Technically speaking, you don’t have to have cross-functional teams to be Lean or to conduct Lean projects. However, cross-functional teams are more valuable to your Lean initiatives than you might think.
Single function project teams, such as a welding project conducted by welders, have the benefit of a common knowledgebase and deep expertise. There is value in that and in some situations it’s the way to go. In many other situations, a cross-functional team will give a project the boost it needs to beat expectations and improve how the team members perform their other work.
What are cross-functional teams?
In the simplest terms, cross-functional teams are made up of people with a variety of areas of expertise. One way this is accomplished is by having several functions work on the whole project together. For example, a product launch team that includes assemblers, a capacity planner, an HR professional, and a product designer where all four team members work on the project together at the same time would be a cross-functional team. Each team member gets to experience the whole project from start to finish.
Another way to look at it is a project that is passed from one function to another as it progresses. For example, a new product starts with the innovators, then moves to the makers, and then the sellers. The key to this is the hand-off that occurs between the project phases. Solid communication of goals, expectations, and project status help ensure the success of the next team and continued success of the project.
Advantages of a cross-functional team
There are a variety of reasons a cross-functional team is beneficial. The following list is made of some advantages of both or either kind of cross-functional team discussed above.
- Diversity of Perspectives: An assembler will see that the current design is going to be difficult to build, because of the angle of these two pieces. The capacity planner will know the labor hours required to build this product will cause issues if it’s running alongside a particular product that also requires more time than usual. If they are both on the team, these two insights can be shared much earlier in the project to save time and rework later.
- Team Resilience: If a team member needs to be absent for some reason, someone else on the team can fill in, because there’s more than one person who knows what needs to be done. They’ve all been involved in the project, so an absence doesn’t mean cancelling or delaying the whole project.
- Cross-training: In the manufacturing world, we’re often looking for ways to cross-train. This helps employees add even more value, expands their knowledge, and reduces mental and physical fatigue of performing the same job for extended periods of time. The exposure to other functions or even co-workers in their own function lays the foundation for learning new skills and makes them easier to develop.
- Increased empathy between functions: Say good-bye to the days when one department couldn’t understand why another would feel a certain way about a new process. If representatives from both departments are working on a project together, they learn about each other’s perspective and will be more likely to think of it the next time they’re working in their own functional team.
- Professional Development: People on a cross-functional team are exposed to a wider variety of aspects in the business. They learn about what their co-workers do. This can deepen their current skills, encourage them to learn new ones, or maybe even inspire a new career path. Consider bringing in someone from a different function as a development opportunity. Also, the team itself may create opportunities for new leaders to emerge or practice their leadership skills.
- Efficient skill utilization: The project is handled by the people who are best equipped for each phase, such as in the example of bringing a new product to market. When a project progresses from one team of experts to the next, the people benefit too. After the hand-off period, each team moves on to doing what they do best. Talk about Lean. When people work in their expertise, there is much less waste.
- Break down silos: We’ve all heard about the siloed nature of business and organizations. Each function sticks together, does their job, and keeps knowledge and lessons learned to themselves. Cross-functional teams open up new communication channels and expand internal relationships.
Whether the project is handled by several functions all at once or moves from one function to the next, cross-functional teams improve the work, the teams, and the project outcomes.
In the world of Lean Manufacturing, learning a new method or refamiliarizing ourselves with a method is a valuable way to strengthen our knowledge and keep all options on the table. Next time you’re setting up a new project, consider bringing in someone from a different department or making improvements to the project hand-off. What could you learn that would help you do your job better or help your team raise the level of their performance?