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On Silos and Accountability

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in Remarkable Leadership with Kevin Eikenberry

I was at my farm recently, and I was looking at the silo you see a picture of here. Erected in 1979, it was the “Cadillac” ofsilo structures of its type. Today, the entire silo business is nonexistent. The change is a story largely of the modern dairy (and to a lesser degree hog) farm. As the farms get larger and the organizations more complex, the silo can’t play a role. As big as they are (this one, 20 feet across and 60 feet tall), they just aren’t large enough.

The silo business in agriculture is all but over.

In the rest of the world, however, silos are alive and well in organizations everywhere.

You know what I mean.

There is the sales silo, the marketing silo, the manufacturing silo, the IT silo. There is also the first shift silo, the second shift silo and much more.

Do I need to go on?

What can we take from this situation — “real” silos losing favor, but organizational ones alive and well? Let’s see what we can see.

Silos were expensive. When we built the silo in the picture, outside of the barn beside it, it was the most expensive investment my father had made in his business. It was clear in our operation that care should be taken with the silo and that its maintenance was a top priority.

In our organizations, we spend time finding the right people, grooming them, training them and preparing them to be a valuable part of the team. The investments of time and money made to build the team are significant — and so naturally we want that expense to pay off. Because of those investments we pay careful attention to our teams. Which leads us to the next point …

Silos were something to be proud of. When you erect something that stands 60 feet tall in the rural landscape, people can see it — it can’t be hidden or camouflaged. It is like a beacon stating your intentions, and justifiably so, most farmers were proud of their silos, a bit like a trophy earned.

So too in our organizations. As the leader of sales or manufacturing or engineering works hard to build his or her team, there is a justifiable sense of pride in what they have built. Not only that, but the leader often wants to instill that pride in the team as well — giving people a sense that their team is important in and of themselves.

Silos outlived their usefulness. Silos on the farm were good investments, and at the time, helped farms grow and prosper. While some are still used and there is nothing wrong with their use, they limit the farm’s ability to grow. So too with the silos we have built in our organizations. Farmers knew that they needed to move on if they wanted bigger livestock operations. Unfortunately, in organizations we began to treat the silo as the business itself, rather than recognizing that if we focused all of our attention on the silo, as important as it is, we would limit the overall growth of the enterprise.

So let me be clear — the problem with the silos we live in is pervasive and seductive. Because, from the internal perspective, the silo looks good and is valuable, yet when you shift your perspective to look at the whole operation, the silo is in the way — a bigger hindrance than a help for the overall growth and success of the organization.

And how does all of this connect to accountability?

If there are silos in your organization, and you want the business to continue to grow and expand, you must move past the silos. The perspective must change to see the reality of the silos as a hindrance; they have at some level outlived their usefulness.

And the accountability for making that happen starts with you.

How can I say that when I don’t know your role?

Easy.

Because everyone has a stake in making that change.

It can start from the C-Suite, but it doesn’t have to. It can start with the salesperson who builds relationships with other departments as a way to better meet a Customer need. It can start with a first line supervisor who gathers his team with the accounting group to find ways to speed up a troublesome process. It can start with a middle manager who is willing to share her budget with another department that is in need of additional investment.

When we look at organizational problems, we too often want to point at someone else to fix the problem. But when we point at others, we are fixing the blame and adding to the problem.

Have silos?

Start with you.

If you live in a silo that is comfortable, bust out of it today — not to devalue it, but to make that silo a more valuable and productive part of the future of your business.

As leaders, we have the chance to do that because our silos are made up of people, not steel or concrete. Adjustments can and must be made if we want ultimate organizational — and personal — success.

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