Bridging the Divide

NPR's Marketplace interviewed me the other day about the Congressional schedule that has lawmakers in Washington D.C. only three days per week. I was asked how a process improvement expert would improve the gridlock that afflicts our legislative process. I replied that if I were running a business that had two factions — whether it’s the east coast and the west coast offices, or the sales and the engineering teams — if I were trying to bridge a divide like the one in Congress, face-to-face time is absolutely essential. The lack of face time and direct contact is particularly visible in Congress. I mean, the place is a ghost town on Mondays and Fridays when representatives are back home in their districts. But you'd be surprised at how little the teams in your company interact. People sit in their own areas, get caught up in their own work, and plan their days around their departmental meetings. It takes an enormous effort to walk from customer service to product development, even when the distance can be measured in yards. Unless your company is organized by value stream, the distance might as well be measured in light years.

Face to face contact is critical in understanding how work is done by people upstream and downstream from you. When you see the work being done, you can understand the cause of problems and waste. Equally important, regular contact between groups builds the human bonds of trust that are essential to successful change. That trust, of course, is what's sadly lacking in Congress today.

Given that your company is most likely organized by functional silo, what can you do to improve the situation? Certainly company-wide events are a good start, but because they're not focused, they're insufficient. Far better to actually schedule time for people to "walk the value stream." Have the sales people walk from customer service, to credit, to the distribution center (if it's local) to see how orders are entered, approved, and shipped. Or have the product developers walk from IT to marketing services to see how catalogs and price lists are produced. Seeing the process, really seeing what people downstream do in order to get their jobs done, is eye-opening. It also demonstrates real respect for what other people do.

Give it a try. You might be surprised at what you learn.