How to build and manage high-performing virtual teams? 6 best practices from GKN’S Smart Quality-Team

The team members come from Italy, Germany, the USA, China and many other countries. Yet everyone is working on the same project. How is that possible?

Christina Messner, Global Director Quality Systems, is already working in this kind of team on the Smart Quality project. We asked about her personal experience with managing virtual teams, and what Smart Quality project entails.

Christina MessnerImage: Christina Messner on one of her business trips to San Francisco for Smart-Quality

Christina, could you first briefly describe your career at GKN?

I have been with GKN for almost exactly 19 years now. After finishing my physics degree in Innsbruck, I applied here in 1998, and started work in Research & Development. I was then responsible for our Centre of Excellence for a few years, and had a lot to do with customers there. After 5 years at the Centre of Excellence, I got the opportunity to become Manager of Bruneck. Even though I was not originally a Quality Manager, I was entrusted with this job, and wanted to challenge myself with it. As well as my main role, I was also always involved in regional and global projects. So every now and then I was away from Bruneck, which I personally enjoyed very much.

Since 2015 I have held the position of Global Director Quality Systems. So, what do we do with the data that our software systems provide us with? This is why we now have the Smart Quality Project. 

And what exactly is Smart Quality?

In a nutshell, Smart Quality means using the incredible quantity of data collected to improve our quality and control it in the most efficient way possible. We use many systems that generate unbelievable quantities of data. Smart Quality is designed to help us with the analysis of this data so that available resources are used in a way that our efficiency and quality are significantly improved.  

What role/tasks do you have in this project?

I am responsible for defining individual part-projects. I defined the structures of the project, working together with our Senior Vice President Peter Boultbee. What are the main topic areas? Where do you want to start? Of course these are all things that happen in a team, so I don’t want to mark myself out particularly. We have a fantastic team working on the project. This brings innovative ideas and different people together.

One of the slides that I created together with Peter Boultbee in the definition processImage: “One of the slides that I created together with Peter Boultbee in the definition process”

How did the team come together, and what is the starting point for the whole project?

First of all, the team was defined completely from scratch, and diversity plays a central role in this for me. The more diverse, the better. When you get as many people as possible from different departments, countries and cultures together, you’ll get a really wide range of valuable input and influences. Without, of course, neglecting the competency of the members (laughs).

Then we had a kick-off event when the four main Smart Quality blocks were defined. After that, there were again two to three follow-up conference calls where priorities were set and questions clarified, because nothing is more important in this kind of team than ensuring that everyone is working on the topic with the same understanding.

What is it like managing high-performing virtual teams?

Thanks to this digital age, it actually works very well. We can be in touch in real time via many of GKN’s portals, which simplifies things immensely. As far as communication goes, we have regular calls where the team exchanges information and ideas. But despite all the digital aids, it’s still nice for the team to meet in person occasionally. You should never underestimate personal exchanges of views.

Were there any challenges that you had to overcome as a global team?

The first challenge is obviously to find a time when everyone can dial in to a conference call! Because of the different time zones, you do sometimes have to make a compromise, and perhaps stay a few hours longer in the office.
Another challenge was conveying a joint understanding of Smart Quality to everyone. When you have a team made up from different departments such as Sales, Quality, Engineering, etc., everyone brings a different technical perspective to it. That’s why, in this process, no question is ever a stupid question. In our conference calls we discuss and explain things, and ask questions. That’s really important. 

How can remote teams become more productive?

As I’ve already indicated, for me it all starts with putting the team together. If you have diversity in your team, you get questions and ideas that you perhaps wouldn’t find in a more uniform team. It’s also really important to be patient, and to develop a feeling for whether this joint understanding has been reached. This isn’t just about technical understanding, but also about language barriers.

Not everyone is used to the same speed of discussion, which on the one hand depends on language skills, but sometimes also on the quality of the transmission. So it should never be seen as a problem if someone asks for something to be repeated, or for the speed to vary. It can also be helpful not to rely too much on text, but to work mainly with images and graphics.