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Confidence –The Magical Element of Cross Functional Teams

An example, from a DuPont Chemical site was a team working on extending pump life in an ethylene plant. As it turned out, the biggest offenders were brand new pumps installed in benzene service. The pumps were totally enclosed without seals to avoid any leakage of benzene to the atmosphere. Consequently, the bearings in the pump were exposed to the benzene flow. Since benzene is a great solvent, it quickly washed all of the lubricant out of the bearings, causing them to fail. The team was stuck with a dilemma. If they used the seal less pumps, the bearings failed. If they used a pump with seals, some toxic benzene escaped into the air. This was the proverbial "between a rock and a hard place." After about 30 minutes of discussing alternatives, an operator said "Wait a minute; I think there is enough upstream pressure to move the benzene through this unit without a pump." Removing and disposing of the brand new pumps solved the problem.

Another example of the "magical" accomplishments of cross functional teams comes from what was a well known problem at the former BP refinery in Lima, Ohio. The butane sphere was overheating in the summer months, and periodically butane had to be vented to the flare to relieve the pressure. This problem was already on a list of projects to be addressed by engineering with the approximate cost of $400,000. At a Manufacturing Game workshop, a cross functional team composed of people from operations and maintenance decided to work on this problem. They felt that the overheating compressor was a safety hazard in the summer months. Once the team started working on this defect they quickly determined that the cooler on the compressor was undersized; it was very hot to the touch. They recruited an engineer to be on the team to check the specifications on a substitute cooler. They had it refurbished and sent it on to engineering to ensure it passed through their management of change process for safety. The new cooler was installed and immediately the pressure on the vessel came down and the valve to the flare could be closed. The total cost for this improvement was $5,000. The team eliminated the safety issue and in the process cut out over $1.5 million worth of butane going to the flare annually. They also eliminated the need for engineering to address this problem for $400,000.

There are many examples where spontaneous ideas occur that cannot be explained in the cause and effect world of engineers. Over the years we have tried various methods to make the Action Team process more rational, but our efforts have not been as effective as we had hoped. To facilitate forming Action Teams, we developed a booklet that we believed would put order to the process, but over time we decided that it really didn't seem to be helpful. Our facilitators, as well as some of the engineers at our client sites, liked the booklet. We had to admit to ourselves, however, that even though it made the process more organized, it didn't seem to help with the quality of the teams or the results that they achieved. The best criteria for predicting success of Action Teams is still determined by how much the people on the team care about a piece of equipment that needs improvement and how well all of the functions are represented on the team.

I recently ran across an explanation by John Bennett that makes sense to me. John Bennett wrote books on the role of human beings in the universe. His view is that creativity is a gift that human beings receive when conditions are right. My understanding of these conditions involves four aspects. First, people have to possess certain skills and knowledge to help them recognize the details of the situation. Second, people have to have enough discipline in their work habits so they are not introducing extraneous variations into the situation. Third, people need a framework that helps them recognize the essence of the situation. Finally, people need to have the confidence that they have the first three aspects fully covered. It is this confidence that I think is the magic of cross functional teams. Bennett says, "Confidence is the element that creates the opportunity for something creative to happen spontaneously." My father-in-law, who was a successful businessman, always said he liked the "confidence" aspect of doing business. As an engineer, I always struggled to understand what he meant by "confidence" but now I think Bennett's explanation gives me a better understanding of the concept.

So how does confidence get created in a cross functional team? To paraphrase J.G. Bennett from a book he wrote in 1964, creative thinking happens when people are sure they have exhausted all the possibilities. Only then, do they come to have the answer. By having a cross functional team of people, who have intimate contact with the equipment in question; involved in a discussion about a problem they care about, it usually doesn't take very long to exhaust all the possibilities for a solution, or in fact, find a solution within existing knowledge. When the team thinks it cannot find an existing solution, and they think all possibilities have been exhausted, the magic can happen. When people start to think "outside the box" and new innovative ideas start to flow "The Confidence of Cross Functional Thinking" begins to happen.

Article submitted by:  Winston Ledet, The Manufacturing Game

Winston Ledet

Winston Ledet is a leading consultant and internationally known workshop instructor on proactive manufacturing and maintenance. He has 27 years of experience with E.I. du Pont de Nemours, serving in a variety of assignments. He is one of the creators of The Manufacturing Game® as part of his work at DuPont. Winston formed his own consulting firm, Ledet Enterprises, Inc., in 1993, using The Manufacturing Game® to help drive improvement efforts in process industries, as well as discrete part manufacturing sites around the world. 

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