Cross-functional teams spawn excellence

By: 
October 16, 2000

In the industrial product environment, there is nothing more valuable than engineering excellence. It is the force that drives design, product, and process innovation and customer satisfaction. In addition, it is an important factor in reinforcing a company's reputation. In fact, it is precisely what Ingersoll-Rand's Torrington Co. honors through its support of the Design News Engineering Achievement Awards.

While all manufacturers recognize the value of engineering excellence and strive to attain it, there are several different perspectives on how best to nurture it. Two prevalent models in today's environment of cross-functional teams are the Skills Generalist approach, and the Skills Excellence approach.

In the Skills Generalist model, team members are encouraged to gain cross-functional work experience through rotating job assignments in other disciplines such as manufacturing, marketing, and finance. The thought is that by tackling other functional responsibilities, everyone on the team will understand the perspectives of all the various departments, thus minimizing conflict and expediting product development.

The drawback of this model is that, as in baseball, or any team sport, each team member plays best at one specific position. A pitcher cannot inter- change effectively with a shortstop, and the application engineer typically cannot provide the same value when assigned as a product designer, market analyst, or manufacturing engineer. Similarly, an engineering generalist who does not play his or her particular position does not develop enough specific expertise to deliver the best results.

The Skills Excellence model, by contrast, recognizes that most engineers enjoy solving difficult problems and producing technical innovations. These engineers are most productive when they can revel in their love of the technical solution. The more they do it, the better they become.

Similarly, there are people in marketing, manufacturing, finance, etc. who just love what they are doing, and likewise, are most productive when doing what comes naturally.

The fact is that satisfied customers and commercially successful new products do not result from excellence in isolation. While individual engineers can make tremendous personal contributions, engineering specialists working on cross- functional teams focusing on a common project unleash tremendous energy and creativity. This interaction produces solutions far beyond the capability of any single participant.

The Skills Excellence model incorporates this need into the design of the teams. Teams are comprised of individuals with excellence in each of the required functional skills, facilitated by a program manager adept at managing the interactions and interdependencies among the team members. This facilitated cross-functional experience replaces the need to have individuals rotate job assignments to gain cross-functional experience.

The Skills Excellence approach requires that engineering managers provide the necessary environment, direction, tools, and motivation. Their role is not to micromanage decisions or provide tight control to limit risk, but rather to prepare team members for excellence.

The result is that customers receive more innovative products with higher quality and value. Companies benefit by producing more successful new products, engineered to meet customer's requirements, designed for manufacturability with maximum cost efficiency and speed to market. Employees gain a thorough understanding of cross-functional business processes, while at the same time enhancing their

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