Removing Obstacles for our Front-Line Teams

Improving morale and efficiency with some common-sense tools

In May 2022, “Muddy” Mildred Wilson completed her third Tough Mudder race at the age of 83.1 She became the oldest person ever to finish the 5K, known for its formidable obstacles and hard-core fans.

Tough Mudder is a team-based obstacle course with open versions ranging from the 5K to 15K events. The for-profit group claims to promote teamwork and camaraderie as entrants face obstacles like taking a dunk in a 34-degree ice pit, running through a water-filled trench while being zapped with 10,000 volts from dangling wires, crawling through a tunnel of tear gas, and more.

When Tough Mudder founder, Will Dean, pitched his idea at the Harvard Business School business-plan competition, the judges told him, “This isn’t just not a good idea, this is absolutely a bad idea.”2 They couldn’t envision people paying money to suffer.

Fourteen years later and, in fact, over 6 million people3 have done just that. Many do it for the challenge and the bragging rights. Some, like Muddy Mildred, do it for charity – Wilson runs with her son to raise money to drill wells in Africa.

Maybe there’s something to be said for training to test your limits as an elite athlete and finding out whether you have the stuff to make it through.

One thing’s for sure, nobody wants to run a Tough Mudder every day while they’re working. But that’s just what some of our teams are going through. Every day, the obstacles they face at work slow them down, make them inefficient, and in the worst cases make them miserable. As leaders, we can help smooth the course and make work less of a slog.  We can get better results and improve the morale of our teams as a bonus.

Self-inflicted pain with no gain

In terms of being able to perform your job well, few things are more fundamental than knowing what your responsibilities are and knowing how to perform them.

And yet, “72 percent of employees cannot find the information they need within their organization’s systems.”4

Obstacles employees face every day are variable, but tend to fall into two categories, too much or too little. Either way, the sum tends to be frustration and inefficiency:

  • Information – lack of information for onboarding, training, or microlearning make it challenging to learn skills competencies. But loads of poorly organized, difficult to find, and outdated information can waste more time and leave employees with less to show for it.
  • Tools – some organizations don’t provide sufficient tools to do assigned work and employees are forced to do tedious work manually. Others provide a wide variety of tools that each perform a discreet task, requiring employees to jump between tools as they work. Grunt work and constant context breed frustration – not to mention errors.
  • Direction & Support – tool and information availability will drive manager reactions. To meet goals, some managers will overcompensate by micromanaging and trying to reign in employee autonomy. Others apply minimum effort, holding mandatory training sessions, then relying on high-performing employees to take up the slack.

Every obstacle takes your team away from supporting customers, producing products, and improving your business. Every barrier builds frustration, drives down motivation, and weakens retention.

What if everyone knew what they were supposed to do and had the tools to learn what they didn’t know? What if managers’ time could be freed to focus on the ones who were struggling?

Removing the mud and the electric shocks

One of our clients, a global 500 company, solved a problem recently that stemmed from their rapid growth through acquisition. Process complexity in their order to cash process was significantly delaying revenue recognition and, in some cases, creating billing disputes that ended in write offs. It was expensive for the company both in profits and in client relationships.

At first glance, the issue appeared to be the sales team’s inability to correctly process orders. So, a secondary team was created to check new orders as they came through, rejecting those that were missing critical components. This new layer added time and complexity to the problem, but the company didn’t see any improvement in the outcomes.

Digging in deeper at the ground level, the operations team realized that the order process changed depending on the products and services included in the proposal. Much of this was driven by the pre-existing processes of acquired businesses. There was no clear documentation on what process to use and when. Only those who had been with the company for a long time seemed to know the One Best Way.

Compounding the problem, the team assigned to check inbound orders had been given a different set of instructions for reviewing them. Inconsistent transparency and communication around why orders were rejected created more frustration and confusion.

Armed with this knowledge, the operations team created procedures in Acadia to guide the sales teams through the appropriate order process. The procedures could be completed with corresponding checklists by both the person executing the order and the person reviewing the order. Both could see the other’s work as it was completed, enabling communication and visibility. In a short period of time, the O2C process was transformed and the company realized millions in savings.

When leaders made it easier for their teams to know what to do, results improved rapidly.

Starting with a flat, smooth track

Some obstacles come from complexity that compounds over time, but others can get baked in right from the start. Waiting to provide knowledge tools until after a project is launched allows room for bad habits to work their way into a carefully planned system.

Consider the case of our client who needed to rapidly deploy an extension of an existing domestic shared services team. The VP of Continuous Improvement had a new team in Mexico, four months, and Acadia.

Onboarding a large group of people at one time is challenging and can take a lot of time when using traditional classroom and LMS methods. Once team members are trained and working, ensuring they comply with procedures and maintain a low error rate can take even longer.

During that ramping up period, many businesses will anticipate a high error rate and not expect the new group to perform well for a long period of time. They can also expect some of the bad habits that form during that time to become permanent.

By providing a single source of truth for the new team, delivered in Spanish, the team was onboarded and trained using the same materials they would use while working.

Learning quickly and making less mistakes, the new team came up to speed faster. The VP of CI could ensure the quality of their work by evaluating each team member’s capabilities according to the standard. Overflow work from domestic operations transitioned to the near-shore office with no downtime and limited overlap in service.

Today, the staff of the Mexican office uses Acadia every day to quickly and accurately an­swer customer questions and follow company procedures for managing billing and other financial activities. The office is also a model for training and onboarding across the company.

Performing at your peak

Work is more complex now than it’s ever been. Our frontline teams are taking on more responsibilities as we struggle to fill open positions. Increased regulation adds more hurdles to their performance.

We need smarter, more committed employees who can respond rapidly to change. If we give our teams the tools and information they need, we’ll see better results, faster – and with a lot less pain.

No matter what goals you have for this quarter or this year, focusing on simplifying work for your front-line teams will help you get there faster.


  1. After Husband Dies 83-Year-old ‘Muddy Mildred’ Runs Her Third Tough Mudder Race to Provide Clean Water
  2. Why Do People Run The Tough Mudder?
  3. Tough Mudder
  4. Elevating the Workplace Experience

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