Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Production Line Mentality (and Silo Syndrome)

At the start of this month I mentioned, in passing, what I called Production Line Mentality. This is the propensity for individuals working in a large organization to concentrate solely on what they have been told to do, ie, their "job specification". This behavior is promulgated by a multi-layered, controlling management structure.

Two people pointed out that what I was describing already had a name - Functional Silo Syndrome or simply Silo Syndrome - a term ascribed to Phil Ensor. Though Production Line Mentality and Silo Syndrome are very similar I don't believe they are exactly the same as I discuss later.

Since the discussion of Production Line Mentality created so much interest I thought I should elucidate and mention a few things that I did not have room for last time. Later on I will talk about how the Agile approach addresses it.

Production Line Deficiencies

Some say the production line is the most important invention of the industrial revolution. However, it has well-documented problems such as being boring, demoralizing, demeaning and, if the truth be known, tends to generate product of low quality. Luckily, in manufacturing the traditional production line has almost vanished in the last few decades due to studies (eg, see next) demonstrating better approaches. Unfortunately, in the software industry elements of the production line remain.

To show the problem, and the solution, I will first mention a study of a manufacturing production line. This occurred at a Swedish washing machine maker in the 1980's. The company switched one production line to a system where different teams assembled the machines from start to finish.

Originally with a production line of about 20 people (six machines per day), they  reorganized into four teams of five people. (Of course, there were costs involved in re-tooling, training etc.) Each worker was given the skills and knowledge to assemble a major component or even the whole machine.

In brief, they found that productivity quickly increased to about 7-8 machines per day (and even more over time). Morale improved and less supervision was needed as individuals were motivated to get the work done and even suggest improvements that boosted their own efficiency. Importantly, the product had a marked improvement in quality. There were many other documented advantages such as less conflict and much greater flexibility when someone was absent.

Production Line Mentality in Software

OK, so the production line has problems, but what has that got to do with software development? Actually, quite a lot.

First, many developers are quite happy to potter along on their own problem with little or no interaction with others. By focusing on a small narrow task they lose sight of the bigger picture. To be productive all team members need to communicate and understand the organization's objectives.

Second, traditional software development methodologies encourage this behavior The Waterfall model divides the development process into a series of phases (much like a production line). The work is divided into specialized areas: business analysts, system analysts, designers, coders, various flavors of testers, technical writers, etc.

Finally, many large IT organizations are placed under a large amount of pressure by senior management. This often leads to a blaming culture and a controlling management style which is probably the largest contributing factor, as I discuss below.

Silo Syndrome

Although the Silo Syndrome has essentially the same causes and effects as the production line mentality it is usually described in terms of the behavior of departments or "groups" within a larger organization rather than individuals. In the interests of self-preservation a group becomes protectionist of their knowledge and uncooperative with other parts of the organization.

The original article on Functional Silo Syndrome by Phil Ensor beautifully explains this (see Functional Silo Syndrome). The following discussion of causes and effects of production line mentality generally also apply to the silo syndrome.

How Does It Happen?

The behavior starts as a response to an autocratic, controlling management style. As a defense mechanism the individual (or group) withdraws from any activity that involves risk. Some also restrict access to information, since knowledge is power. Of course, this is detrimental to the organization as a whole by stifling creativity, knowledge sharing, and collaboration.

There are many reasons for this poor management style. It could simply be due to an individual manager. More often it is due to the culture of the organization -- coming from the top. Autocratic managers are generally attracted to an organization with such a culture (but they can pop-up anywhere).

I can think of a few different scenarios:


A common problem is a technically gifted individual who has been promoted to a position of power and attempts to micromanage all subordinates. Often they believe they know better than anyone working for them how to do the work. They only have people working for them because they don't have enough time to do everything themselves.

Their enormous ego leads them to believe it, but they generally do not know better than those actually doing the work. Even if it were true it is still demoralizing and demeaning to be micromanaged in this way.


A related problem is a manager that is insecure in their own ability. Surprisingly this may occur in concert with the above since the manager may project confidence but are worried that eventually others will see through the fa├žade. By controlling information they can more easily cover up their mistakes or find someone to blame.


One of the most basic instincts is for self-preservation. If a manager gives up control then their role may be seen to be less important or even redundant. By embedding themselves in the work processes they make themselves an essential cog of the machine. Also, as we saw above, an insecure manager tightly controls information to hide their own ineptitude.

This is perhaps the biggest impediment to addressing the problem. In a top-down, authoritarian structure, many layers of management are required to monitor and control everyone. If the people who actually do the work are empowered to make decisions then many of the layers can be reduced or even eliminated. Unsurprisingly, there is a huge amount of resistance to this sort of change.


If a culture of fear emanates from the top then it will permeate the entire organization. There is no advantage, and significant disadvantage and difficulty, in treating your staff well if you are treated badly yourself. In other words a manager cannot empower their subordinates if they are not themselves empowered.


It is rare but some managers simply enjoy wielding power to the point that it is almost sadistic. Luckily, I have only ever encountered one such manager who would deliberately inconvenience or even humiliate those that worked for him.


Finally, there are those managers who don't know any better. Either, they are inexperienced and are following the lead of others or this is the way they have always worked and are not open to any other options.

How Does It Work?

In most organizations, production line mentality results in a large hierarchical management structure. Each manager is given strict control of a group which is split into sub-groups each with their own manager, and so on. This hierarchy can contain many layers until you get down to the people at the bottom, who actually do the work.

Information flows vertically. If you need information from someone in another section this is done through your supervisor. Information is distributed by a manager on a "need to know" basis.

Rewards are doled out by management based on the perceived value of each individual. Inevitably this fosters competition and rivalry, which kills any sort of collaborative spirit. Individuals expend effort making themselves look good (and even try to make their co-workers look bad) to their boss, rather than focusing on the goals of the organization.

When something goes wrong it's easy to point the finger at the person responsible. However, the root cause of the problem is usually that the person who made the mistake was not given enough information or assistance to do their job properly.

Negative reinforcement (ie, punishment for mistakes) is the primary motivator, rather than positive reinforcement. This leads to an aversion to risk where nobody wants to take responsibility for anything beyond their small area of influence.


Many people working in this sort of environment are not even aware of it or just accept it. This is often because they have have never worked for a more enlightened company. Here are some possible clues based on the work environment:
  •  there are more chiefs than Indians - ie more managers than workers
  •  monetary rewards are given based on individual performance reviews
  •  each position has a detailed written job description
  •  you often have to sign legal documents such as non-disclosure agreements
  •  requirements documents must be signed off by several people
  •  developers are not allowed to talk to customer representatives
Here are some clues that your boss is the problem:
  •  you don't really know what your boss does
  •  you can never find your boss or arrange a meeting
  •  you are not given enough information to do your work properly
  •  you have to ask for a (deserved) pay rise
  •  you cannot send emails to the client without clearing it with your boss
  •  your boss threatens to fire you when you express any sort of dissent
  •  you get into trouble for swapping tasks with a co-worker
  •  when you book a meeting with your boss she postpones or is late
  •  if your boss books a meeting with you and you are late she hits the roof
  •  all emails you send must be CC'd to your boss
  •  you cover up a problem rather than tell your boss
  •  you discover there was a meeting (on a subject crucial to your work) to which you were not invited
  •  you are asked to work overtime when there is no reason to do so
  •  your boss keeps reminding you about the poor job market
  •  your boss never admits they made a mistake
  •  your boss keeps reminding you of your own past mistakes
Here are a few general clues about an organization with a poor culture:
  •  you have never met anyone who uses the software that you write
  •  everyone knows about a problem that needs fixing but nobody is willing to tackle it
  •  there is often conflict in the workplace
  •  many problems occur - the same problems happen over and over
  •  people in the organization have stress-related health problems
  •  you are regularly given large design documents about projects you have never heard of
  •  two developers discover that they have both fixed the same bug
If you are a boss, here are some clues that you might be the problem:
  •  you get the feeling that you don't know the full story about what is happening
  •  the people who work for you show no initiative
  •  the people who work for you are incompetent
  •  the people who work for you are risk-averse
  •  you don't know the name of everyone who works for you
  •  there are people that you have not talked to in over a month
  •  you have an "open door" policy but nobody takes advantage of it
  •  the client asks for a simple change to which you give an estimate, but are shocked when the team cannot deliver


By now I hope you are convinced of the detrimental effects of production line mentality (and silo syndrome). To reiterate it makes for an organization with little collaboration and creativity to solve problems. Insular thinking results in inefficiencies such as poor processes, redundant processes and bad decision making.

The effect on morale results in poor employee engagement, absenteeism and sub-optimal productivity. Moreover, because managers build themselves into the system they become a single point of failure which affects flexibility and resilience.


So how do we prevent this from happening? The simplest way is to follow an Agile methodology. For example, in Scrum the team is self-organizing, so resist the urge to "help" them get organized. Another piece of good advice comes from XP (Extreme Programming) to "eliminate fear".

The most important point is for managers to empower their charges. Don't assume they will get it wrong. If they don't do it the way you would do it, it may actually be a better way. If you trust people they will usually honor that trust.

Some simple tips are
  • encourage spontaneous feedback, eg don't react badly to a mistake or oversight.
  • reward the team rather than individual to encourage collaboration
  • eliminate formality & the need to "go through channels"
  • have more than an open door policy - go out and talk to people
  • use instant messaging - but also talk face to face sometimes
  • encourage people to interact as necessary with whoever they need to

Does Scrum Promote Silos?

Scrum is great for counteracting "production line mentality". Allowing the team to self-organize promotes interaction (within the team) which results in better organization, processes and products. It is also good for morale due to team members having a feeling of making a contribution and working together toward a common goal. In particular, the daily standup allows everyone to know what everyone else is doing, with improved coordination and less mistakes.

But does Scrum inhibit collaboration between teams? The simple answer is - it shouldn't but it can.

When different groups do not collaborate this is known as the "silo syndrome" as we saw above. Sometimes Scrum teams have this problem due to a misunderstanding of the roles on the product owner and scrum master. Let's first look at the problems these roles are designed to overcome.

Product Owner

Even in (or especially in) an open, collaborative environment there can be a problem of conflicting and volatile requirements. There are often many people (users and other client representatives, managers, business analysts, etc) with input into how the software is to be modified. One manager might insist on all bugs being fixed as a high priority, another might want to sneak in their favorite feature or improve an existing feature -- you have probably seen this sort of thing yourself. Different people have different ideas and priorities; and these ideas and priorities tend to change often.

In Scrum, having a product owner and sprint backlog avoids this problem by having all requirements come through one person. This ensures that the developers are not pulled in many different directions at once. Further, because the sprint backlog is unchanging they know that things will not suddenly change, at least until the end of the sprint.

However, having a product owner does not in any way preclude the team from talking to people outside the team. In fact this sort of collaboration is encouraged. It simply means that all requirements come through the PO and are prioritized in the backlog.

Scrum Master

The scrum master is in many ways an interface between the team and higher-level management. The main task of the scrum master, outside the team, is to remove roadblocks. This involves them using their influence to obtain resources, help or information. Some scrum masters take it upon themselves to intercept interference from outside the team, such as a senior manager who wants to control the team. Their are always managers who think they can organize the team better than it can organize itself.

In summary, an over-zealous scrum master can turn a scrum team into a "silo".

Finally, a Scrum Team can be unfairly perceived as a silo. A team should be composed of all the persons required to accomplish their tasks from start to finish. This means that they may not require a lot of communication with people outside the team.


Production line mentality (and silo syndrome) begins with a culture where personal interest (or the interests of a group within the organization) is not aligned with the organization's best interests. Fear prevails and individuals are driven by self-protection (or protection of their department) rather than desire to do the best for the organization as a whole.

This culture is characterized by many layers of bureaucracy which is a classic example of the DIRE principle. Employees show no initiative and just wait to be told what to do. Risk-taking is discouraged since mistakes are punished.

The solution to this problem is to empower employees to take control of their own destiny. Encourage collaboration and discourage rivalry by rewarding the team and not individuals. Share the vision of the organization so that everyone is working towards the same end.

Generally, following the ideas behind Agile will encourage collaboration and work against the production line mentality (and silo syndrome).

[Note: I was also going to talk about the closely related problem of vendor mentality, but that will have to wait for next week.]

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