Creating Balance… and Still Learning

balanceIn two of my previous posts (here and here), I had discussed my position of combining Sales & Marketing into a cohesive group through consistent detailed communication and collaboration. After discovering that sales people are consistently poor intra-company communicators and marketing people can be annoyingly persistent (LOVE both my sales and marketing roles at RelampIt), we implemented some strategies to try to balance the strengths and weaknesses of each of the departmental personalities so that they would continue a successful co-habitation of my front office floor. And it has been successful. We are still frequently tweaking our Sales-Marketing cooperation, but it has helped our company understand how to approach new business, strengthen existing business relationships and develop better processes and analysis for sales growth.

In a manufacturing environment (and likely in distribution as well), we have another unique configuration which can cause an information transmission imbalance within the company. This imbalance, like with neurotransmitters in the brain, causes malfunctions, inefficiencies and drama if left unchecked. From where does this imbalance stem? It is an “us vs. them” issue that we see between the sales and production departments. The scenario usually goes like this: A sales person (SP) gets a call from his (or her) client asking for tracking. SP goes to Support for tracking. Support doesn’t see tracking and so goes to Shipping. Shipping doesn’t see that order shipped and so goes to Manufacturing Supervisor (MS). MS slinks his little butt up to the front, anticipating the firing squad that is most certainly waiting for him. MS says something very obvious, hoping it is innocuous enough to keep him out of trouble like, “that order hasn’t shipped yet.” The response from sales is typically swift and severe — something about needing to keep clients happy, progressing into a mountain of reminders that sales brings in the money and manufacturing can’t hold things up. MS leaves, feeling defeated and with an increasing animosity toward the arrogant, self-interested, higher paid, babied SP who doesn’t understand what it takes to get his orders out. The MS goes into the back, the SP goes into the front and all of a sudden it’s the Jets vs. Sharks in the concrete jungle calling out weapons and not even remembering the origin of the war. And then the fun really starts…

In order to minimize the “us vs, them” seesaw, we have to get creative. We have tried the company BBQs (which are always fun), company trips to baseball games, pot luck lunches, holiday parties, birthday celebrations — you know, all the fun stuff that companies traditionally do to bring employees together for team building and relationship strengthening. We even did a treasure hunt and costume party for Halloween one year. Those activities are fun and our employees are grateful. Everyone seems to enjoy each other’s company during them. It seems to work for a short time. But my partner and I really wanted to create a more lasting balance between the “front office” and the “back office” so that when mistakes happen (and they absolutely will happen), the animosity is minimized. So we started to strategize, talked to other small business owners and formed our own solutions based on our discussions. So far here is what we have come up with as company-wide policies and/ or practices (not specifically for the manufacturing and sales departments):

1) Empowering creates ownership: If there is a problem, we talk to both departments about how we can prevent the issue from happening again. Rather than focusing on blame, we focus on empowering the departments to come up with solutions so that they can take ownership of the revised process.
2) Taking a walk: Often, division within the company stems from knee jerk (emotional) reactions to problems perceived as easily avoidable yet completely detrimental to a relationship with a client. Asking the irritated employee to take a walk around the block or a drive to Starbucks to cool down a bit can reduce the chance of escalation.
3) Encouraging open communication: Most people don’t like confrontation. When an issue arises, often there are a lot of angry words muttered under one’s breath, rather than to the perceived opponent’s face. This creates prolonged feelings of resentment and bitterness, rather than productive communication. Like an itch that you keep scratching — it is slow to heal. Bringing feuding employees or departments to the table to confront the problem will, in theory, allow them to hear the other’s point of view and hopefully result in a respectful conclusion. Sometimes it is necessary to include a mediator in these open table meetings to ensure that there isn’t a breakdown of communication. It is not easy to truly listen to someone, have them hear you, remove blame and focus on solutions, and come to mutually agreeable position. It takes practice. During these sessions, the real reasons behind the confusion or problem may come out, resulting in a better understanding of each other’s responsibilities and roles.
4) Being strong:  As company owners, executives and managers, sometimes we just have to put our foot down. Whining about another department is ALWAYS unacceptable. Resentment reduces productivity and overall office morale. It becomes a disease. It has to be stopped. Even more unacceptable is trying to recruit allies to support the cause against another employee or department. Even top producers have to be reprimanded for this type of behavior- and repeat offenders may not be the right fit for your team even if they are your super star.

Sometimes you just have to part ways with those who can’t let go of the “us and them” fight and assimilate into a “team” mentality. Division within the company, if left unchecked, will hinder growth, development, innovation and employee retention. I can’t even claim to follow our own policies about this 100% of the time (although I do take every opportunity I can to make that Starbucks run). This takes practice and a conscious effort to remove personal feelings and emotions from a professional situation. Admittedly, a lot of the issues we see are human nature or personality issues that can occur in any environment at any time. I used the Manufacturing vs. Sales scenario as the example because of the very real differences in the roles, structure, wages and work spaces that typically add to the visible and invisible divisions which can be a catalyst for some inter-departmental issues. I am interested to know your feedback for creating union and balance within your own company… How is it handled and what type of success have you had?