Presentation Before The American Water Works Association
Annual Conference – Dallas, Texas

By Garry Shirts, Ph.D. with Mr. Jack Markel, American Water Works

Thank you Jack. The first time I met Jack, he was so angry with one of my partners he got up in the middle of our demonstration of Pumping The Colors® and walked out. A colleague of mine chased him down the hall, discovered what was wrong and apologized for our mistake. Jack thought about it for a few minutes and decided to return to the seminar. At the time, I thought, “We will never see him again,” but a year later he incorporated Pumping the Colors into one of the American Water Works management programs.

I knew from that incident that he’s a no nonsense, get down to work, let’s get it done kind of guy. I like to believe that that no-nonsense, bottom line, practical approach to the world is what attracted him to Pumping the Colors.

Before I elaborate on that point, I’d like to point out that when Jack and his team developed their program they did something that only a few people in training do. He didn’t assume what the training needs were, he did a needs analysis. He then designed the program to meet those needs. He then sold it to top management and said he wouldn’t proceed unless they supported the project. They had to be convinced. It was not an easy sale.

Then after the program he evaluated its effectiveness. He found that his program produced positive results in his managers in 8 out of 10 behaviors measured. That’s doing it right from beginning to end.

In the time I have available, I’d like to show you:

What happens in Pumping the Colors

  • How teams behave in a typical session
  • How Pumping The Colors was developed and how it has been used
  • Why Pumping the Colors and similar type experiences help adults learn better than lecture, videos, computer based training and other techniques.

What happens in Pumping the Colors?

Here’s the challenge we present to participants when they participate in Pumping the Colors.

When they come into the room they see this 8 foot protective mat on the floor with 3 containers filled with colored water positioned at the top of the mat. After a brief introduction, the trainer puts on a hat or badge that says ZEGRA CORPORATION. He or she says something along the following lines: “I represent Zegra. Zegra is a large multi-national corporation that has just won a huge contract that is so large that we can’t complete it by ourselves. Zegra needs subcontractors to help it complete this contract.”

“At Zegra, we tried to figure out the best way to select the kind of subcontractors we want. We believed that there were many firms that had the required technical expertise, but we wanted firms that also knew how to work together in teams or workgroups. Instead of interviewing companies and asking them if they knew how to work together effectively, we decided to create a project for them to complete.”

After this explanation, the trainer asks them if they are willing to accept the challenge. Are they willing to represent their company to see if they can qualify as one of our subcontractors? They generally say yes. The few times they’ve said no, we’ve discovered major problems on the team. In those few instances, those problems had to be addressed before we could proceed. But 90% of the time they say, ” Yes, we accept the challenge.”

The trainer explains that the task is to use (hold pipes, tubes etc. up) the pipes, connectors, pumps, y-valve switches, 50 foot of tubing, this nifty pipe cutter (demonstrate cutting a piece of pipe), and the other materials included in these boxes build a water delivery system.

To qualify for Zegra’s subcontractor’s list, they must build a water delivery system that enables them to pump any one of these colors (pointing to mat) to any one of these 12 destinations. In addition to the water delivery system, they must design and build a platform and a holder. The platform must hold the water delivery system 60 centimeters or more above the floor. The holder must hold all four of these source containers 60 centimeters or more above the floor also.

The test for the delivery system is whether it works. Zegra might say, “deliver red to destination 4” and if the red water flows to destination 4 then the delivery system works. The test for the two platforms they must build is whether each one will remain standing after the trainer hits first the one platform and then the other at right angles with his or her fist (demonstrate hitting platforms with fist). This is called the double whack test.

They have three hours to finish the project. We call each hour a simulated day. After each hour the teams stop working and have a team meeting in which they evaluate how well they are working as a team. They use the seven practices of high performing teams to evaluate their performance. These seven practices are introduced right at the beginning of the training day, before Zegra takes control.

Seven practices of high performing teams questions

  1. Did they have a common goal?
  2. Were they operationally clear?
  3. Did they communicate openly and resolve conflicts in a constructive manner.
  4. Were they committed to working as a team? In other words, did they collaborate, collaborate, collaborate?
  5. Did they share responsibility for the success and failure of the team? Did they win as a team and lose as a team?
  6. Did they value diverse work styles?
  7. Did they follow through on their plans and operate the way they said they were going to operate?

I’m previewing these very quickly for you here, but in the simulation, we ensure that they know and understand what each one of these practices mean.

Thirty minutes before the end of the simulation they must train someone to operate their system. The trainer recruits a secretary, a receptionist or if they are in a hotel, they might recruit a bell person or someone from the marketing and sales staff.

The team trains this person in another room. The trainee is not allowed to see the machine that the team has built until they enter the room. Once the person is trained, everyone gathers around the water delivery machine. Zegra says, “Pump red to destination 12” or something like that. The person who has just been trained turns the switches until she or he feels confident that everything is set. He or she then says, “Pump.” A team member turns the handle on the hand pump (hold it up) and hopefully red flows to destination 12. Everybody cheers.

After the demonstration the trainer does the double whack test and checks out other specifications. Then the team sits down and evaluates how they worked together as a team and decides individually and collectively what needs to be done to improve their performance.

Summary of the process:

  • Work for one hour, (this is called the first simulated day)
  • Have a team meeting in which they evaluate their performance during the first hour.
  • Work for a second hour (this is called the second simulated day)
  • Have a second team meeting in which they evaluate their performance the second and first hour.
  • Work for a third hour. During this third simulated day, the team trains someone to operate the system and demonstrates that its system works.
  • Debrief the simulation: How did we perform? What do we need to do to improve?

What happens in the typical session?

Most teams start out with a lot of enthusiasm and want to get right to the task. They don’t do much planning or thinking about how they are going to operate as a team. Sometimes, one person will get up and leave the team and start building the system by him or herself.

After an initial flurry of activity and enthusiasm, they generally find themselves in some sort of difficulty. They realize the task is more complicated than they thought. They then regroup and say, maybe we ought to think this thing through a little better. They then start working together more closely. At the end of the second simulated day, they often are discouraged because even though they are working together better, they haven’t got as much done as they believe they should. At this point some teams give up, but most work through this period of discouragement and find a way the solve the problems facing them so they can finish the job. During the third period, they often come together as a team and when they see the water flow to the proper destination, there’s a big sigh of relief.

How did Pumping The Colors originate?

Pumping the Colors was originally developed for a group of Ford Aerospace engineers. They were having problems working together and they asked us to develop a simulation that would help them solve this problem. That was in 1988. Since then, we’ve greatly improved the process as we’ve run it with many different groups and individuals.

How Pumping The Colors improves performance?

  1. It creates a structured practice that allows participants to examine the way they operate on teams and then helps them plan for ways to improve their performance.
  2. It allows the team to examine real behavior.
  3. It creates hard to deny realizations.
  4. It creates a need to learn.
  5. The participants remember things better when they have to solve problems and make something work and not just listen to lectures.
  6. It combines practice with theory.
  7. They experience the consequences of good and bad practices.
  8. It is safe yet anxiety producing.

Here are some of the specific ways it has been used:

  1. To help a group of individuals become a high performing team.
  2. To set or reset standards of performance for both the task and team behaviors.
  3. To create esprit de corps.
  4. To teach teams:
    • The importance of risk analysis in teams and work groups.
    • The Importance of a team negotiating for sufficient resources to do a good job.
    • How to resolve conflicts.
    • How to give feedback.
    • How to hold an effective team meeting.
    • How to set goals.
    • How to plan a project.
  5. The importance of getting buy-in
  6. To help teams and work groups resolve existing conflicts in a productive manner.
  7. To restart teams or work groups that are having problems.
  8. To identify skills that need to be developed in order for the team or work group to succeed.
  9. As an icebreaker.
  10. As a way of demonstrating competence at the end of a training session.

In summary, I believe we are all working to make a living, but that’s only part of the story. We all want jobs where we feel like we’re contributing something, where we’re learning something, where we feel valued and appreciated. When people don’t work well together. People do not feel valued, they become less productive, they don’t learn from one another. It makes work frustrating, unrewarding and stressful.

When we learn to work together especially well, it can create all kinds of side benefits. People feel much healthier mentally and physically, they enjoy coming to work and they feel a sense of accomplishment.

That’s our goal with Pumping the Colors: To increase productivity and to make work more satisfying and rewarding for each individual.

Thank you very much.

R. Garry Shirts

R. Garry Shirts, Founder of Simulation Training Systems

Pumping the Colors was originally developed for a group of Ford Aerospace engineers. They were having problems working together and they asked us to develop a simulation that would help them solve this problem. That was in 1988. Since then, we’ve greatly improved the process as we’ve run Pumping the Colors countless times with many different organizations and individuals.