Walls

When I first joined the workforce in 1970, I was struck by the walled-in, boxy layout of businesses.  There were front offices, departments, offices within departments and offices within offices, and cubicles providing “privacy” to nearly everyone else.   It was a maze.

In the factory there were mezzanine offices overlooking the factory and air-conditioned structures for departments like quality and manufacturing engineering that rose up in the middle of production like buttes interrupting the line of sight across the factory.

In larger businesses, there were floor levels, which often connoted some kind of status.  One supplier I visited actually organized pay grades by floor.  This was done, I think, to mask the fact that men and women were doing the same job, but for different pay.

The term “silo” did not do justice to the barriers that separated these internal customers and suppliers.  “Bunkers” would have been more accurate.    Sometimes the bunkers were adjacent, sometimes on different floors and other times not even in the same building:

  • At a consumer products manufacturer, the pace of production was governed by the speed and availability of the elevator.
  • The approval process for sales orders at another company passed through three separate departments in three different but adjacent buildings.  Unless there was an emergency order the process took three days, one day for each information queue.   “We may as well have been miles apart,” commented a salesperson, “the information flow was so slow.”
  • A surgeon spent 40% of her workday walking between hospital campuses and floors. (She took the stairs; the elevator was too slow.)
  • A large medical device manufacturer stored most of its material at a “less expensive” location, twelve miles from the factory, and then carted it back and forth each day.

Overhead departments were frequently over head.  Production control for example, was located far from production at a furniture manufacturer, not only impeding information flow, but also defining artificial turfs (not the playing field kind.)  “We just don’t go there,” a factory employee said of the production control department.

A production scheduler complained to me about purchasing (a department on the other side of the wall), “They never answer their phones,” not realizing that buyers were always on their phones chasing parts deliveries.

Top management was . . . on the top floor.   Climbing the corporate ladder actually corresponded to altitude. Too bad that as one’s authority increased, distance from the factory floor also increased.

Today, many organizations strive to overcome this kind of compartmentalization and its effects.  Cross-functional problem-solving teams, concurrent product development teams, sales and operations planning teams – interdisciplinary teams of all kinds – assemble to share information and learning that is impeded by physical layouts.  But regardless of industry, the walls remain, brick and mortar bottlenecks to the flow of work, material and information.

Many years ago, my plant engineer commented to me half-jokingly, “There’s no point in removing a wall because another will just pop up somewhere else in its place.”   His theory:  the total equilibrium of walls could not be changed.

With the New Year almost here, I’d like to challenge that theory with a resolution:  Twenty percent fewer physical walls in 2012 –  between departments, and between management and employees.

What is your baseline measure for Total Wall Reduction?  Which walls will you bring down in 2012?   Let me hear from you.

O.L.D

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