliché! These communities are indifferent to the doubt the world has about their capabilities; they go beyond what any other country or culture can deliver; and that is exactly where their success resides.
In operations, we are used to interact face to face, in the same language; body language is a fundamental part of the conversation and we take it for granted. As for any other activity, there is a learning curve; we need to organize in a new way and understand they are an extension of our team. One of the big differences I have found in successful organizations, is when the local team treats their remote team as one and the same team. This is a non-trivial accomplishment and takes time and practice to achieve.
Even activities like engineering, design, project management and other management activities are possible for teams that are skilled at working remotely. There are countries where core activities are managed in house, while they collaborate with the remote team for activities like program management, engineering changes, design activities, NRE, shipping, analytics and even covering colleagues while in PTO.
Remote manufacturing enables the talents of millions, but only if teams become skilled
Technology along with globalization of knowledge, is leading us to move from old transactional and repetitive services, to completely new solutions, allowing us to bring closer millions of talented and experienced people, who have the capability to offer value services and solutions practically for any scope of work.
It is essential to be ahead in this race and to learn how to benefit from the opportunities this bring us. In the same way that production lines, projects and factories move almost automatically, the same thing happens with knowledge and expertise. But it takes time and effort to get everyone on board.
A few years back, I worked with a program manager (PM) who was having trouble getting his team to work as one. These days it is very difficult to find good program managers who can easily hit the ground running, so we have found we have to experiment to see what works. In this case, the team was in Mexico, the US and India. At first, there wasn’t much hope, but the dire need made things work. It is mainly a matter of training how to communicate rather than a hard limitation. Teams found the ways to participate via video conferencing in daily meetings; the use of messenger and system tools facilitated this as well. PMs from India interacted with all Customer Focus Team members, learned to follow up on all actions, insert themselves into the appropriate meetings and now all are familiar with the process. They are treated and responded to exactly as if they are physically at the factory.
Today teams can program machines, analyze data, see product defects and interact anywhere there is internet
When we had an issue in the manufacturing line with a product and we had to pull the team together, there was always a mental blockage about not being in the room physically with the manufacturing line. We started by practicing “passing on the message” accurately from one geography to the other, and then checking to make sure it was communicated properly. This was difficult and inefficient at first, and people resisted, but it was necessary to raise awareness of the potential for miscommunication. It takes time to get used to video conferencing technology, and teams must practice being away, to get used to the fact that the person is not there the same way.
With the use of mobile applications, pictures, video and some “open line stations” we help the teams to overcome the communication barriers. Apps like Zoom or Teams allow you to virtually be connected the same way you might be with a team member on PTO or in a different building. It is a matter of gaining trust and exercising the tools; the physical limitations that come from not being in the room are actually minimal. Today, teams can program machines, analyze data, see product defects, etc and interact in a remote manner. And once you think about it, at the end we do this with the customer every day. So instead of waiting until right before the quarterly review, we take the time to document a step sooner than at the end when we communicate to customers.
It might be scary to trust these new technologies, but we must be open to the possibilities that globalization and technology bring us as part of the evolution of companies and their people. I am sure you will be surprised of the opportunities you will find!