Managing Functional Conflict in Lean WorkplacesConflict is present in all organizations, at all levels, across team boundaries, in times of growth and during recessions.

A manager who hopes to eliminate conflict will instead drive it into break rooms and private email conversations, away from the environments in which it can enhance business efficiency.

Instead, encourage functional conflict through proactive management.

An organization is only truly Lean when everything that occurs within it–including interpersonal dynamics–is efficient and improving continuously.

Functional vs. Dysfunctional Conflict and Lean Management

Dysfunctional conflict is an enemy of efficiency. It is characterized by competing individual interests overriding the business’s overall interests. Managers withhold information from one another. Employees sabotage others’ work, either intentionally or through subtle, conflict-motivated disinterest in teamwork.

By contrast, functional conflict is a healthy and efficient process. Two or more employees disagree, each basing his or her viewpoint on his or her experiences and knowledge. All parties involved communicate directly and a solution is agreed upon, which is to the advantage of the company  and advances business goals. Feelings may be hurt and egos may be damaged, but all involved understand the importance of a positive outcome.

Turning Dysfunctional Conflict Functional through Lean Thinking

If dysfunctional conflict plagues your workplace, you must act directly and immediately. You can use the same techniques that you would employ in resolving problems with a supplier relationship or interdepartmental workflows.

Consider sketching a value stream map showing how a product flows through individuals, rather than processes. Identify inefficiencies, such as a decision point where two managers must weigh in when only one opinion is genuinely needed. Note current known conflicts on your map. These roadblocks impede product flow substantially. Use your value stream map to help you see your way around these stopping points.

Next, bring all parties involved in the conflict to the table for an open, honest discussion. Treat the conversation as you would any other in which you must ask managers to find efficiencies and make personal sacrifices for the sake of continuous improvement. Challenge the conflicting parties each to brainstorm ways they can make their relationship more efficient and stop their conflicts from impeding the workflow of others or the progress of products.

Ask each person at the table to make a personal commitment to one change that will create functional, efficient conflict conversations. For example, if a middle manager creates dysfunctional conflict by authoring unkind emails, he or she should commit to having conflict conversations face-to-face only. Remind employees that you will hold them to their commitments and that you expect more efficient communication in the future.

Continuously Improving Conflict Management

After rooting out dysfunctional conflicts in your organization, do not relax and ignore ongoing conflicts. Instead, reap the benefits of functional conflict through smart management. Encourage healthy disagreement in team meetings; it leads to suggestions that bolster organizational efficiencies. Apply the philosophy of kaizen to your current and future conflict management strategies. Improve both conflict conversations and their long term affects continuously.