Collaboration Helps Manufacturers Leverage Limited Resources

With the right support, collaborative organizations can thrive in a competitive marketplace.

"It's a dream," Michael Beyerlein quips when asked what is a collaborative organization.

Beyerlein, a Purdue University professor of technology leadership and innovation and co-author of "Beyond Teams: Building the Collaborative Organization," is making a point. While collaboration is widely promoted within and between companies, it is also difficult to achieve, particularly at a high level.

"Management makes the assumption that after it calls you a team, you are a team," he says. But in fact, collaboration requires leadership commitment, resources, training and constant reinforcement. "It takes a lot of work to get good at it."

Pressed for a definition, Beyerlein says a collaborative organization is a place "where people automatically think that collaboration is a means to getting things done, solving problems, making decisions and a culture that supports that kind of activity, as opposed to the kinds of cultures and policies where people work in isolation."

Through team efforts led by frontline supervisors, FLEXcon has achieved "dramatic improvements" in productivity and reduced energy consumption.

Companies have jumped on the collaboration bandwagon because it helps solve a pervasive problem in business -- how to get the most out of limited resources.

"When you set up it up so people collaborate, instead of an additive effect, you get a multiplicative effect," says Beyerlein. "You really leverage the way people think and solve problems as well as the commitment they have."

"No single individual is able to drive success in an organization or throughout any part of the supply chain," says Mike Engel, COO of FLEXcon, a Massachusetts-based manufacturer of films and adhesives with 1,100 employees. "It take people, with their diversity of experience, their different knowledge bases, and bringing them together allows the final product to be better than what any single effort could achieve."

Engel says collaboration is a necessary element of success in a competitive marketplace where there is a need to meet shorter time-to-market demands and provide on-target customer solutions. That is calling for more communication and trust not just with suppliers and converters, FLEXcon's direct customers, but all the members of the supply chain, including OEMs.

"More and more, particularly with large projects or those involving new technologies or new markets, we are meeting with all the members of the supply chain," he says. "All the member are in it together, and we have a mutual goal to be successful and be successful quickly."

Teamwork and collaboration also have been integral to driving FLEXcon's lean-manufacturing efforts, Engel notes. Through team efforts led by frontline supervisors, FLEXcon has achieved "dramatic improvements" in productivity and reduced energy consumption, he says. These efforts not only make the company more cost-competitive, but provide team members with an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills and knowledge. That makes it easier for FLEXcon to promote from within, Engel says.

FLEXcon's Engel says collaboration is necessary to meet shorter time-to-market demands and provide on-target customer solutions.

Companies are increasingly utilizing collaboration with other organizations as a way to expand their resources for product development and innovation. General Electric Co., for example, is tapping into hundreds of collaborative efforts with other organizations to fuel its innovation engine. GE Global Research alone is participating in 300 research collaborations at any one time. These collaborations are with a wide range of entities -- universities, hospitals, manufacturers, government agencies and venture capital firms.

Encouraging Collaboration

Companies must consider a range of issues in building what Beyerlein calls the "soft infrastructure" that supports collaboration. They range from choosing and training new employees to developing ways to reward success in collaboration.

Experts agree that collaboration needs active support from top management. One study by University of Hartford professor Linda Moran found that 77% of team failures were due to leadership issues.

"A classic problem is people at the top of an organization saying, 'Teams are for you guys' rather than for all of us," notes Beyerlein. "There is no shared experience and no modeling. So support starts with management awareness and commitment which includes experiencing it themselves."

At the ARC Industry Forum in Orlando earlier this month, Dianne Chong, vice president of engineering, operations and technology for Boeing Co., told attendees at a session on transforming industry it was important for companies to communicate the value of collaboration.

"We have to create an environment where they are open to seeking out other people's help," she says. "Everyone wants to be the hero and the one who solves the problem, but we are providing incentives for people who ask for help and who come up with a better solution by asking for help from others in the company. We have to reach out across geographical barriers, cultural barriers. Changing the culture for us involves communicating the message of collaboration and providing incentives for the right behavior."

In a connected world, collaboration involves not just teams that work together physically, but virtual teams that may span continents. Yael Zofi, a management consultant and author of "A Manager's Guide to Virtual Teams," says globalization, communication technologies and the desire to reduce travel expenses all work to promote the proliferation of virtual teams.

"We now have the means to work with anyone, anywhere, any time," she notes.

While that offers exciting opportunities to be more productive, Zofi maintains, companies must also realize that virtual teams come with a set of challenges as well. These include establishing effective operating procedures and promoting engagement among people who may never see each other in person.

"The human connection still needs to be maintained, whether the team is virtual or not" she points out, "because at the core, people get work done through working together, through relationships."

See Also:

Profitable Supplier Collaboration: A Resource-Focused Approach

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