Unified approach is best

Dear Joan:
Our department has a big problem. We are responsible for conducting the research behind customer problems and writing a detailed history of the situation. Another department contacts the customer and relays the company's information and course of action we plan to take to correct the problems. Lately this department has been passing the consumer contact off on our department. We are really just as busy as they are and this is supposed to be their function. While we don't mind helping out, we are tired of continually picking up the slack for their area.

Both departments are under the same supervisor. If we spoke to the supervisor, I'm afraid she'll think we were making a negative commentary on her performance in running both areas. What should we do?

You have a great opportunity to make a significant improvement in the operations of your department. Your department is experiencing these problems because it is not organized in a way that makes the most sense. As with many conflicts within American companies, the structure of the reporting relationships and the design of the jobs is often the problem, not the people. Companies spend millions of dollars on ways to make their employees cooperate and perform, when all the while it's the work process and the job design that needs fixing.

You can look like a hero if you can sell some of the following ideas to your supervisor. If you approach your recommendations as a concerned employee who is trying to improve the operations, you aren't likely to be seen as critical of her.

The way your department's work is currently structured is too functionalized. To give you an example, American car assemblers each used to have only one function to perform in their job. As the car came down the assembly line, their job may have been to turn a screw or add a fender. The result was a product with poor quality. The management blamed the workers and the workers blamed each other. Now, they have completely restructured the way they work. They work in teams and build the car together, always looking for ways to improve the end product. Instead of being accountable for turning a screw, they all share accountability for producing an error free car.

Your work groups are similar to the former car assemblers. In other words, instead of both groups being accountable for serving the customer, each group is accountable for only a part of the end product. Clearly, if I were your customer, I'd want to hear the information from the same person who did the research and knows all the in depth answers. Your "communicators" are in a very bad spot because they only know what you tell them, and if a customer asks a question they can't answer, they look foolish. Also, they are probably making many extra follow up phone calls because they have to consult with your group again for answers to questions they couldn't provide the first time.

Many American companies are discovering their own customers for the first time. For generations, companies got more and more functionalized and specialized in an effort to be efficient. We spent our time turning screws faster and faster instead of looking at overall quality. In the meantime, the off shore competition was sneaking up on us with this team approach. They were listening to their customers and changing job designs to let employees work together to meet customer expectations. It worked.

Go to some of your co-workers and ask them if anything I've said makes any sense. Play some "what if" games with them. What if we all became one department and each of us was responsible for both the research and the consumer contact? How would that affect our quality? Would our customers be better off? Would we have more job satisfaction if we had total control over the entire process?

If they pick apart your idea, come back with different versions. For example, they may say, "But they are more skilled at verbal communications than we are and we are more skilled at research." You could say, "What if we were cross trained? What if we were paired up and there were teams of two, one researcher and one communicator- who were jointly accountable for answering the customers complaints. They could rely on each other's strengths and still satisfy the customer and eliminate internal finger pointing."

If you have friends from the other group, ask them about the problems they face on the phone. Chances are, they'll say the written research is inadequate, the customers are jerks or that they are all burning out because customer contact is so stressful. While you're listening, think about ways your ideas would help them.

Try your idea on a few of them and then ask them how it would impact their jobs. If they find fault with your idea, ask them for alternatives. Continue to gather information from both groups until you think you have a workable idea.

Now you're ready to go to your boss. Ask for a meeting with her to tell her your idea. Since you're worried she may take offense at your input, she must not be the type of boss who encourages participation. You may want to ease into this gradually by talking her through the idea first and then telling her you will put it all in writing. If you put it in writing first, she may be stunned by the formality of the input and take a defensive stance.

Be prepared with a written version, just in case she seems receptive. Here is an abbreviated framework that may help you structure the recommendation:

1. Both departments have a shared goal-to satisfy the customer by resolving problems.

2. Some of the problems the researchers are having.

3. Some of the problems the customer contact department is having:

4. The idea for restructuring the work.

5. Benefits to the customer, the employees, the supervisor and the company.

6. Potential barriers and possible solutions.

7. Close with a positive statement about the willingness of the work groups to try this idea (presuming it's true).

Yes, I know it seems like a lot of work. If you're ready to stand out as someone who is willing to take the initiative to make a great contribution to your company, I hope you'll take the challenge.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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