How to improve your virtual teams by understanding why co-located, cross-functional teams work

To understand how a virtual team may be better than a co-located team it is important to understand why a co-located team is good. Co-located, cross-functional teams are practices that follow several of the laws of Flow, Lean and ToC (FLT).  Let’s look at some laws and principles of FLT.

Law Principle Practice(s)
Delays in workflow of the value stream cause waste Avoid handoffs, handbacks and delays in workflow Have co-located, cross-functional teams
Working beyond capacity causes waste because it causes delays, multi-tasking and lack of focus Avoid having people work beyond their capacity Implement a pull system to manage workload
Delays in achieving feedback increase the chance for errors to cause significant waste Implement quick feedback cycles. Work on small items and complete them before going on to other things. Use Test-First, MBIs, automated testing, dev-test working together


Lack of visibility increases the likelihood that the laws above will be violated Increasing visibility of workflow and having explicit workflow policies is good Have a board that both shows the work to be done and how the team has agreed to do the work

Once we realize that what we’re trying to do is to follow certain principles so that we abide by the laws of Flow, Lean and Theory of Constraints, we can find practices that accomplish this within the constraints of remote teams. These practices would be:

  • Have the people in the team be dedicated to one value stream
  • Avoid overloading the team by having them pull work when they are ready
  • Create visibility of the work being done
  • Use test-first, MBIs, automated testing, dev-test working together (these two should be in the same time zone if they are different people filling the different roles)
  • Attempt to have people in the same time zones. If not possible, arrange work so delays in collaboration don’t occur. This may even be worked to the teams advantage when one team member can do some work on their own and hand it off to other team members in different time zones. This enables more work to be done in a 24 hour period.
  • Have at appropriately timed collaboration meetings to keep the team up to date
  • Have collaborative working sessions when possible – remote pairing/mobing

What About Face to Face?

There is no question that face to face is important. But this too, can be done remotely. The fact that we’re used to have meetings with several people doesn’t mean we can’t have one on ones to get to know each other. Teams may be well advised to spend more time with some one on ones at the beginning until people learn who they are.  Having regular “get to know each other events” is another way to improve this.

Bottom Line

There’s nothing inherently better about co-located teams. What’s important is how they manifest following the principles and laws of Flow, Lean and Theory of Constraints. In many circumstances remote teams can work better than co-located ones. Co-located teams is only one of three main aspects of teams that help their effectiveness. The other two are being cross-functional and being focused on one value stream.