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Bruce Hamilton


Everyday Collaboration

Recognize the daily opportunities all around you

Published: Monday, August 29, 2022 - 11:02

With GBMP’s 18th annual Northeast Lean Conference on the horizon, I’m reflecting on our theme, “Amplifying Lean—The Collaboration Effect.” The term collaboration typically connotes an organized attempt by unrelated, even competitive, parties to work together on a common problem; for example, the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) collaboration between GM and Toyota, or the international space station. In a sense, these types of organized collaboration are analogs to kaizen events and significant organizational breakthrough improvement.

Being a longtime proponent of “everybody, every day”-type kaizen, however, I think the greater amplification of our continuous improvement efforts lies in our ability to work together in the moment to solve many small problems. But, just as intermittent stoppages on a machine may be hidden from consideration, so too these on-the-fly opportunities for collaboration may pass without notice.

An example from my own career as a manufacturing manager sticks with me as I consider the importance of everyday collaboration.

Walking through my factory one morning, I overheard a heated discussion between John, a product designer, and Ann, a team lead from our subassembly department. Both had deep experience in their respective areas—perhaps 25 years each. John was waving an assembly drawing for a particular part as they argued, and Ann was holding the component parts and an assembly fixture. All the elements of production were present: man (and woman), method, material, and machine (4Ms). What was missing was collaboration.

“If you’d just follow the assembly drawing, there’d be no problem,” John argued.

“What?” Ann shot back. “Do you think I’m stupid? Why would I call you out here if that were true?”

This was the general tenor of the discussion, each party defensively talking at the other. Specialization, necessary as it is, often creates invisible boundaries we commonly refer to as silos. When any party ventures beyond those boundaries, it’s viewed as an invasion of turf. As the argument continued, the resolve of each party only increased.

I inserted myself in the discussion. “Why don’t we observe the assembly process and drawing together? I’d like get a better perspective on the problem.”

John and Ann reluctantly agreed. What seemed to me like an obvious opportunity to understand was, for each of them, possible exposure that one of them would be wrong and lose face. Philosopher James P. Carse refers to this interaction as a “finite game.” Somebody wins and somebody loses.

I recall saying something trite like, “Aren’t we on the same team here?” Truth be told, we weren’t. At least, however, we were all in the same space observing the 4Ms together.

Ultimately, John and Ann began to attack the problem rather than each other and, in fact, pulled a parts buyer and a toolmaker into the investigation. Working together, they uncovered a series of contributing factors involving each of the 4Ms. No single perspective would have been nearly as effective. The errant assembly problem was solved. But more important, collaborative relationships were created.

Carse would call that an “infinite game.” Everyone wins.

P.S. This year’s Northeast Lean Conference will examine collaboration from every angle: top-down, bottom-up, horizontal, networked, virtual, intercompany, governmental, and societal. The collaboration effect touches every system and every interpersonal relationship. I hope you can join us Sept. 28–29, 2022 (face-to-face or live-streamed), as we explore better ways to work together. It’s just four weeks away—sign up today!


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.