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Mark Rosenthal


Developing Cross-Functional Accountability

Put responsibility where it belongs

Published: Monday, November 30, 2015 - 16:21

It's a typical staff meeting. The function heads sit around the table with the boss. One of them describes a hiccup or problem he's encountering that's outside of his control because it originates in another department. An action item is assigned, and we move on to the next topic. Good to go, right? Isn't that the boss's job? To assign action items?

The challenge

Let's expand the role of the boss a bit. Rather than being the conduit of all information, isn't the role really to ensure that cross-functional coordination is happening?

If these meetings are weekly, there's a weekly cadence to this kind of coordination, meaning if the issue comes up right after a meeting, it's a week before a decision is made. On average, it's a few days.

Let's look at the nature of the language being used. The implied (but often unstated) question being asked by the function heads is, "What do you want me to do?" The even worse implication is, "I'll work on cross-functional issues when I get an action item to do it." Not exactly teamwork.

Here's another example

Three functional managers all work in the same building, in the same open room. The building isn't very big; you can find anyone who is anywhere in the building in less than five minutes, just by standing up and walking around.

Their common boss is a in another city, a couple of hours away.

As the boss talks with these functional managers, they tell him about their issues—but they haven't talked to their counterpart, who's is involved in the issue is sitting 20 feet away! They expect the boss to do that. To say this exasperates the boss (who "gets it") is an understatement.

In yet another organization, we're talking to various department directors about process improvement. Nearly every one of them cites problems in other departments as disruptions to their processes.

These directors are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) expecting the CEO and executive team to tell to the other departments to address these issues. The problem starts when the executive team accepts the "assignment" and facilitates the communication. Now it's their job.

Here's the question that surfaced in this organization: Managers are responsible for organizing the processes that are internal to the department. If the directors aren't the ones responsible for cross-departmental coordination, then whose job is it? And if it's someone else's job, what value are the directors actually adding by managing the managers' management of the internal processes, and grumbling about the problems from other departments?

All of these cases are the consequence of a management process that sends reports up, and sends decisions down. This develops a deeply rooted unconscious set of habits that are hard to change, even when everyone agrees they should be changed.

What doesn't work

Saying, "We need to do a better job talking to each other" isn't going to work. Even saying, "You need to talk directly to Dave about that" really doesn't work because:
• It's still telling him what to do.
• The behavior repeats for every instance because "Jim" is still habitually coming to the boss for direction.

What we're trying

The objective (challenge) is to get the boss out of job being the sole conduit for cross-functional communication. We want these guys working as a team.

In one of these cases, the boss and I took a page from David Marquet's book, Turn the Ship Around (Portfolio, 2013). We thought it might help if the boss made it clear she's going to refuse to be the intermediary in these conversations. Now... how does she create the environment where this cross-coordination is happening as a matter of routine?

Grasp the current condition

Take a week and just listen to the words people use when talking about cross-functional problems. Are they simply stating the problem and hoping the boss will do something about it—i.e., tell someone what to do?

Marquet's "Ladder of Leadership" model may be useful here:

Make a tick-mark on the ladder diagram that best describes the level of each conversation.

Are people implicitly or explicitly looking to be told what to do? (Telling Jim to "talk to Dave" or even asking, "Have you talked to Dave?" is telling them what to do.)
Where is your center of mass?

"Tell me what to do" is the bottom rung. Your own current position on the ladder may well be different, but if you have read this far and this still feels relevant to you, it likely isn't much different.

Establish the next target condition

What words does the boss want to hear when one of those department heads lets him know what's going on? Forget about the ideal response and focus on a higher level of the ladder—up one or two rungs.

For example, instead of the department head saying, "We've got this problem from Dave's department" and waiting to be asked, "Have you talked to Dave?" what should the department head be saying to the boss?

Maybe, "We've got this problem from Dave's department, and I intend to talk to Dave to confirm that he understands what we need from him."

Apply rapid iterations of PDCA

OK, now that the boss knows what words she wants to hear, how does she change her response so when she hears, "We've got this problem from Dave's department," her response drives thinking and initiative back down the chain?

Stealing another line from Marquet, maybe the boss says, "OK, what do you think I'm thinking right now?"

To which the department head might say, "Um… I'm thinking you want me to go talk to Dave about this."

And the boss says, "Great. What do you expect to happen?" and then, "OK, when can you let me know how it actually went, and what you learned?"

Ideally, the boss wants to continue this process, setting successive targets until he hears, "We had this problem, but Dave and I worked out a solution, and this is what we've done."

Or they come to the boss only when a problem requires the boss to cross-coordinate with one of her peers—and they come with a solid recommendation.

Step by step.

Never give up on your people.

First published Aug. 13, 2015, on The Lean Thinker blog.


About The Author

Mark Rosenthal’s picture

Mark Rosenthal

Mark Rosenthal is an experienced lean manufacturing/quality director and manager with more than 20 years of experience implementing continuous improvement in diverse organizations. He brings deep understanding of the Toyota Production System and has proven ability to see any organization’s potential. Rosenthal is a change agent who facilitates the process of discovery to quickly make an impact on the way people think, enabling them to cut to the core issues and get things moving by engaging the entire team to develop solutions that affect the bottom line.