Infrastructures for Complex Workflows
To turn a single team into a High Performing Team is a challenge, but to make a whole company of 100, 500 or 5.000 team members act as One Team is a challenge at a whole different level. When you combine our all-too-human tendencies to get stuck in our own perspectives with the necessity of collaborating with people with very different specialist training, culture, language and day-to-day priorities, things tend to go wrong.
This challenge is something none of us are trained for in our schools, families or even in team sports. This lack of preparation for the complexities of collaborating in a long complex workflow is fertile soil for the growth of irritation, misunderstandings, conflicts and all sorts of silo behaviours. It belongs to the darker more frustrating sides of work-life for most people. It is also the single biggest source of productivity loss in most companies. It is an area in need of strong medicine, it needs robust supportive infrastructures. Let´s be a fly on the wall in a company that is trying to dig itself out of this dark place.
The carpool transport pulled up in front of John. He climbed into the front seat, happy to get out of the rain.
“Hi guys, what’s up?”
“Simon’s telling us about something interesting that happened yesterday,” said Will from sales. “A guy from one of the shipping teams showed up in his team.”
“Interesting?” said John. “I’d call that weird. What could a guy from shipping possibly find to talk about to a production team, may I ask?”
“Yeah, that’s why it was so interesting,” said Simon. “He didn’t come with a list of complaints. He wanted to know how they could help us.”
“Well, isn’t that nice? And you said … ?”
“To be honest, we were a bit taken aback. Then he showed us one of the tools in the toolkit that was introduced at our strategy dialogue gathering. Remember that Strategy Toolkit?”
“Oh, that thing,” said John, with a cynical smile. “I remember an Excel kind of a thing, but we’ve not yet started to use it.”
“Maybe you should. In the toolkit they had a list of everybody they serve with information or goods, and also everybody that serves them. We are on that list and there was a space for us to fill in what we require of them as well as what they require of us.”
“I knew it. A bitch list.”
“Actually no John, not really. I think it would be more accurate to call it an anti-bitch list. Rather a kind of polite and diplomatic invitation for us to solve our problems together. Instead of bitching and getting angry the moment problems show up, we’ve agreed on a long term plan to improve the way we work together.”
“Hah! Please help me to understand in what way that is not categorised as bitching?”
“Well, I would say that when we work preemptively, we take emotions and irritation out of the picture. Also, by working systematically and having a civilised conversation about their problems, we get to understand the actual consequences they have to deal with when we don’t deliver on time.”
“Yeah, it’s like this. When we mess up in production, it’s like a rolling snowball, gathering consequences as it rolls down the line. To be honest we really didn’t understand their world until they explained. The tool kit suggests we all take some time to do just that. We really had no idea why minutes and seconds are so important for shipping, when we send our finished products to them. Just take for example the issue of the international marks and number systems on the crates they have to ship. It’s a nightmare in Arabic or Chinese. They have to put symbols on the crates for workers that can’t read. And usually they have very little time to do that. You know how time runs out at the end of the production chain? And then we call them sensitive prima donnas when they bitch about us being late. Now they came with a completely different attitude, with down-to-earth explanations of what they need and why.”
Will cut in, “I guess you have things to say about us in sales too?”
“As a matter of fact, we do. Why don’t you come down to us with your toolkit and we can talk? We can talk about the consequences when you guys sell Rolls-Royce’s when our lines have been set up to produce Fiats. We can explain to you what that does to our margins.”
“Easy, Simon. Easy. It looks like we also have some explaining to do.”
To summarise, your infrastructure should contain handrails for a well-structured and on-going exchange of helpful ‘navigations signals’ that let everyone know what is needed, when, where and why. They should function as gentle reminders that help keep a more diplomatic and systematic way of collaborating alive. Without such an infrastructure support, many of these more distant concerns are easily lost due to the daily pressures you struggle with in your own section of the workflow.
Friction in the workflow is a sure sign of broken infrastructures. Here are a couple of questions you might want to discuss with your colleagues:
- What systems, procedures and cultural handrails do you have in place that support horizontal collaboration?
- Does this infrastructure provide everyone with easy access to whatever horizontal information they need to get their job done?
- Does it produce a sense of partnership and a spirit of collaboration between teams and departments?
If you believe you have ‘sleeping assets’ in this area, you may want to read the other articles in this series:
- Speed, Trust and Infrastructure
- Infrastructures for Strategic Navigation
- Infrastructures for Frontline Teams
- Infrastructures for Complex Workflows
- Infrastructures for Dynamic Leadership
- Infrastructure for Self-Organisation