These randomly scheduled missives will opine on a variety of topics, mostly intended to be germane to design, construction, capital program management, and other related issues.

For shorter trips through the countryside, take a look at our blog, also called Notes from the Road.
Notes from the Road

March 2011
Do Your Silos Leak?

Management organization theory is rampant with jargon that is often not understood by many businesspeople.

Flat Organizations, Tall Organizations, Horizontal Organizations, Vertical Integration, Line Structures, Line-and-staff Structures, Functional Structures, Network Structures, Matrix Structures. Unless you’re an MBA, your head probably spins trying to keep up with the latest organization alternatives.

In our business of ‘buildings’, we are superficially trained in the merits of management structural tinkering. Our curriculum, at best, gives us a vague understanding of the terminology. As a consequence, our appreciation of the issues is often reduced to what makes simple common sense. I’ll argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

In this context, let’s look at one organization phenomenon: Silos.

OK, What's a Silo?

what's a silo? says: a tall, cylindrical tower used to store grain or farm feed

Or which says: something that is kept separate or compartmentalized

Good answers — descriptive and understandable.
But now we have the ‘B’-School variants: the invisible barrier(s) that separate(s) work teams, departments and divisions, causing people who are supposed to be on the same team to work against one another

or the ‘Best Answer’ as chosen by voters of the blog:

… when individual people, departments, or companies, conduct business in a vacuum without taking into consideration the impact their actions have on the entire organization.

Invariably, the experts define silos pejoratively; and the examples are typical. Personally, I prefer more objective analysis.

Silos are Good!

If your company or department is utterly focused on the job at hand, in spite of expert doubts, the results are often positive. For example:

  • Productivity and profits are above average.
  • Staff and managers are engaged in the work.
  • Morale is observable and manageable.
  • Personnel job descriptions are easier to define.
  • Expectations are easier to orchestrate.
  • Results or output are measurable.

Personally, when asked to evaluate organizations, I’m not terribly disturbed if I see the containment that many management experts would criticize. I see the phenomenon as the likely result of people ‘trying to get the job done’.

But, Then, Silos Can Be Bad

In fairness, I’ll pay the critics their due. The dangers inherent in sealing off an organization are so obvious they don’t warrant much elaboration. What’s the worst that could happen? Pick one:

  • The entire enterprise’s efficiency is diminished by counterproductive work performed within the contained group.
  • Wasteful redundancies develop in parallel departments.
  • An “us against them” mentality settles in, with deteriorating morale consequences.
  • Turf wars devolve into ruthlessness.

A beggars choice.

build leaky silosBuild Leaky Silos

There are ways to maintain the functional advantages of group discipline (darn, I HATE the term silo), while sidestepping many of the disadvantages. This sometimes happens naturally, but usually not. Positive, well planned intervention is typically called for.

At a minimum, the leader of the ‘silo-ized’ group, has an obligation to mitigate the potential harm of isolation. What does this entail? Minimally, three things:

  • Forge a solid working relationship with all peers of the larger organization.
  • Capture and espouse a full understanding of the mission and goals of the enterprise.
  • Inculcate the group with an appreciation for how their actions can relate to, and enhance, what others do.

In support of organization leadership, there are productive ways those within a contained group can behave and perform. All involve an exchange of respect between groups. The most effective partnerships (not just in business, by the way) have people with differing skills — people who respect, even admire, their peers.

leaky silosBut just saying you have to show and earn respect, doesn’t make it happen. It takes evaluation, planning and implementation — and this doesn’t necessarily happen quickly. Lots of different strategies are possible. (Another newsletter maybe.) Nevertheless, it can happen. Actually, it should happen if you want to be more successful. Some of the ‘experts’ have come around, and now see this as the right path.

Two examples on the web:

What's The Relevance of All This?

If you work absolutely alone, then none of this is particularly relevant. Full time beachcombing for lost change does have certain advantages.

On the other hand, if this is not your fortunate lot in life, work group dynamics influence what you do. For those working in manufacturing or some highly regulated activity, this is possibly a current and ongoing analysis. For us, involved in various aspects of the buildings trade, this is not nearly as commonplace.

These days, particularly in our business, there has been enormous pressure to make do both with less, and especially, for less. So – organizational effectiveness is particularly germane.

Builders, Designers and Owners — Who ‘Get’s’ It?

Our three broad target groups have varying degrees of appreciation of this subject matter.

Builders, perhaps because their business routinely entails handling subcontractors, are most adept at silo management. Those most successful are worthy of study, with departments that are both efficient and complementary. I suspect many construction people have developed this expertise intuitively. Kudos for common sense.

who gets it?Designers, particularly Architects, seem to struggle with the issue. Good silos may not exist, and bad silos may be difficult to discern. Even those with good instincts often benefit from consulting assistance or dedicated study to clarify their practices. Modifications are often implemented with great anxiety. who gets it?

Owners are way too diverse to generalize. They run the gamut. Some are superb overseers of their operations, while many have strayed far from any definable structure. Even in highly profitable commercial enterprises, where product manufacturing depends on efficiency, the facilities support organizations may be haphazard.

Farmers Unite!

It seems that silos of all kinds will surround us for a while (especially now that we’re putting corn-based fuel into our cars). Regardless, they’re built for good. They serve a useful purpose. And they can be made better by construction and renovation. This is what we do.

Missed earlier newsletters? Find them here:

January 2011  “Plan to Live Forever!”
November 2010  “May I Have A Plan, Master?”
September 2010  “How do we choose?”
July 2010  “Good People Behaving Badly”
May 2010  “LEED: LEADing or Dead Weight?”
March 2010  “Why does it cost so much?”
January 2010 “Design/Builders show us your softer side.”
November 2009 “What the Facilities?”
September 2009 “Why Do Architects Make Good Owner’s Reps?”

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