Forget the Silos

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When I started working my current position I wasn’t even really sure what a project managers was, or even more, how the heck I was supposed to do it…  We were a small group for 4 engineers that didn’t have a lot of direction from the company, just the goal of getting our name out there and making a little money on the way.  We know it would not be an overnight sensation, but we strived for continuous growth every year. It was an exciting and challenging time for me, but I embraced it head on.  The first few months were a kick in the teeth.  Every day I would come to work and not know how to do my job because there was so many tasks associated with running a project and I needed to learn them all (and what order they go in!).  You would like to think that a small group like that would be able to help each other and operate efficiently, but that’s not exactly true.  See, since we were so small and trying to get our name out there, each of the engineers operated as a project manager for their own projects.  There was not a lot of cross over between projects and each person had to do every task associated with a project themselves, so we didn’t have much spare time.  The learning curve for a PM was steep and I screwed up, A LOT.  I can’t tell you how many times I was yelled at by a contractor or told I was wrong by an engineer, but didn’t know the difference.  There were days I would come home thinking I shouldn’t be an engineer because I don’t understand any of this.  Looking back now though, I know that experience was priceless because it made me a damn good project manager.

We all had the mentality to just push through and do whatever it took to increase our market share and make some money along the way, it was a true sales orientation.  The issue with this business plan though, was it caused us all to approach issues differently and handle every project uniquely.  Some people say that that is a great attitude, you get better customer service and every job gets special attention, but not so fast.  The led each of us to build up our silos.  When I talk about silos in the project management setting, or even the general business environment, I’m referring to systems we built that are stand-alone and don’t have any cross collaboration to other similar systems we use.  Two big silos occurred one in software, the other between project managers.

Software Silos

Silos created with your software are often referred to as IT Silos.  For us, a great example was with our quoting tool.  We used a program that was essentially an excel spreadsheet that allowed us to easily build our quotes measure profit margins, costs, etc.  The issue though, once we got an order that quote was worthless.  All that time we spent to build the parts list in the quoting tool had to be re-entered and updated into our ordering system.  There was no automatic transfer, no download/upload or even an easy copy/paste method.  It was a meticulous process that lead to a significant amount of lost time and headaches.  Another issue was the CRM system (Customer Relationship Manager).  We could input all our customers’ information about the company, contact info, product interests, etc., but there was no connection between that platform and our quoting tool, or our ERP system. If you wanted to make an order for a customer, you have to look them up in the CRM too and then manually input their info again for the sales order in our ERP… Painful. If you read my blog about organization, you can imagine how frustrated that makes me.

Department Silos.

I know that small groups are not the only ones that have these problems, there are huge companies that suffer from department silos.  For us, it came between each of our project managers – there was no such thing as a best practice or a typical way we do things.  Managing a project was all done via experience and some tribal knowledge. This led to a huge issue if a PM was on vacation, the others would have no idea how to jump in and help. We all were depended on, but not in a good way.  For other businesses, it can be giant department silos.  Take manufacturing for an example – Engineering doesn’t talk to manufacturing, sales doesn’t talk to customer service, Marketing doesn’t know what manufacturing can build… and the list goes on.   We can’t keep growing businesses this way, and to me as a project manager, we are not 100% autonomous.  Every decision we make affects other people and is reflected on how the business we are a part of behaves. If your company has 10 project managers and is hired by a large client, they should be able to interchange every PM and have a very similar experience.  Even though we control our own little projects, we all need to keep our eyes on the big picture.  Together, we need to build companies that are worth more than the tribal knowledge and experience of the individuals.

Fast-forward to Today

Over the last few years we have actively worked to break down the walls between the project managers and create a more uniform process for workflow.  Our department brought in help to work with the project managers so they are not required to “wear so many hats” as we like to put it.  Overall, we are not perfect, but we are on track to remove all the tribal knowledge and just make it business practice.  Software on the other hand is a whole different beast.  Those programs we started many years ago still haunt us with their lack of ability to communicate.  We are actively looking for ways to remove programs or add new ones that will operate more harmoniously with our workflow.

I would say regardless of if you are a fast paced – small operation, or a large company, look for ways to remove the silos. Find places where communication is at a standstill and see if you can start to bridge the gap.  Furthermore, take a look at your software programs, is there anything you could be doing to make the programs work together or could a new program that is more versatile replace your outdated one?  A single person cannot remove every silo, but stop and think next time you look to add a program or change the structure of a department, you might be able to prevent the silos all together.

 

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2 thoughts on “Forget the Silos

  1. I like your honesty here about what you’ve learned and your encouragement to break down silos and come up with best practices on how to do things. I’ve found that the dialogue about what we call “standard work” for any given process actually increases creativity on how to improve that process. It gives us a starting point to spring off of for further improvement and efficiency. Great post!

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    1. Thanks for the comment Danae! Moving away from the silos is still a challenge we have, but we are always looking for ways to increase the collaboration. I completely agree with you about the “standard work” we want to encourage people to handle projects in their own way, but we need the starting point!

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