A Step-by-Step Process to Improve Cooperation Among Departments
Does something like this ever happen to you?
You are backlogged with work in your lab and receive an urgent call from the senior vice president of new product development in your organization, asking you to rerun a test you conducted for him last month. He wants the results by the end of the day. There is no room on the schedule for your staff to conduct the test for the next two weeks, and there is a request procedure that must be followed. It’s a no-win scenario. If you change the schedule, your other internal customers will be upset because you will not be meeting their expectations.
How do you keep this problem from happening every day?
Many employees just do not feel other departments in their organization are adequately servicing them. Our research in more than 80 organizations, and with more than 60,000 employees, shows that only 49 percent of employees believe that cooperation is good among departments. See chart below.
We have also found that most employees believe they are providing better customer service to their internal customers than those customers say they are receiving from them. You may think you are providing excellent service to your internal customers, but they probably don’t think it is as good as you do.
In the example above, you might be thinking, “Doesn’t the SVP understand our situation? Doesn’t he know that we have other customers who need to be serviced and that everyone has to wait his or her turn? If he saw the world from where I sit, he would understand.”
The truth is that most people do not understand and cannot see the world from your perspective. Instead, if they don’t get their way, they view the other person or department negatively. They assume that the other person doesn’t care, is uncooperative, or is just not a good employee. You probably do the same thing.
This psychological phenomenon is called “attributional bias.” When we view the causes of our own behavior, we tend to think about the situation we are experiencing (e.g., all the other urgent requests we have received, our limited lab space, our inadequate staffing levels, etc.). But when we view the behavior of others, we are quick to think that the reason they do not comply with our request is because of something negative about them (e.g., they are lazy, uncaring, or uncooperative).
So let’s turn back to the request from the senior vice president. What do you do?
- If you say, “It can’t be done,” you and your department will be viewed as uncooperative and rigid. Further, in these days of downsizing and layoffs, who wants to be viewed as a non-team player?
- If you say, “yes,” you will be sending a message to your other internal customers that they are unimportant. You will also be saying to your employees that it is OK to break the rules.
The key is properly managing expectations: your expectations and the expectations of your customers. You all need to be on the same page, focusing on what you can each do to work well with each other.
It’s like the old story about the difference between heaven and hell. This guy goes to visit hell and he sees people seated around a big long dining room table full of all types of delicious food. But they are all starving. Why? They are all holding 6-foot-long utensils and can’t feed themselves.
He then visits heaven. There, he sees the same scene. Everyone is seated around a big dining room table filled with food. They also are holding 6-foot-long utensils. But they are all happily eating and content. Why? Each person is using his or her utensil to feed others around the table.
The mantra in your organization should be how each department can help every other department. You cannot control the behavior of others, but you can control your own behavior. You need to focus on how you can make it easy for your customers to do business with you, and others need to focus on what they can do to make it easy for you to do business with them.
We often help our clients develop this mindset through what we call “The JFK Exercise.” In John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can for your country.” This exercise helps people throughout the organization to develop this mentality.
Here is an example of how we applied the 6-step methodology for one of our biotechnology clients.
Step 1 – Identify key departments
We first identified several departments in which cooperation was critically important. We then worked with two departments at a time. One of the pairings was the engineering and manufacturing departments. Just like you can’t force a couple to go to couple’s counseling if they are not interested in doing so, it is vital that the selected departments are sincerely interested in improving how well they work together.
Step 2 – Conduct a baseline internal customer satisfaction survey
We then created two detailed questionnaires. One survey measured how employees from the engineering department felt about the service they were receiving from the manufacturing department, and the service they were providing to the manufacturing department. The other survey measured how employees from the manufacturing department felt about the service they were receiving from the engineering department, and the service they were providing to the engineering department. Here are a few examples of items from each survey:
Survey of engineering employees
- The manufacturing staff has a very good understanding of our capabilities.
- The manufacturing staff does an excellent job of providing us with the lead time we need to provide them with our services.
- The manufacturing staff does an excellent job of making themselves available to us to speak with them.
- The engineering staff does an excellent job of responding to requests for information from the manufacturing staff.
Survey of manufacturing employees
- The engineering staff has a good understanding of our processes
- The engineering staff does an excellent job of delivering equipment to us in a timely manner.
- The engineering staff does an excellent job of making themselves available to us when we need them.
- The manufacturing staff does an excellent job of providing the engineering staff with complete and accurate information about problems with equipment.
Step 3 – Identify expectations and plans to meet them
We then met with the major players from both the manufacturing and engineering departments for a half-day workshop. During the meeting, we engaged in five activities:
- First, we presented the results of the surveys. This provided them with insights about the many improvements that were desired by their internal customer.
- Second, we asked each group to independently go off and develop a list of what they needed from the other group. Manufacturing developed a list of what they needed from engineering, and engineering developed a list of what they needed from manufacturing.
- Third, the group reassembled, and each department presented to the other department the list of its needs.
- Fourth, the groups separated again and developed a list of what they were going to do to meet the needs of the other group.
- Last, the entire group reconvened and each department told the other department how it planned to meet their needs.
Step 4 – Implement changes
The departments now had a better understanding of what the other department needed from them. They spent the next three months implementing the changes they had promised the other department.
Step 5 – Reassess internal customer satisfaction
Three months later we readministered the internal customer satisfaction surveys to both departments and compared the results to the baseline.
Step 6 – Fine-tune and recommit
Both departments met again. During this meeting we presented the survey results and pointed out where there had been improvements in service and where improvements were still needed. The groups also finetuned their plans for improving the services provided to each other and recommitted to the process.
We conducted similar programs for other departments in the organization as well. The process is not rocket science. Primarily, it requires commitment by both parties, survey expertise, and a good facilitator. I recommend you try it.
Managing expectations cannot simply consist of you trying to tell other departments and individuals in your organization what you can and cannot do. It must be a collaborative process in which both parties learn to understand and respect each other.