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Develop Partnership Agreements to Reduce Conflict and Improve Manufacturing Performance

Setting expectations for healthy relationships makes them more productive to the mission of the organization and makes working through conflicts much easier to manage.

Venom. Ill will. Backstabbing. Vindictiveness. Mistrust. Betrayal. These are some of the most negative aspects of human interaction. And they are present in nearly every manufacturing organization I’ve gotten to know well.

At its core, manufacturing combines specialized machinery, specialized processes and specialized human resources to create a product. Working through the inevitable conflicts that arise as each specialty seeks to optimize their outcomes requires healthy working relationships. These relationships take work. But too often leaders rely on worthless platitudes such as “Teamwork is important” or “There is no “I” in Team.” When conflicts rise to a feverish pitch, the leaders have to intervene. They waste time and energy restoring the dysfunction to a quieter but still destructive level.

There is a better way. Developing partnership agreements is a proven approach to reduce conflict and establish healthy work relationships. This process dives into the various relationships between functional areas and formalizes the behaviors and expectations that are required for two functional areas to work well together. Effective partnership agreements are developed in three phases:

  • Identifying a relationship between two different functional areas that isn’t working well
  • Discussing needs and desired behaviors and capturing them in a Partnership Agreement document
  • Ongoing dialogue between the two functional areas to review the agreement and discuss progress on practicing the desired behaviors

Identifying Problematic Relationships

If you think about your organization, there are probably at least a dozen or so functional areas. Common ones include:

  • Production
  • Human Resources
  • Training
  • Maintenance
  • Engineering
  • Laboratories
  • Shipping
  • Receiving

While each functional area theoretically has a relationship with every other functional area, some are more important than others. Some relationships are, by nature, more prone to conflict. I’ve observed that problematic relationships often develop when two functional areas compete for the same resources. A good example is the relationship between Production and Maintenance. In many organizations they essentially compete for machine time. Production wants the machines to make product and maintenance wants the machines to perform needed repairs. It is complicated by other issues such as Production personnel breaking the equipment or Maintenance personnel not executing high-quality repairs. The result is plenty of blame and finger-pointing.

Another problematic relationship often exists between the Training department and Production. Production needs the employees to run the product and the Training department needs the employees to complete the identified training.

As you consider establishing partnership agreements, I would encourage you to start by keeping things simple. It’s easy to get extremely granular with the various functional areas. For example, you might be tempted to break Production into shifts or areas. This becomes really cumbersome at the beginning. As you become more skilled in the developing and administering partnership agreements, you may decide to become more detailed. Keep it simple at first! Identify no more than 10 relationships that are currently problematic in your organization and use some method of prioritizing them for the development of partnership agreements. 

Developing the Partnership Agreement Document

Because there may be years of dysfunctional relationships and high levels of mistrust present, a skilled facilitator should lead this effort. People often work through some significant anger in this process. I’ve found following these steps creates an effective document:

  • Initial Meeting – This is a meeting of perhaps six members of each functional area, led by a skilled facilitator. The concept of the partnership agreement is introduced and the two functional areas start identifying what they need from each group to be successful. The facilitator captures these thoughts and concepts and writes them on a whiteboard or flip charts. These lists often capture what some of the best employees are currently doing.
  • An Electronic Document Review – After the initial meeting, the facilitator creates a draft document and sends it electronically to all the members of the meeting. Input is requested from the reviewers. I’ve learned that many of the people who are quiet in the meetings can provide some amazing input on the electronic version of the document. The facilitator gathers all the feedback provided during the electronic review and updates the document. Sometimes there are different philosophies that become visible during this stage. During the next meeting you need to call out these differences for resolution.
  • Second Face-to-Face Meeting – During this second meeting, the document is shared with the group. The facilitator leads a discussion and calls out changes that were made in the Electronic Document Review phase. Some light “wordsmithing” often occurs in this meeting but a high degree of ownership is created as people start to see how it creates a much better relationship between the two groups. Generally the group gets a final draft of the document during this meeting and the facilitator finalizes it for signatures from key leaders in the organization.
  • Communicating to the Functional Areas – Once the document is signed, the leaders of the functional areas meet with the groups and lay out the expectations for the future. This works best if the groups meet together. These expectations need to be consistently reinforced, formally and informally, with all the stakeholders. This is definitely not a case of “One and done”!

Here is an example of a partnership agreement that was created between Maintenance and Production groups in a manufacturing facility.

The Ongoing Dialogue

It’s vital that leaders and employees of the two functional groups meet periodically to see how well the respective groups are executing on their agreed-upon behaviors and functions. Some organizations meet monthly and then extend to quarterly meetings once the expectations become normalized. In situations where behaviors lend themselves to metrics, metric reviews should occur in these ongoing dialogue meetings. Key leaders in the organization need to ensure these meetings continue to occur.

A Better Tomorrow

It is worth calling out that the partnership agreement approach is built upon the concept of partnering. The concept of partnering implies many things; it implies equality, trust, respect, accountability, and shared success. These shared principles are very valuable when they become manifest in the organization. Setting expectations for healthy relationships makes them more productive to the mission of the organization and makes working through conflicts much easier to manage. Apply the concept of partnership agreements and build the kind of organization that you and your people want to work in.

Paul Borders, CMRP, a Principal Consultant for Life Cycle Engineering (LCE) and a Prosci-certified change management professional, has more than 20 years experience as a strategic manufacturing manager. You can reach Paul at [email protected].

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