It’s Not Easy Being Lean: How to Break Down Silos and Promote Collaboration -

It’s Not Easy Being Lean: How to Break Down Silos and Promote Collaboration

By Ashley Christman, LSS MBB, SSBBP, CSM

This blog post first appeared on the Lean Transformation Group’s blog and was repurposed and posted here with permission. The original post can be found here.

Want to kill innovation, productivity, and healthy internal collaboration/competition? Continue to promote a culture of silos. Silos in the workplace involve the idea that departments, units, and sections stay within themselves and rarely if ever work collaboratively with other departments or groups. This silo mentality is the result of a culture that is full of high individual performers but fails to place value on choreographing activities. Unfortunately, this attitude is quite widespread in both organizations large and small, public or private, and in some places is seen as inevitable or just a way of life.

It is interesting because often, this is one of the top complaints that employees and leaders share. They often say, “We don’t communicate well across functions,” and leaders of projects that require the intersection of multiple functions face complex challenges with communication and alignment of goals, roles, and responsibilities. Without proper coordination, projects will suffer from a lack of resources and compete with individual performance targets. Additionally, there may be more waste associated with the project as the result of possible reworks and duplication. Without the collaboration of different areas, oftentimes improvement efforts are impeded because there is no one to ask “why?”

So, how do we make the shift to break down silos and promote collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas?

The first thing to realize is this a culture change. You are asking people to change the system and become innovators and revolutionaries—okay, maybe not that extreme, but you are asking them to “Think Different”.  Moreover, for some, this can be challenging. A great book that addresses change management in these circumstances is Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under any Circumstances, by John Kotter. It’s a great and easy read, but for those who don’t have the time, here are some ideas on how to shift from silos into high performing systems:

  1. Publicly acknowledge shared goals. Create a unified vision. In one of my previous incarnations as a consultant, I worked with a client organization that had a very rigid silo system. However, when tasked with making departmental improvements, the units were forced to start talking to each other. What worked in this instance was acknowledging that they had these improvements to make so they could serve the customer. In doing that, they started forcing the teams to work cross-functionally, as well as up and down the chain of command. Cross-unit teams began to form, and as they realized what effect this had, the units began to seek other opportunities to collaborate with peers. But, this would have never even began until the shared goals were publicly announced and the shared victories were celebrated.
  2. Embrace the “why”. Ever met someone who seemed to ask “why” every time they were asked to do something? This trait can be empowering to employees and foster innovation through the sharing of ideas. People need information to do things. Never disregard the power of “why.” Likewise, questions spur creativity and imagination. Imagination leads to innovation. Often we have to reach across the aisle to make this happen.
  3. Culture comes from the top. It is not enough to encourage staff to be “silo busters.” Change has to start at the top. In this case, servant leadership and leading by example is the best way to model the change you want others to immolate.

By shifting silos into systems, and placing more value on collaboration, organizations can overcome the barriers that lack of communication can create. This effort is driven from the top, and there must be a firm commitment by management to change the culture by committing to getting not just results but making steady progress. When changing the culture, remember the phrase, “Go slow to go fast.” Real change is a slow process, no matter how much we wish it were to the contrary. Over time, the organization will see an improvement in trust given, waste eliminated, and a more productive environment. The key is to focus on opportunity, not to dwell on putting fires out. Look for chances to engage people and watch them blossom.

Interested in learning more about Lean principles or getting a Lean certification? KAI Partners’ KAIP Academy is accredited through the Council for Six Sigma Certification as an independent training provider. We are excited to offer Lean Six Sigma training and certification in the Sacramento area! For a list of our current Lean course offerings, visit

 About the Author: Ashley Christman is a former nurse and Certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with a background in organizational change management and Lean. Her extensive experience in healthcare quality and performance improvement has transformed a number of organizations and led to better outcomes in patient care, reductions in wait times, and more. Her experience includes consulting for the CA Department of Public Health as well as multiple large hospital systems, including Santa Rosa Memorial and Petaluma Valley Hospital. Her passion for improvement and educating others led her to begin teaching in order to help entrepreneurs, professionals, and leaders create a sustainable culture change by empowering them to be change agents and champions of innovation. You can find her online at @learnlivelean on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

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