Break Down Barriers Between Departments

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By John Hunter, founder of

Some of W. Edwards Deming’s 14 obligations of management have opponents that argue the reverse is wise. Some believe it is good to “motivate” people by making them fearful, for example. Others believe in selecting suppliers for the moment based on whoever gives the cheapest quote today.

But some of the 14 obligations don’t really have opponents arguing against them. I don’t recall anyone advocating for more barriers between departments. Instead the reason so many organizations suffer from the costs of significant barriers between departments is that the overall management system results in behavior that creates barriers between departments.

Addressing these secondary, tertiary… effects is usually more challenging. We normally can’t directly tackle the issue. Just telling people to work together doesn’t do much good if the management system drives them to different behavior. Such support for “teamwork” is merely a slogan without the necessary management commitment. We need to change the management system and the behavior of those in leadership positions in the organization.

From our previous post, Process Behavior Charts are the Secret to Understanding the Organization as a System:

When we create incentives to optimize parts of the system (low-cost supplier, sales incentives, evaluating return on investment for individual business units, etc.) the overall system is sub-optimized. In order to achieve the best overall results individual parts of the system may have to suffer in order to achieve the best overall result.

When we evaluate people and provide bonuses and promotions based on optimizing a portion of the system that creates pressures that work against cooperation across departments. When departments have to compete for budget and staff that can build up barriers between departments. When departments have their budgets to protect and spend that often creates barriers between departments.

Often this even progresses to the point where employees are considered more a part of one department than employees of the company and if they apply for jobs outside their department that is seen as disloyal.

image with Deming's quote "The supposition is prevalent the world over that there would be no problems in production or service if only our production workers would do their jobs in the way that they were taught. Pleasant dreams. The workers are handicapped by the system, and the system belongs to the management."

As I said there are not proponents for more barriers between departments as a management strategy. And there is often talk about the importance of cooperation and that we are all one team, etc.. But when the management system is structured to undermine that notion it is not much use to tell people to work as if optimizing the overall system is what is desired.

The management system needs to encourage the behavior the organization wants to see. Too many organizations still have difficulty breaking down barriers between departments due to the management systems they have in place that work against that goal.

Related: Silos to Systems: Presentation by Lisa SnyderEliminate Sales Commissions: Reject Theory X Management and Embrace Systems ThinkingWhy ThoughtWorks Eliminated Sales Commissions

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