How to overcome silos for process excellence

Janne Ohtonen

This article is part of a series leading up to PEX Network's upcoming BPM Summit, Europe event taking place this June in Amsterdam where Janne Ohtonen will be hosting a workshop. To find out more about the event, please click here.

One huge obstacle for achieving process excellence is working in traditional, functional specialist silos. So what are the three key factors for bringing functional silos together to advance process excellence?

I’ve spent a lot of time in IT companies providing software consulting. One thing that has been common to them all is an excess of functional silos. Whether it’s expertise in a particular programming language, development approach or related skill (e.g. project management) IT-types seem keen to work in silos and promote their own niche expertise.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a need for specialists in SQL, .Net, C#, Java, Oracle, JavaScript and PHP. And where would we be without people who could handle CSS3, HTML5 and MongoDB? Plus we simply couldn’t do without our scrum masters, enterprise architects and project managers.

Are silos the bane of organizational existence?

But despite all this deep domain knowledge, how often does the resulting software fail to make the lives of business users easier or solve their problems?

Unfortunately, all too often. In fact, according to ZDNet’s article, 68% of software projects fail in delivering expected business benefits and I would argue that functional silos are to blame. By encouraging individuals to focus on their own piece of the puzzle, functional silos can mean that the big picture is lost.

So what are the characteristics of companies that have managed to overcome the myopia imposed by functional silos? I propose that there are at least these 3 key characteristics:

Characteristic #1: Customer Centric

If your organisation has a genuine focus on the customer – the customer will become everyone’s business, no matter what functional silo the person represents in an organization.

Even people in "internal roles" should be doing something that enables others to serve customers. Always seek customer satisfaction and value through fulfilling their identified, true needs through business processes. Make your employees to understand that customers will always want something, but even more important is to know what they really need.

Changing organisational culture to be both customer centric and process oriented is very important, because that way the organisation will start to align itself automatically towards process excellence. Customer centricity gives the processes a reason to exist and process orientation makes sure that the organisation is providing added value to the customer as efficiently as possible. But you can’t really imprint this on the organisation and therefore you need to grow it as part of the organisational culture.


Characteristic #2: Shared goals and metrics

Shared goals for the whole organisation and key measures for gauging business performance, gathering the necessary data and analysing it using key variables helps to overcome the risks that people will be working at cross purposes internally.

Build your balanced scorecard from customer-oriented perspective and make sure everyone sees and understands those results in the same way. Even internal roles, such as HR and financial department, need to be connected to customer outcomes through what they do.

With every KPI that you have ask "How does this help my customer to succeed?" That will help you to think internal matters of an organization from customer-oriented perspective. If something does not contribute to providing great customer experiences in a profitable way, get rid of them.

You get what you measure for, but keep in mind that turnover, growth percentage and other faceless, corporate measures do not touch the hearts of people and therefore won’t lead to results either.

Also, when using metrics, remember that extrapolating from the past doesn’t work. You cannot predict the future based on what happened yesterday. The reason is very simple: the world and the customer changes all the time. History won’t tell you what will be the next thing customers get interested in.

Those companies who extrapolate from the past won’t innovate something new and inspiring for their customers. They will be only a bland, slightly improved version of what already was. Therefore, use the metrics to guide the behaviour of people to right direction, ensuring success in future.

Characteristic #3: Remove organisational barriers

Old-fashioned silos can prevent people from collaborating and lead to miscommunication and lack of communication. Therefore, it is very beneficial to remove organisational barriers through creating collaboration culture where everyone have access to all the relevant resources they need regardless of the department, role or other silo barriers we many times have in organisations. This way people are not limited by the functional silos in their every day work.

Break down organizational barriers with the few tips provided below to improve teamwork throughout the organization. It might be best to have a truly process-oriented structure in your organization, so that everyone gets what he or she need to do provide profitable customer experiences.

Also train and coach management to be proactive: set goals for providing customer experiences, review them frequently, establish clear priorities and focus on problem prevention rather than resolution after the fact. Have your people anticipate problems before they even occur. The cost of fixing the cause of a problem is lower when detected earlier. Have people working in teams towards shared goals, without artificial silos preventing genuine collaboration.

Support a drive for perfection, combined with a tolerance for failure. You must be willing to try new ideas and approaches that have some risk of failure in order to make changes leading to perfection. Just make sure that you learn from your mistakes that you will make on the way.

If you cannot extract a teaching from a failure, you better stop trying. No failure is a failure, if you learn something from it; it is just a way not to do that thing (like Edison concluded while trying to create a light bulb).

And that is possible only everyone working together in an organisation regardless of their position, title, department, gender, age or anything else. Those people, who do not contribute to common goals, need to look for other place to work, because there is no place for free riders in a silo-free organisation.


So, can you now imagine getting better software if the IT company that you employed had a real focus on your needs as a customer? And wouldn’t it be even better if they were measuring throughout the project how they are advancing in relation to your business goals and supporting them with an IT system? Would that be something of interest to you? If yes, then it might be of consolidation that there are some IT companies out there who are still genuinely interested in customer outcomes. You just need to find one!

But what do you think? What does it take to overcome silos and get everyone working together? Please, share your thoughts and comments on this topic in comments below