Seven Tips for Cross-Functional Team Success

Robby Martin, senior engineering project manager with Bush Brothers & Co., shares the keys to establishing a more productive mindset.

By Bob Sperber, Contributing Editor

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Robby Martin, senior engineering project manager with Bush Brothers & Co., Knoxville, Tenn. -- famous for the Bush's baked beans brand -- has spent 27 years in manufacturing, process management consulting and leading project management teams small and large. In that time, he has arrived at some universal truths regarding how to manage project teams, their needs and their often-divergent perceptions. In short, he knows what works, what doesn't work, and how to address the latter for more effective results.

"People working on multidisciplinary teams are often frustrated with their progress," he says, noting that this situation can occur in projects of all sorts, including process improvement and product innovation.

When progress slows, Martin asks team leaders: "What are you doing to remove obstacles that are getting in the way of achieving your goals? If not, you have to consider whether all stakeholders are even after the same thing. Because they may be seeing things from the limited perspective of their respective functional silos."

To explore how team members can better respect their differences and have more productive interactions, he uses the example of a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) initiative, where engineering and manufacturing operations, sales, procurement and other functions are represented on a cross-functional team. Outside suppliers may also be tapped for participation on such teams.

TCO is widely practiced by leading companies to ascertain the actual cost of an investment. For instance, the cost of a machinery investment goes far beyond the initial purchase price to include other direct and indirect costs such as engineering, ongoing maintenance, upgrades, reliability, training and obsolescence across the useful service life of that machine.

TCO can, of course, be applied to a machine, a line or any capital project. The more complex the project, the more critical it is for all stakeholders to understand the interrelationships. For instance, they must agree on who "owns" the initiative and TCO calculations. And they must all buy into the fact that involvement by all is critical to success.

The keys to overcoming departmental or cultural hurdles, says Martin, include "removing competition, and creating synergy" among stakeholders, and "building relationships through patient, caring influence of others." This applies internally as well as to suppliers. Whereas suppliers operate under metrics and objectives geared toward their own costs of doing business (sales, engineering, service, training and construction/assembly operations), their customers, the food processing end users, must account for their own procurement, engineering, operations (labor, training and maintenance) and product development functions.

"If we are to make a difference, then we've got to change, and this often requires a change in mindset," Martin says.  He offers seven tips for doing so:

  1. Realize that YOU can make a difference. Transformation won't happen overnight; It will require you to be personally invested, and you must put others ahead of yourself.
  2. Identify the roadblocks, and who the key players are. This will require research, because things are not always as they seem. It will also require listening more than talking, and the ability to build relationships.
  3. Build a business-level relationship with the key players to demonstrate you care. Understand their motives, pressures and priorities.
  4. Contribute to their success, maybe in ways that are irrelevant to your personal success. Identify their strengths and weaknesses. Tout/promote their strengths and support their weaknesses. In short, says Martin: "Work to complete -- not compete."
  5. Find opportunities to discuss your ideas, needs and vision for how things could be done. Be prepared when opportunities arise, and allow others time to see your side, perhaps through multiple conversations. Be patient in sharing, not pressing in selling ideas.
  6. Follow-up when given the opportunity. Include key players in other activities you know would interest them, and other projects where your ideals don't "need to win." Also, always be ready to listen, help, and support when new relationships ask for your time.
  7. Never lose sight of the big picture. Today, winning the argument usually has little to do with overall business success. So don't lose sight of the long-term in perspective, and always put relationships ahead of philosophical victory.

Pursuing true team participation in TCO, innovation efforts and related optimization initiatives can be "fraught with competing tensions and issues," Martin says, so leaders must be vigilant to ensure that all stakeholders are uniformly dedicated to the goals. Despite the challenge in this approach, he adds, "It's clearly a valuable pursuit."

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.

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