Why Cross-Functional Collaboration is Essential to OpEx


Do you know the story of the three blind men and an elephant? One man touches the trunk and imagines a snake. Another touches a leg and perceives it as the trunk of a tree. The third touches the ear and thinks it is a large fan. At first, each man distrusts the others because they assume they must be liars, but when they put their thoughts together, they begin to picture the elephant as it actually appears.

Cross-functional collaboration is a bit like this ancient parable. When people with different perspectives have trust and pool their observations and understandings, they create a more complete picture of the process or situation. Having that accurate and complete understanding is an essential baseline for starting OpEx efforts.

Let’s consider some of the benefits of this collaboration, along with ways to achieve it.


See Different Perspectives

Like the blind men, people from different functions within an organization have different perspectives. An engineer may rely on blueprints, specs, and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for their understanding of a process. On the other hand, an operator has the day-to-day knowledge of what happens in his real world, with shortcuts, Band-Aids, and modifications—whether intentional or accidental.

These misconceptions caused by limited perspective are blinders when process problems occur. The engineer misses a clue during troubleshooting because she knows “this is how it’s supposed to work.” The operator misses a clue because “that’s the way it’s always worked.” Both perspectives are needed to jointly identify a “deviation from should” (in Kepner Tregoe terms), which then leads to problem identification and correction. Unless people openly discuss their perspectives, misconceptions are not likely to be made visible and corrected.

In a healthcare setting, a doctor may see test results indicating near total recovery, whereas a nurse may have close observations of daily patient pain levels showing no improvement. They need to work together to understand how to help the patient.


Identify Different Opportunities

Cross-functional collaboration also provides improvement opportunities beyond troubleshooting when all parties understand one another’s capabilities. Consider these situations:


  • In an early process design review of planned equipment modifications, operators recognize an opportunity to remove non-value-adding steps, enabling simpler, less expensive implementation. The maintenance perspective also assures the installed design will have lowest ongoing maintenance costs.
  • In cross-functional hospital improvement team efforts, nursing staff observes differences from one unit to another. This benchmarking leads to standardization of best practices across units and resulting benefits in patient safety, efficiency and cost.
  • In a “blue-sky thinking” session, operators say, “If the machine could do this, we could do that.” Designers say, “If operators can do this, we can do that.” The back-and-forth synergy creates a breakthrough design.
  • Accountants provide cost pareto analyses, helping other team members shift continuous improvement focus to the most impactful areas.
  • Suppliers are made aware of how materials are used and adjust timing and quantity of delivered items to provide flow efficiencies.

Ease Implementation

With every change comes risk. When it is time to make changes, collaboration across functions is essential for timely and effective implementation. Utilizing input from all stakeholders helps to identify and mitigate risk. This principle has become so evident that PMBOK5, the prominent guide for project management, articulated a new knowledge category of project management titled Project Stakeholder Management. (This category is shifting conceptually to Stakeholder Engagement
with PMBOK6, emphasizing that it is an active collaboration process.)

Implementation of something new is also stressful for people. In periods of change, often under time pressure, people must shift out of their comfort zones; they need to make decisions and get things done quickly. Having the ability to call on other functions for input, guidance, support, and agreement is beneficial, for both timely and appropriate decisions and moral support.


Create Common Goals and Culture

In non-collaborative cultures, an “us vs. them” culture can develop. When problems arise, operators blame engineers, workers blame management, doctors blame nursing staff, and everyone blames suppliers. This is totally dysfunctional behavior compared to using teamwork to understand the root causes behind issues and drive progress.

The act of working collaboratively creates a team with shared goals. Having shared goals enhances teamwork, reinforcing a cohesive and constantly improving team, a winning team.


How to Get Cross-Functional Collaboration

To some extent, making cross-functional collaboration happen is a “just do it” item. The situation is actually a bit more complicated since ensuring collaboration does require changes in behavior.

A starting point is the identification of participants for major projects or process reviews, significant troubleshooting, phase and gate reviews, task forces, or other team collaborations. These methods can help identify what functions should be included on the team:


  • Examine the value stream map, process map or flowchart to see who the “players” are in a process.
  • Use project management and stakeholder matrices to identify appropriate participants.
  • Utilize a RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) template and list of functions.
  • Create a conceptual round table with assigned seats for all functions. Remove a seat only if that function truly is not needed. It only takes a few seconds to make a choice not to invite someone; it actually takes more time to list all the functions that might be needed.

Once participants are identified, they are part of the collaborative team seeking to achieve organizational targets and overall success. Incorporate triggers and consequences for collaboration within the goals, feedback, and reinforcement in the organization’s operations and culture.


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About the author

Nancy Bach

Nancy Bach has spent more than 20 years in the industry as a quality and operational excellence practitioner and manager. In private consulting, she creates and delivers a Lean Certification course, provides Green Belt training and works with multi-functional organizations to develop strategy and implement process improvement.