When Business Transformation is just like Stapling Paper

If you could transform your business, be more efficient, cut costs, improve quality, and create a high-performing culture, by centralising paper-stapling into one specialist team, would you do it?

Business Transformation is all the rage at the moment, not least for cash-strapped public sector organisations seeking magical solutions to the compound challenges of austerity spending going down, while the demand and desperation of our customers is going up.

We believe that we need radical change, to make significant efficiency-savings, while still being able to deliver much-needed public services, and remain true to our values and purpose.  How can we reduce our bureaucratic, infrastructure costs and find new ways of working, and more cost-effective solutions for our customers? The drive for streamlining, reducing cost and complexity, is therefore understandable and commendable.

But what drives me mad, is when this becomes nothing more than “activity analysis” – peddled by consultants purporting to offer a pseudo-scientific, measurable methodology to rationalise resources, but which is, in fact, fundamentally flawed because it presumes to understand the nature of an organisation by quantifying the tasks that people do, without regard to what they are doing them for; what they are trying to achieve. Typically coupled with blind faith in ‘consistency’ and ‘economies of scale’ this focus on inputs can do more harm than good, and end up costing more money rather than making savings  – and not just because of the exorbitant consultants’ fees.

Because some of my closest colleagues have been, or still are, enchanted by the activity analysis spell, and I don’t want to embarrass anyone by using real life examples to explain the pitfalls, I’ll use paper-stapling –  a common organisational process (which hopefully no-one really is re-engineering;-) as a useful analogy, even a parody, of my actual experiences, and maybe ring a few bells for you too…

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“He put my stapler inside a jelly again” – Gareth, The Office

We start off on the wrong foot by collecting managers’ estimates of the amount of time people across the business spend on stapling paper: not actual measurements, even though we know that managers’ perceptions are usually some way removed from reality. We forget that we originally guessed the figures, and the analysis, expressed to a decimal point or two, becomes fact. And lo! the ‘data’ tells us that paper-stapling is a dispersed activity involving a lot of different people, consuming a surprising amount of  staff time and incurring costs we didn’t expect.

So instead of all these fragments of expensive resources, we can centralise the paper-stapling function into a single specialist team, reduce the overall amount of staff time needed, and so reduce the cost. The short-term costs of changing people’s jobs and recruiting a new team is treated as an ‘investment’ and we’re convinced we can recover that upfront expense from the savings we’ll make over time.

We don’t measure the whole system costs and so overlook the time that people now spend sending their papers off to be stapled, or chasing to check on the progress of their papers, or asking for urgent or bespoke ways of stapling, or returning papers which haven’t been stapled in the right way…

We begin to believe that we have allowed too many different ways of stapling paper to develop across the organisation, and all that complexity adds cost. So let’s design a one-size-fits-all process that meets most requirements, and we can make that work if other teams adapt as well – “don’t be set in your ways! we all need to change! we’ll involve you in a process-mapping workshop”.

 

So in addition to the disruption and the cost of recruitment, we’ll spend more on process-mapping, which will lead to new procedures and the training for the specialist paper-staplers necessary to increase the quality and consistency of the stapled papers.

 

All the different reasons for stapling paper, different paper, different ways of stapling that suit the purpose to which the paper is put, get lost in a team whose only driver is to staple the paper. They don’t see the end-to-end process, have no appreciation of the outcomes, and have lost sight of the original purpose. The stapling becomes an end in itself. In the absence of a meaningful purpose, we feel the need to set performance targets to motivate the paper-staplers – the usual things like turnaround time, throughput, quality and customer satisfaction.

We’ll appoint a Paper-Stapling Manager (more cost), who is responsible for motivating the team, setting objectives and reporting on their KPIs. So we’ll have measures to ‘prove’ that the team regularly exceed their targets and that the new way of stapling papers is more cost-effective than the old way (which, remember, we never actually measured before).

Once we have all the paper-stapling in one place, we can see further opportunities for making savings through economies of scale, by bulk-ordering a one-size-fits-all stapler, to suit all (well most) purposes. And sometimes we’ll be tempted to outsource our paper-stapling to a contractor who is even further removed from the work and the customer, and we can spend more time and energy on procurement, writing specifications, contract monitoring and compromising on quality ‘cos its exhausting! But don’t worry it’s cheaper than doing it ourselves!

The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.
Oscar Wilde

Call me crazy, but I think that 9 times out of 10 (estimated 🙂 the people who use the paper, know the best way to staple the paper to meet that purpose, understand when it needs to be done, even if it needs to be done, and are best motivated to do the stapling as part of achieving their goals, and the real measure is the outcomes they achieve, not how much paper they stapled.

Do you have experiences and thoughts on paper-stapling, or activity analysis, to share?

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Why sub-Optimal is Best

I’m quite a fan of systems-thinking and process reviews, except for the fact that these methodologies seduce people into thinking that they will come up with the perfect way of doing things. But experience, or just looking around you, shows us that this isn’t the case. So why?

“Let’s design a process that will enable us to do < this thing>  in the minimum time!”

We’ll run a series of workshops to map the minimum steps, quickest possible times and fewest hand-offs to show that efficiency can theoretically be increased by e.g. 200%. And by-the-way show how just how rubbish we are at doing <this thing> at the moment! Compared to a perfect world of course – a world in which there are no variations to the inputs, the environment, or the client/customers’ expectations.

If your mission is (like mine!) to deliver great public services, you’ll recognise that service-users do not come in standard dimensions, to an exact specification, and on time. They come with a wide variety of interests, needs and circumstances – square pegs that don’t fit precisely into our perfectly round system requirements. Consistency of process and uniformity of outcome are not possible if the inputs come in all shapes and sizes. So the people working in the system try to find ways to help the people that, after all, they are employed to help, by not following the perfect process.

“We need better managers and performance measures, to get people to follow the process properly!”

Well my answer to that is – we already know how to solve global warming, and we already have enough money to prevent everyone on the planet from starving, but how’s that going?!

People are emotional beings: We will do more of the things we like, we’ll do less of the things that we don’t like, or don’t agree with. It’s easier to say “yes” or “maybe” to a customer rather than telling them they don’t meet the criteria for a particular service. We’ll do what we find comfortable, and avoid the tricky bits, rather than remember the exceptions. We’ll ask a colleague what to do next, because its easier than looking it up on the system. With the best of intentions, we’ll find work-arounds and short cuts to make life easier.

Designing a system or process that relies on everyone behaving perfectly, following a prescriptive approach, with precise timings, and without mistakes or variation, is a recipe for disappointment and getting your performance measures, budgets and resource requirements terribly wrong. And by the way, you’ll spend a lot of time and money trying to force manage process compliance. There goes the dream of maximising efficiency and saving money.

And at the same time, we send inadvertent messages to the people who actually do this work, that:

“Our managers are idiots, who don’t understand the complexity of our jobs!”
“These performance measures are unachievable and unfair, so why should I bother?”

But remember, I started by saying “I’m quite a fan of systems- thinking and process- reviews”,  so….

What am I Talking About?

  • Putting the systems design and process-reengineering in the hands of the people who do the work, to use in the work. Don’t take them away for weeks, or months, of process workshops.
  • The act of continuously checking how well we’re doing and trying out new, better ways of getting the outcome we’re looking for, with evidence of what works in practice, not theoretical opinion of what’s best.
  • Allowing people to make mistakes, and to stop doing things they know don’t work. Not unthinkingly following a process.
  • Don’t try and prescribe the perfect process. Rather give people trust and autonomy, and the flexibility to follow the guidelines and use their discretion to achieve the best outcome.
  • By all means capture the best process in writing, once it has been shown to work, as a guide to help the team, not as a set of rules which has been written in advance in a remote office somewhere and issued as an instruction.
  • Don’t set stretch targets (aka ridiculous, macho KPIs) but encourage teams to measure what they do and nurture their creativity to find ways of making their achievements a little bit better, bit by bit. And praise and promote and celebrate those achievements.

In short, don’t write processes and procedures that expect people to be anything less than human. Allow the space and flexibility for failure and creativity both, for better results.


“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
             Voltaire

Thinking Out Loud!

Thinking Out Loud!

No, not the Ed Sheeran song:-) but some really useful feedback from a good colleague of mine; and, some practical tips I’d like to share…

I’m very comfortable sharing my thoughts, ideas and opinions with colleagues. Why not? Everyone’s views have merit. Just because I say something, doesn’t mean it’s my firmly held belief, or a fixed position. We’re having a discussion right? I say what I think, you say what you think, we can agree, disagree, and between us develop even better ideas. Right?

Well, it depends…
If you are a more reflective person, you might want time to think, develop your thoughts, and evolve an idea, before sharing it. Actually that sounds like quite a good approach!

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Except that often in the workplace, in meetings full of people like me, you won’t get a word in edgeways, and your colleagues will probably believe that you didn’t have anything to contribute anyway. “Just speak up!”

A few years ago, I worked with a just such a colleague – Carl. He (carefully collected his thoughts and arguments, and) explained to me that he used to believe that all these talkative people were more decisive, quicker-thinkers than he was. But he came to realise that we were going though the same thought processes as him, only OUT LOUD! Couldn’t we see the impact this behaviour has on others? How domineering and obstructive to idea-generation and good decisions? If we’re not trying to dominate the discussion and impose our views, and we want to learn and develop better ideas by sharing with others, we need to stop transmitting sometimes, and take time to receive.

“It was impossible to get a conversation going; everyone was talking too much.”
Yogi Berra

In order to get the benefit of everyone’s contribution, there needs to be some peace and quiet, to gather one’s thoughts and listen to others. “Time to Think”Nancy Kline

I have applied what I learned from Carl and Nancy, whenever I have the opportunity to shape a discussion item at a meeting. Here’s how:

  • Introduce the issue for discussion ~ sometimes there will be an information  paper disseminated in advance, sometimes just an interesting proposition, or question to consider.
  • Ask everyone to take 3-5 minutes to think about the issue, in SILENCE (which is anathema to managers who love to come to meetings to talk!) and jot down a few notes.
  • Allow everyone to share their views and suggestions on the issue, and for everyone else to KEEP QUIET – don’t agree, disagree, interrupt, laugh, sneer, nod approvingly, or anything else. Just LISTEN. (This can take some firm chairing of the meeting:-)
  • Only when everyone has had time to think, shared their thoughts, and listened to others, do we open up the debate and draw some conclusions.

When I do this, I immediately note down the first 2 or 3 things that come into my head ~ “I don’t need 5 minutes!” But then, as I take that time to think, my ideas develop and become the richer for it. And because I’m not Thinking Out Loud, I am allowing other people to develop and enhance their ideas, too.

This is especially valuable when you have a mixed group of people, some of whom might consider themselves more junior, less experienced, or less knowledgeable, than their colleagues. EVERY time I do this, I find that someone comes up with different angle, or idea which significantly enhances the debate: often from those that bring a different or new perspective – exactly those people who might not have said anything in the usual meeting free-for-all.

We avoid the common problem of polarisation and two-way debate between the parties who are quickest off their mark to share their thoughts and disagree with each other – backwards and forwards, not getting us anywhere. Which also means we get many more ideas and suggestions in less time.

So better engagement, better ideas, better decisions and in less time!

Thnking out loud

Dear EU

Dear European Union,

Despite everything that has happened this last year, I still believe that a democratic Government’s responsibility is to make the best decisions they know how, in the best interests of their citizens.

The demented behavior of the minority May Government must surely be a blip – a temporary knee-jerk reaction to fear, ignorance and short-termism, spurred on by right-wing media and extremists. Surely they will come to their senses and realise that they have a responsibility to go above and beyond the petty, punitive stance of “well you said you wanted it, now you have to live with the consequences!”

But just in case they don’t, I call on the European Union, and all the democratically elected Governments of our European colleagues, to do everything they can to protect the British people from the madness of Brexit. I call to mind all children, and parents of those children, who ever shouted “I hate you!” but didn’t really mean it, or understand what the consequences would be if their parents took them at their word.

Will the European Union stand in ‘loco parentis’, and rise above the petulance of our British Government and the tantrums of a few, and do what is best, in the long-term interests of the majority?

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A Proud European

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Agile for Managers

The term “Agile” has made the leap from the software industry into management jargon – why? what do we mean by it? and what do Agile Managers do?

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The hierarchical organisational structure developed by many large organisations is said to be based on military principles of roles and responsibilities defined by seniority, with functions organised into separate departments. Successful for perhaps a century, this model is common in large bureaucracies and public bodies. But it’s strengths are suited to stable conditions, where the organisation can control, more than respond to, gradual changes in the environment. Building a large business, employing thousands of people, with £billions in buildings and assets takes decades. This model may be on its way out.

The rapid, revolutionary change and ubiquitous nature of what we used to think of as a support function – IT, has not only led to new ways of organising work, but to entirely new types of business. Amazon, Uber and Giff-Gaff, are well known examples of doing things differently, and the new, weird and wonderful seem to spring up from nowhere! challenging our assumptions, changing customer expectations, and stealing our market share. So we’re all talking about “being agile” – innovating and discarding ideas quickly, without the need for elaborate organisational infrastructure; challenging established attitudes to risk, decision-making and the roles of the manager, team leader and team member.

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Adopting principles of systems-thinking, lean enterprise and the Toyota Kata, agile organisations recognise that innovation, process improvement and decision-making have to take place ‘in the work’, not in the Boardroom; that what we think of as management is in fact a diffuse range of functions, contributed to by many, not concentrated in the few; and, that the most successful leaders create the conditions for success, motivating their people through “autonomy, mastery and purpose” rather than directing them through command and control.

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Central to the Agile philosophy is experimentation, based on incremental, iterative change: a continuous development cycle of trying new things, measuring if they work, and moving on if they don’t; innovating and responding to change through bite-sized initiatives; taking many small steps towards your goal rather than setting up grand process reviews and long-term project plans. The change cycle is short (daily, weekly, maybe even hourly), feedback is immediate and outcomes are evidenced. Decisions are made at the front-end, close to the customer, based on real-time measures. Team members have first-hand knowledge and ownership of their performance data and know what their goals are (even if they keep changing) and believe they have the ability, responsibility and power to achieve them. Everyone is engaged – they learn, improve process, develop skills and enjoy their work.

So, what does this mean for the manager then? If it’s not your job to tell people what to do, oversee action plans, collate monthly KPIs and challenge poor performance? If 121s, management meetings and quarterly performance updates (as we currently know them) are redundant?

The Agile Manager will:

  • facilitate and coach their teams
  • be present to show and ask and resist the temptation to tell
  • share ideas, listen and observe
  • encourage people to try new things, and accept the risks
  • test on a small scale and quickly discard what doesn’t work
  • establish a culture of measurement and use of data
  • match workload to team capacity
  • ensure everyone knows the current state of play and what to aim for next
  • sell the vision and purpose – make it meaningful and personal
  • inspire through motivation, recognition and celebration
Could you be more agile?
“Try something new” and use the Continuous Development Cycle to start making incremental changes to the way you work, and encourage your teams to do the same…

CD Kata copyright

No Words

No words tonight
To describe our sadness and our grief
Not even douleur is right
No words enough to convey the horror and distaste
For thugs who, in misguided belief
Use the pretence of god, to hate
And through vile acts impose their will
No thought for the innocents they
Subjugate and maim and kill
No words to convey how much I detest
Blind faith, the root of all evil
Where should be love, and compassion and respect
No words enough to express our sympathy
To our brothers and sisters in Paris
A minute’s silence to show our solidarity
No Prayers – the world has heard enough of religion

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Meeting Jim Lovell and Saving the Planet

I met Jim Lovell today!
Yes, Captain James Lovell of “Houston we have a problem” Apollo 13 fame!

Jim Lovell

I am not by any means a ‘space nerd’, but when I had the opportunity to shake the hand of the central character in perhaps the greatest human story of all time, I leapt at the chance.

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We travelled to Pontefract (where a
group of volunteers periodically
organise @Space_Lectures) to listen to
Jim Lovell tell stories of his days as
a test pilot for the Phantom fighter plane, successful missions with the Gemini
programme, and of course his
miraculous Apollo 13 adventure.

Travelling at 6000 miles an hour in space between the Earth and the Moon, one of the Odessey’s oxygen tanks exploded! Without the oxygen or power needed to return to earth, or the use of their rudimentary computer to recalculate trajectories, or a working filter to prevent rising CO2, their safe return was surely impossible! While almost every country on the planet united in hope, the bravery and skill of the crew, and the ingenuity of a few dozen people, turned this potential tragedy into a happy ending.

Jim Lovell described his resolve to “not be an orbiting monument to the space programme”; to find a way through any and all of the problems the situation kept throwing at them; and, to work out a route back to the Earth. As his disappointment over not landing on the Moon gradually faded, Jim began to see this as perhaps the best thing that could have happened to NASA – to show how people could work together to overcome unknown risks and unforeseen events, and continue to rise to the challenges of space travel.

As they made it around the Moon, Jim Lovell held up his thumb to the window, obscuring the distant blue globe that comprised everything every human had ever known. He realised what a special and privileged place the Earth is – that we don’t go to heaven when we die – “we go to heaven when we are born”.

As we all now hurtle through space on our special and fragile planet, running out of fuel and with rising CO2, sea levels and average temperatures, “Failure is not an option!”. Surely we can draw on that same ingenuity and unity of purpose that saved those three astronauts and, with the added advantage of a billion times more computing power, rise to the challenges of global warming and keep our home safe? or will we continue on our way to creating an orbiting monument to the human age?

Earthrise