Last week, the Manufacturing Leadership Council held a special meeting and tour of the historic Ford River Rouge plant—now known as the Dearborn Truck Plant—where the dramatic changes that have come to automotive manufacturing over the past 85 years were on dramatic display.

When it opened for business in 1928, the 16-million-square-foot River Rouge plant was the largest integrated factory in the world. With over 100,000 workers employed there at its peak, the River Rouge plant was highly vertically integrated, over the years pumping out Model T parts, the Model A, and a succession of Ford vehicles destined for worldwide distribution.

With its own ore processing facility and forge, its own railroad, and power plant, the River Rouge plant was able to take in raw materials from docks on the river and turn them into cars.

Today, the River Rouge site is still a bustling place. At the Dearborn Truck Plant, which opened in 2004 in a portion of the River Rouge plant, 3,600 employees produce 350,000 F150 trucks per year, working 3 shifts, 6 days per week.

But today the business of making trucks is a much more distributed and much more collaborative affair than it was when River Rouge opened. Like all of its OEM competitors, Ford relies on suppliers to innovate new parts and entire subsystems and to get them to the assembly plants where they are needed, when they are needed, and in the sequence they are needed.

This is not just true of car companies. Other manufacturers, from aerospace companies to makers of industrial machinery, are relying more and more on collaboration with suppliers externally.

But most manufacturers are also emphasizing collaboration inside their four walls as well. This, in large part, is being driven by manufacturers’ need to improve efficiency and responsiveness by controlling product complexity and process variation. It’s no longer tolerable for functions such as production, supply management, and engineering to operate in silos. They must become flatter, and they must work together.

At Ford, for example, the priority is to base future car designs on fewer shared platforms. This will enable Ford to source more efficiently and make better use of its equipment, producing multiple products in each plant. But it will also require even more efficient collaboration between internal groups such as production, supply, and engineering. Design-for-manufacturability will become even more critical, as will clean, ergonomic design of plant floor processes that can enable operators to quickly and efficiently transition between the assembly of different models.

This is also being reflected on the plant floor, where teams of operators and leaders are being refashioned as collaborative units and are expected to work together to quickly resolve problems and improve processes. At Ford and other automotive manufacturers, for example, plant supervisors are being recast as “process coaches.” They support operators and team leaders by working on process improvements once plant floor teams identify problems or inefficiencies. The idea is to free team leaders to drive collaboration by flattening the plant floor organization.

This is more than just a semantic change. Ford is spending plenty to train traditional supervisors to take on the role of process coaches.

Also critical to enabling collaboration on the plant floor at Ford is a clearly-defined set of steps and procedures that must take place once an operator identifies a problem or potential process improvement. Responsibility for resolving the issue escalates up the plant production organization along a defined path until a fix is identified. Then the operator who identified the problem or opportunity must sign off. This combination of collaboration and structure accelerates decision-making and increases accountability.

Ford isn’t the only manufacturer combining collaboration with structure. Increasingly, manufacturers are learning that embracing flatter, more collaborative processes can have the unintended and undesired consequence of elongating decision cycles. This is one reason that, according to recent Manufacturing Leadership Community research, manufacturers are becoming somewhat less enthusiastic about adopting collaborative organizational models.

But perhaps becoming more structured and clear about who makes the decisions and how decisions are made can help. During a discussion among ML Council members that followed the Dearborn Truck Plant tour, one senior manufacturing leader from a global consumer products company said his firm is combining decision-making structure with collaboration. While embracing a flatter, more collaborative organizational structure, this company has become more clear about defining the roles of collaboration participants up front, specifically who is the ultimate decision-maker and who is on board mainly to provide information or as an advisor.

“We are still collaborative, but we are also more thoughtful about who makes decisions and the degree of risk we are willing to take,” said this manufacturing executive.

Perhaps taking a similar approach will allow more manufacturers to get the benefits of collaboration and quick decision-making.