Get Your Team to Work Across Organizational Boundaries

27 Apr. 2012 | Comments (0)

Competition today punishes companies that make episodic improvements in key processes. Continually improving performance is what matters, and that can only happen with teamwork across functional and company boundaries. A company must get its sales, marketing, research and development, operations, and even customers and suppliers to work together.

Yet teamwork across organizational boundaries is unnatural. The natural tendency of organizations is to optimize locally — within a business unit or department, rather than optimizing for the global customer experience or the enterprise. Too often, the sum of the parts doesn't make for a high-performing whole. Getting people to improve processes across boundaries typically requires a crisis or constant pushing from a senior leader.

Suppose you're the chief medical officer of a physicians' clinic and you want to improve the experience of patients with hip or knee replacements while reducing the cost of their procedures. Who do you need to involve in improving the process? The doctor and nurses at the hospital will do the surgery. The physical therapists and rehabilitation nurses will prepare the patient before the surgery and help with therapy after the surgery. And the insurance company will pay for the procedure. In the typical U.S. healthcare scenario, each player is a separate business with its own objectives, business practices, culture, and information systems.

How can you organize this team to optimize the patient's experience, rather than optimizing each party's objectives, and reduce overall costs? And how do you do this when changes to the process may create winners and losers?

The only way to sustain improvement in a cross-organizational process is for workers in the process to see it from end to end. Only by understanding the entire flow and logic can they uncover huge opportunities for improvement. And only by collaborating with other process workers can they implement the changes.

Over the last 20 years, I have found the best way to do this is to assemble the key stakeholders of a process in a multi-day workshop. The participants begin by mapping the process as it actually operates (not how it is supposed to operate) — quantifying process performance value from the standpoint of the customer (external or internal), as well as waste in steps or between steps. Physically walking through the process steps — following the route of a patient, for example — can be illuminating. Comparing the amount of time in which work is performed (the "work time") with the end-to-end cycle time (the "elapsed time") should be a focal point of the team's discussions. I have seen findings like 10 minutes of actual work required to complete a process that takes place over 20 days.

The team's next task is to identify problems with the process. Subsequently, the group envisions how to change the process to improve the customer experience, reduce time and cost, and improve quality. This new design usually has fewer steps in the process. The team eliminates wasted time, allowing workers to complete the same 10 minutes of work in 10 hours instead of 20 days.

The maps of the current and future process, opportunities, and implementation plan are useful artifacts of the workshop. However, the more important outcome is actually development of the team itself. Whether in sports or business, a team is a group of people with a shared goal. After the workshop, everyone who works in the process has a common vision of what they are trying to jointly achieve, how the various work steps affect the process or behavior of others across departments, customers, suppliers, or other stakeholders, and how they can jointly improve the process for the customer.

The immediate challenge the team will face is getting the participants back at their home organizations to buy into the redesigned process. In the hip or knee replacement process example, the representatives from the hospital will explain to their colleagues how the new process will not only make the patient experience better, but will also lead to more business being referred to them by the primary care physicians due to their closer working relationship.

The bigger challenge, however, is not to just implement the changes that have been identified. More important, it is to maintain the team's effort to continually improve the process and not accept slippage. This can be particularly difficult because the team's tendency is to want to rest after a big push, go back to the comfort zone of work with their home team, and focus on meeting their local performance targets. Instead, the process team needs to go back into the ring to improve the process again and again. Constancy of purpose matters more than one workshop's flash of brilliance.

So how can you get this process team to sustain operational gains and continue to attack the next set of process problems? You need a way to maintain the extended team identity.

As I described in a previous post, social networking technologies offer new ways to support teams, especially process teams that cut across organizational boundaries. Consider MITRE, which manages five research and development centers for the U.S. government (DoD, FAA, IRS, Homeland Security, and Federal Judiciary). The company has conducted pioneering work with new social media to build teamwork between its 7,600 employees and an external network of academics, former employees, vendors, industry, sponsors and front-line beneficiaries of its research (such as IRS workers, soldiers, and health care professionals). In 2009 the company deployed a social networking prototype it calls "Handshake," which looks like Facebook, with photos of members and profiles, file sharing, blogs, and discussion groups. Handshake members discuss concerns, offer comments, and trade ideas across dozens of topics. Some are high-level discussions about technology trends, while others deal with problems that benefit from online brainstorming sessions.

Over the last two years, MITRE has seen steady growth in Handshake membership to about 5,000 MITRE employees, 2,000 external participants and 850 groups. According to interviews and a survey MITRE conducted with members of Handshake groups, the system has enhanced cross-organizational participation and strengthened business relationships. Donna Cuomo, chief information architect in MITRE's Center for Information and Technology, says that "Handshake enables collaboration among a network of professional and technical colleagues, so we don't just make MITRE-only decisions anymore. We're leveraging our connections and contacts to bring the best thinking to bear for our customers' problems." For example, Cuomo described a new mobile application MITRE developed that was distributed to front-line soldiers, who then gave rapid feedback on the product through Handshake.

Back to the hip and knee replacement example, the chief medical officer of the physician practice should establish a social networking platform like Handshake for the extended team members. That would let them jointly monitor progress on their improvement initiatives, continue to identify new opportunities, and maintain and enhance social ties.

A social media platform like Handshake or a three-day process workshop are just tools to help build and maintain teams that work across organizational boundaries. These tools need to be complemented by new behaviors of the CEO and C-Suite, shared objectives and measures, and a governance structure and management processes to implement changes together and monitor and celebrate progress. These institutional changes are huge. Yet, as shown in the MITRE and patient journey examples, the best way to compete is to get everyone working together across boundaries to solve customer problems.

Question: What experience have you had in building teamwork across organizational boundaries?

This post is part of the HBR Insight Center on The Secrets of Great Teams.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 04/09/2012.

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  • About the Author: Brad Power

    Brad Power Brad Power is a consultant and researcher in process innovation. His current research is on sustaining attention to process management. He is currently conducting research with the Lean Enterprise Ins…

    Full Bio | More from Brad Power

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