Something as simple as putting people from different areas of the company in the same room and charging them with a specific task can produce outstanding results. However, this can happen only when employees find a way to work well together. Regardless of the employee/management structure, when employees learn how to work well together, companies inevitably will gain a competitive edge.
Let’s face it, working well together is not always easy and may require extra effort from all participants. I believe the first step to creating an effective working relationship is the recognition of a common goal or shared interest by all parties. By focusing on what they have in common rather than what sets them apart, people are more likely to understand and even gain a greater respect for the views of others. This step is critical to reduce or eliminate the defensiveness that can suddenly arise during group interactions.
During a recent client engagement, I witnessed a great example of people working well together. The event focused on the concept of Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), which can be highly controversial in some companies. TPM is a program designed to foster a partnership between equipment operators and the maintenance technicians who service their equipment. TPM seeks to make the operators more “equipment knowledgeable” so they can both recognize equipment problems and perform routine maintenance tasks. It is widely believed that if operators can perform some of the simpler maintenance-related tasks, then maintenance technicians can focus on more challenging issues that often get relegated to the “back burner” due to resource constraints.
Unfortunately, the TPM objective is sometimes misinterpreted and instead viewed as a means of eliminating maintenance technicians. (Fortunately, I don’t know of any company that uses TPM for this nefarious purpose). The maintenance technicians who participated in the TPM event I attended quickly recognized how TPM could increase equipment uptime and free them from some of the more basic maintenance tasks. Thus, there was a shared interest—the operators wanted to take more responsibility for certain aspects of the equipment, and the maintenance technicians wanted to do more challenging maintenance tasks. The shared interest kept everyone engaged and motivated to offer creative ideas that could simplify the maintenance that the operators would be doing. What could have turned into a turf battle between the equipment operators and the maintenance technicians never materialized as all participants shared in a common interest and worked well together.
In another recent example, a team was formed to improve the process of ordering raw materials and supply items for an assembly line. The team consisted of material planners, buyers, warehouse personnel, line employees and supervisors. In this case, the concept of “satisfying the internal customer” was a critical element to bringing about any improvement. Everyone involved in the material acquisition process realized they had an internal customer to whom they were accountable.
The planners, who had to schedule the acquisition of materials in order to keep the line going, had the most internal customers in the process (buyers, warehouse and line employees, and supervisors). Whatever the planners did affected these internal customers in some manner. If the planners ordered too little, there was the risk that the buyer could not acquire the product at a reasonable price or that the assembly line could run out of product. In addition, ordering small quantities on an ongoing basis would lead to increased paperwork and more inventory transactions. If the planners ordered too much, warehouse personnel had to find a place to store it all. Also, if there were quality issues with the material received (something that had occurred in the past with some of these raw materials), line employees would have to figure out what to do with large quantities of rejected parts.
Recognizing the need to plan for the “right amount” of inventory that would best satisfy all internal customers was the common goal in this project. As everyone had a vested interest in the outcome, the team needed to work well together to achieve mutually beneficial solutions. Ultimately, the team came up with significant improvements to the raw material and supplies ordering process.
A common goal and focus is certainly an important component in working well together. Of course there are other factors, but if people can recognize a common benefit, there is a greater likelihood that employees will be compelled to work well together.