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SEMS Says

Two unwritten rules that hinder cooperation

Over the past 10 years, my research into human behavior has yielded two inter-related unwritten rules that seem to prevent or hinder cooperation between groups.

Unwritten rule No. 1 requires employees to work within their group before cooperating across boundaries. It applies regardless of the type of group — and even to subgroups based on work hours, common skill sets, common hobbies, etc.

For example, a research experiment offered a monetary reward to a winning team in one group. In the other group, all teams would get money, but only if all performed above a given threshold. But the incentives could not overcome the rule about group boundaries, as the second group’s teams didn’t interact until one team finished the task. Those team members then offered help to the others, but it was too late. They behaved this way because they were assigned to a team and given a task as a team.

Unwritten rule No. 2 mandates that employees must have permission to work with others. In a world where plagiarism is as easy as cutting and pasting from a website, it may be surprising that people need permission to collaborate. A colleague frequently divides students into teams, gives them decks of cards and tells them to build the highest tower possible. Although she does not forbid collaboration, students rarely do. In follow-up discussions, students inevitably say that they didn’t know collaboration was OK.

Knowing these two rules can be useful to engineering managers. If cooperation is lacking, see what boundaries exist. Obvious boundaries are on the organizational chart, but look for other boundaries that create internal subgroups.

Then rework the organizational chart if necessary. Create a dotted-line relationship between cooperating groups, create a crossfunctional project team or mix it up with a new product-oriented cellular structure. If the boundaries cannot be re-created, have groups meet regularly so they understand their shared role in accomplishing some task or objective.

And do not hesitate to establish ground rules for collaboration. What are the expectations for frequency of communication? What kinds of issues should be discussed with the other group? What resources are or should be shared between groups? Let people know not only that it is OK to collaborate but in what ways and how often they should be doing so. A good engineering manager should put time and attention toward breaking down or re-creating boundaries and giving people permission to collaborate.

Charlene A. Yauch is associate professor and industrial engineering program director at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. She is a senior member of IIE and a former director on the SEMS board.

Managing operations for sustainability

Lately, interest has grown in developing systems, processes and artifacts regarding sustainability. This emphasis could be traced back to a 1987 report by the U.N.’s Brundtland Commission, which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Even so, the operations management community has been discussing and (re)interpreting sustainability in the context of operations networks and systems.

But defining clear metrics to evaluate sustainability and identify effective actions can be challenging. Sustainability is a temporal concept that depends on specific contexts. Often, there is tension between institutions, with their specialized mission statements, and society’s demands for defining the institutions’ responsibility to guarantee the common good. Developing sustainable societies and institutions requires political democracy, social equity, economic efficiency, cultural diversity, environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.

A sustainability value proposition statement should constitute the foundation of a strategic operations management system. Many questions must be answered when developing a sustainable approach for operations management, particularly those associated with social responsibility and its integration with the strategic operations management system. To develop sustainable operations, managers must know the enterprise value creation drivers that define new performance dimensions or competitive patterns; rethink and redefine the firm concept to enhance the economic approach to benefit stakeholders; define the capabilities that an operations system should develop to be socially responsible; and develop design recommendations for a strategic operations management system. Such standards should be based on recommendations such as AccountAbility — AA 1000; Social Accountability — SA 8000; Global Reporting Initiative — GRI; Environmental Management Standards — ISO 14000; or International Guidelines for Social Responsibility — SR ISO 26000.

True sustainable strategic operations management implies significant actions. Managers must review the enterprise’s strategic management system design; conceive a new operations strategy vision; and renew operations capabilities and competencies.

Edson Pinheiro de Lima is a professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Parana. He served as a specialist on SEMS’ Performance Management Panel Session at the 2011 Industrial Engineering Research Conference (IERC). Sergio E. Gouvea da Costa is a professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Parana. He is a SEMS board member and has been chair for the Engineering Management track the past two years at IERC.

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