Building a championship facilities team

Hildo Hernandez
General Manager (retired)
Facilities Operation Services
Los Angeles County, California
Member, APWA Facilities & Grounds Committee

What would you do if you were the leader of an agency, firm, or organization that was in disarray? The obvious answer would be to reorganize or make changes in operating procedures. But what if your entity was operating smoothly? Would you be satisfied with the present or would it be time to go to work and make it better?

You can probably relate to either scenario. Most leaders take charge with their own autocratic actions. A select few take charge using their most valued resource—teams. Teams are neither organizations nor groups of people that have jobs to perform. Teams are composed of individuals that produce mutual outcomes and high productivity for an organization. Championship teams are spinoffs of these successful teams with a special spirit that penetrates the routine and emerges as extraordinary.

Successful teams possess seven factors that contribute to their productivity. To build a championship facilities team you must possess these factors and more. Championship facilities teams consider what is happening inside the team, around them and through them. At this point the organization will generally exploit them and benefit from the team's results. Fred Hassan, Chairman of the Board for Schering-Plough Corporation, had this to say about corporate teams: "Business success is not about numbers. It is about trusting each other." Someone once said that unbridled enthusiasm is the raw motivating power for teams, and I concur in that I have experienced first-hand that a spirit of winning and unselfishness takes over when you work with a trusting team.

Facilities leaders in public service have the same challenges as those in the private sector except that one works with profit or loss while the other works with budget allocation. Championship teams are more apt to emerge in the private sector than in the public due to the unknown customer financial base. However, public leaders have no write-offs or depreciation at the end of the year; therefore, they must account for all monies and account for every asset and justify its need.

As the General Manager for Los Angeles County Facilities Operation Services (FOS), I was privileged to lead a transition team that became a self-supporting operation by generating enough income from customers and zero dollars from the general fund to exist. Instead of being contracted out, FOS used contract services as a tool generating income overseeing contracted services. I considered the transition a challenge, an opportunity, and a new way of providing service as did the rest of the team that made it happen.

Seven successful factors in building a championship team

The first factor we embraced was mutual respect. Team members accepted each other as individuals. We refused to see each other by position, age, longevity, skill, or perception. We put aside past issues or associations and treated each other with professional and constructive behavior.

Secondly, we had a shared purpose. Remember, our jobs were on the line and so was our reputation, pride of ownership and workmanship. Team members worked toward the same goal because of a common direction. Our team was focused, concentrating on what was important, utilizing an individual's unique skills and talents. We embraced processes and practices that we had not done before. We took risks and focused on the vision, values, and expected outcomes. We also kept sight of the consequences if we didn't meet the challenge.

Thirdly, we designed structured processes. Team members designed and followed processes that promoted consistency and clarity. Total Quality Service (TQS) was the approach we used to overtake the competition of "lower cost services." Team members designed processes that helped us meet the goals, make decisions, deal with conflict, solve problems, plan and organize work, and establish working agreements. By using clear, concise processes we reduced sick time, absenteeism and increased productivity, thus reducing cost and improving the quality of service to customers. Utilizing the existing people that we had was no easy chore. We had to survive in order to meet this challenge. True, some people had to go (retire, reassignment, transfer, and even rightsize) to meet the goal, but we stuck it out and hung together as a team. By now you might be asking if we liked the situation we faced. The answer is "No," but the consequences of not succeeding were steep.

The fourth factor we embraced was effective communication. Team members learned to communicate with a purpose of achieving productivity sufficient to pay for our direct and indirect cost. The customers liked us and we had the advantage of a good name based on our past services. So we invited our customers to join with us in selecting the level of service they wanted us to provide with the funding they would pay for our services (custodial, grounds, facilities maintenance and utilities). That action was a communication bridge that "saved our bacon" in meeting our self-sufficiency and retaining our service. Team members communicated by exchanging ideas and feelings, and encouraging cooperation and ongoing improvements. As time passed the team started receiving positive feedback from customers. The feedback energized us and gave us the motivation to win at all costs. We began to strategize and prioritize with those customers that were with us as well as those that still needed more convincing in deciding to stay with us or outsource our services. Ultimately it was the customers' decision to make. That being the case, we marketed our skills, quality of service, experience and knowledge of the environment.

The fifth factor is credibility. To sustain our gains, team members continued to build and maintain credibility with each other through trust and by making and keeping their commitments to customers by demonstrating their skills and quality of service. By team members maintaining their commitments to each other, credibility was established which then fostered an environment of openness which eventually led to building ultimate trust. The trust built among team members was visible and customers could see it when service was delivered.

There is a saying that scares me to death: "Trust me." That phrase is so superficial that the pet cat would run from it. Now consider how the family dog wags his tail when you come home. You immediately know it is genuine and sincere trust. Why? Because he trusts you and is dependent on you. Trust is what the team was building with the customers. As a trusted provider of service you add credibility to your portfolio and add value to someone's team.

The sixth factor we had was commitment to the team. Team members desired to work together, helping each other reach individual and team goals. Team members believed in each other, and the idea of "team play" was beginning to take ownership of the team situations, solutions, systems, processes, challenges, goals and desired outcome. The feeling was so strong that team members would take risks, go extra lengths to reach a desired goal or outcome, demonstrate interdependence and stand firmly with the commitment to the team. There were times we had to repeat the processes to find the best path to the solutions. Processes were key factors to the successful team building but nothing like the next factor.

The team's greatest asset has not been mentioned up to this point. The asset I'm talking about involves its reliance on honesty and integrity with one another; just as God puts His trust in us, we should trust others. It is the most important of the seven factors in team building.

The seventh factor is trust. Championship teams emerge when the time is most opportune for the greatest outcome. A championship team is built on trusting each other no matter the position, age, skill, longevity or perception. In the case with Los Angeles County Facilities Operation Services being considered for privatization, it was a matter of doing business differently or ending a career as it existed. We embraced each other as a team and made changes with a purpose to reach a desired outcome. Team members learned to be leaders and rely on each other because we built and maintained credibility. We took the initiative, risk and challenge necessary to develop methods, processes, practices and desired outcomes to build a championship team.

I didn't consider myself the leader of the team; instead I was a member of a championship leadership team. The real truth of being more than an ordinary team is emerging as an individual resource that can be counted on when the team needs you most. The end result is that real championship teams deny the most persistent barrier to leadership which is a heart motivated by self-interest. Unless the individuals on the team remove the natural instinct of selfishness, take risks involving conflict, trust, and demonstrate interdependence and hard work for a desired outcome, there will be no extraordinary emerging.

In conclusion, it is important to utilize your existing resources when faced with major issues. Facilities services for custodial, grounds, building maintenance and utilities are now being operated at Los Angeles County as a self-sufficient business operation due to the extraordinary efforts by the transition team during some of the direst fiscal years in the history of the County.

Hildo Hernandez can be reached at

Here are some Total Quality Service attitudes:

  1. Be honest and respectful in dealing with others.
  2. Share information; practice open communications.
  3. Keep an open mind; listen to and allow different points of view.
  4. Refer internal and external customer perceptions (good or bad) to the responsible team member.
  5. Resolve conflict by dealing with issues, not personalities.
  6. Share resources as appropriate.
  7. As a leader take responsibility and give authority to the customer service provider.
  8. Provide clear, understood direction and then support it.
  9. Recognize differences within individual organizations and institute policies and systems to support them.
  10. Maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses.
  11. Criticize yourself before you do others.
  12. Celebrate successes and recognize those responsible.