A dislocated approach to organisational change

What brings you to this article?

  • Having to down size and make tough choices
  • Running lots of projects
  • Chasing impossible targets
  • Too many things to do
  • Working too many hours
  • Losing employees due to poor morale
  • Or is something else that’s bugging you

Here is a short article that Phil wrote based upon his own life experience that holds a mirror to organisational life as a senior leader. How much of it can you relate to?

Sitting in Urgent Care nursing a dislocated collarbone.

Don’t ask – boys will be boys!

I began to wonder after the pain had subsided how I would cope with one useful arm.

It’s amazing how much we take for granted in our everyday lives.shoulder sling

For most of us normal everyday functioning is achieved at the level of the subconscious. Automated routines are played out by our bodies every second of our lives without any major reference to the conscious mind.

We could not function without such programming.

All of a sudden I was faced by the reality that my left arm would be out of action for a while, and I would have to figure out how I could run my life.

Automated routines running in my subconscious would only cause me pain, and result in a failure to get even the most basic of activities completed.

I began to think about the parallels with modern organisational life: blame the strong painkillers the nursing team prescribed me at the hospital.

It dawned upon me that most organisations operate on autopilot to get things done.

Policies, procedures and practices are prescribed within the hierarchy to set up the organisations ‘subconscious behaviour’: it’s culture.

Of course in practice employees form the organisations sub conscious – they learn the routines, cues and responses until they too become automated in to everyday actions.

In truth anyone that has been in the same job for more that a few months will be performing mainly on autopilot, largely unaware of what they are doing, and how they are doing it.

I believe that the analogy also holds true for the approach to efficiency savings, and organisational change.

For years now we have been taking cost out of our organisations – slimming down, chopping back, reprioritising. Caught in the world of benchmarking, best practice, and inspection we see the same mistakes often repeated over and over again across business and commerce.

In my experience leaders often fail to see an organisation as a living entity.

It is the physical actions and responses of people employed on behalf of the organisation that bring it to life. A living system that runs on autopilot until something catastrophic happens to destablise the current situation.

Now dependent upon the size of the catastrophe we can fall back on coping strategies.

In the case of organisations we have a tendency to look back in to the past to see what we have done before, and if we can make it fit this time.

Someone scrambles to sort out a temporary fix; Just like the sling and the drugs that the nurse gave me in the treatment room to make me feel more comfortable, and to take away the pain.

In many organisations a series of temporary fixes have been put in place over time to make things work.

The problem is that the closer you get to the front line the more dislocated the functioning of the organisation becomes; the more ‘work arounds’ are put in place at a local level to enable the system to continue to work.

Unlike the human body the ‘corporate brain’ in an organisation tends to be isolated, away from the immediate functioning of the core operation.

The pain and discomfort of the impact of indiscriminate action e.g. salami slicing budgets over time upon the customer and the front line is not directly felt by the ‘corporate brain’ and so actions carry on regardless of the pain suffered at the front line.

So, organisational leaders genuinely have a tough job to do to continue to figure out how to make ends meet going forward.

It would be wise to spend more time understanding the real impact, and unintended consequences, of the decisions already taken; with the help of colleagues on the front line to figure out the damage that may already have been done.

The equivalent of a sling and a few painkillers is not a sustainable solution.

We help leaders to purposefully reflect upon their current challenges, and identify practical and pragmatic ways of getting balance back into the demands upon your life, and delivering positive results in life and work.

Our one to one support will help you to cut through to the nub of your personal challenges and help you to facilitate a way forward that will give you: –

  • Clarity around the key business issues that you are facing and a clear plan to tackle them
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  • Greater personal job satisfaction
  • Strategies to deal more effectively with difficult people or situations in your working life

To find out more about how we can help you move your business forward please follow this link. Helping leaders develop new habits

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Scottish Power to your elbow

I took advantage of the energy deals that were around in the autumn of last year and switched supplier to cap my rate.

All went smoothly until this week.

Out of the blue I recieved an email from Scottish Power telling me that they had increased my direct debit by 50%.

To say that I was surprised was an understatement! How could this be I wondered, I took time to calcuate my last years consumption to make the transfer.

The Scottish Power computer told us how much we needed to pay. A good deal, and the job done. making efficiencies

So, I thought that I would make a call to express my surprise and find a solution that suited me.

I waded my way through the usual obstacles of the call routing system that did its best to pursuade me that I did not need to speak to a person and ended up speaking to an unhelpful agent.

Not her fault you understand she had an impossible job in a crap system. No the less her manner left a lot to be desired, and only served to make me more determined to escalate that issue.

She was adamant that the computer said that I owed money and that the direct debit could not be changed.

I quietly explained to her that this was the winter quarter and that I was a new customer, and that as a result the calculation that had been made not three months previously was correct .

She was robust in her view that I had no option but to pay the revised amount.

Now at this point some people would have checked out and put the phone down believing that they had no option ( I bet a lot do, as this is the game that the company want to play afterall its better to have the cash in the company’s account than the customers.You have to keep the shareholders happy).

However, I was quick to advise the agent that I was not taking no for an answer. After a pause, she said that she would log my concerns on the system as a complaint.

Further intransigence on my part finally got her to put the call through to customer services.

The music played out for a good five minutes, and I wondered what was going to happen. Then, all at once the tone of the call changed completely.

At last I was talking to someone with a bit of common sense. The Superviser immediately said that she understood my issue and would withdraw the revised direct debit straight away. Hooray! A victory for common sense.

I asked her if this happened often, oh yes she said it happens when new customers transfer accounts during the winter period.

The computer automatically calculates based upon useage and sends out automatic changes to direct debits and even automates the email to the customer.

I asked if she thought that this might be a training issue for the front line so that they understood this and could respond more effectively to customers in the first place.

Her enthusiastic reply was that there were a number of issues that had to be taken into account with the customer and that the agents did not have all the answers.

She missed my point completely!

However, I did get my problem fixed.

So what did I learn from this experience?

  • They have an IT system that automatically upsets customers on a regular basis, because it cannot cope with complexity. It causes frustrated customers to have to wait in a queue to sort out mistakes at their own time and expense. It drives costs in to their system.
  • They have a call handling system that is not designed against the demands placed upon it from their customers.
  • They have call agents who are not trained to deal with frequent calls.

Now commercially you might think that this makes sense.  How many poor unsuspecting customers will just follow what the computer says?

But what does this do for customer relations and customer loyalty? (Scottish Power proudly boasted in an email to me the following day that they had a 91% customer satisfaction rate, and are in the top 50 most improved contact centres).

What are they rating and measuring I wonder to benchmark themselves with others?

Notwithstanding the impact upon the customer the current system drives lots of waste in to their organisation, driving up their costs.

The system generates a change to a direct debit to my bank, and all the accounting activity that goes on behind the scenes, it generates an email to me.

I phone them and they spend 20 mins on the phone, they update and record info in their systems, and pass calls around to supervisors and other departments whilst I wait on the phone.

The result is that all the automatic actions made by the computer have to be manually corrected, and my bank notified of the change. I wonder how much that cost?

The chances are that they will not even see this as an issue.

The waste is hidden in the flow of work around their system and will be owned and managed by different managers. Each will in turn have a focus upon a target to manage their bit.

No one will have their eye on the bigger picture because they are too far removed from understanding the end to end workflow in practice. If they did they would be very interested to listen back to my call and follow the issue back to its root within the business.

Perhaps if a few more leaders got back into the work and understood the true what and why of performance they would begin to focus upon acting on the system and improving outcomes for customers and share holders.

Until then keep an eye on your utility bills and challenge the providers all the way.

Money down the drain

You may recall that on the 3rd Sept I reported a fault through my local county council web site. The issue resulted from poor workmanship. A resurfacing job had been undertaken on a road close to my house which had resulted in surface dressing blocking a series of drains on the road.

Well  I recently noticed that a few of the drains had been cleared. Good news, I hear you cry! Guess what,  they missed the key drain on the entrance to a side road joining a main road. How could they miss it? After all the note from the council advised me that the referral would need to be inspected before any action would be taken. Well a few weeks passed before the drains were cleared. So, what did the inspector actually do on the site I wonder? Did he/she even get out of their car?

Remember that this is all additional cost. If the job had been done correctly in the first place then no follow up would have been necessary.  The inspection has clearly added no value, and the rework to return yet again to the site will add further cost. Believe me it will be necessary for the inspector to return to site and inspect the drain that he/she missed the last time. The rate we are going the road will need resurfacing before the drain gets unblocked. All we have to do is hope that in he meantime an accident does not arise as a result of the eater that will run on the main road. The season suggests that standing water will freeze leaving.

Functionalisation, and the separation of decision making from the work is costing the council a packet. Maybe even enough to fix the generally poor state of the roads in the county.

I feel duty bound to let them know that they have failed yet again to do the job properly. I bet nothing happen this side of the festive break.

Can you ring back tomorrow?

Here is one to make you smile. I needed to move some money electronically to meet a commitment. The window of opportunity to do this was limited. All was going well until an error message appeared. I could try again later or call an 0845 number. Deciding to take the bull by the horns I rang the number, after the usual IVR sequence and trash music playing for a few minutes whilst I was reminded how important my call was to them I was answered.

The chap took me around a few loops trying and retrying the steps that had already failed, no doubt in accordance with the script, but the same message came back each time.  He made a polite exit for a short while to get some advice. More music and more waiting. He came back and got me to try the routine one more time. Playing along I dutifully went through the process again. Again nothing happened. So he made his excuses and disappeared again. This time it seemed like ages. Half a CD worth, or at least it felt like it.

Great news he came back on the line full of apologies about the delay. I waited expectantly.  He had talked to the department that could help us. Good news I thought! Alas they had just closed and although they knew what to do they could not help me because it was home time. The options available –  to try again later, or call them back in the morning and start all over again. I asked if there was a special number I could call to get the advice I needed. But no came the reply just try us again on the 0845 number.

No real surprise in todays world of call centres and IVR. The resolution is simple. Train your call handlers against the demands that customers most frequently have and give them latitude in the IT system to do what is necessary to sort the problem out. In the case of expert help have that expertise available close at hand for the caller handler  so that they can get help as and when they need it. Not wait in a call queue like everyone else to get help. Finally that help needs to be on hand for all the hours that the call centre is open. I thought clocking off at home time was reserved for old fashioned manufacturing plants not call centres.

So lost time for me. Lots of rework and waste in the financial services organisation. But all targets met for the day and everyone is happy. Except me as the customer. A crazy world!

Boys from the black stuff the story goes on…

If you read the first instalment you will already know that the council came to resurface a road nearby where I live. It’s a road that I travel on at least once a day. It’s a busy road. It took them over a week to get the job done. The work was packaged into discrete components that obviously suited the work schedule and the works order, but singularly failed to deliver a good outcome for local people. Not least because six drains were left blocked by the ‘expert’ work of the team on the ground, whose job it was to remove and re lay the top surface. So, I decided to log the issue of blocked drains using the on-line e form and wait to see what happened. I would have called them, but it was going to cost me money to call them and help them do their job. Why would I bother doing that?

It was not easy to find the form on the web site. You had to know your way around local government departments to find it. Anyway, a few minutes after logging the call  I get an auto response back saying that the ‘aim’ to respond in 48 hours. An hour later another email arrives. A speedy outcome I can hear you thinking. Sadly not! A note to say that the call has now been logged in the highways system and passed to a Highways Inspector who will inspect and decide upon the action required, and that this will be planned and prioritised as seen appropriate. I am then advised that if I want an up date on this matter then I can call the contact centre after 10 days and they will advise me of progress.

Having taken breath, I dropped them a line back to say that the drains did not need inspecting –  they needed clearing! Needless to say they have not as yet responded to my comment. The saga goes on..

But it does not end there. In the local paper at the weekend I read an interesting article “Streets like a minefield’. It talked about the dangerous obstacles faced after the surface had been left pitted and potholed. Apparently three people had been injured as a result of falling over on the poor surface. A local Town Councillor was quoted as saying ‘it’s ludicrous’. Unsurprisingly, no one from the Highways Department was available to comment.

Good job well done?

The councillor is right, along with the resultant insurance claims that will surely follow the cost of this job will rocket as lawyers and bureaucrats from different parts of the council come together to defend their corner. And for what?

The chaos comes down to the design and management of work. Budgets, targets, inspections, specifications all prevent the workers on the ground from doing the right thing. The contact centre operation has so far added only cost into the process, keying data into a back office system, generating pointless emails and doing their level best to dissuade me from contacting them again. I could show them how to save a bob or two.

The clock is ticking on the blocked drains. Poor weather is forecast and even more problems will mount if action is not taken quickly to sort out the failures caused by the work done so far.  Watch this space….

Boys from the black stuff

Good job well done?

I have been walking a long a road on my way in to my local town for a few years now. The surface has been getting worse over time. The occasional botch job has put ‘chewing gum’ in a couple of holes, but as we all know this does not last a winter. A waste of time and money: a temporary fix that ought to fixed properly the first time. The madness of inspection and scheduling of work on the basis of arbitrary priorities made against a limted budget.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived home one day recently to find a road  machine ripping the surface off the road for a stretch of about 200 metres. So far so good. Obviously the road then lay in its temporary state for a week with raised inspection covers and signage on the pavements, blocking access and causing confusion for road users. Organising the job as a continuous flow would make a lot more sense.

Then it was all systems go! The road workers and machinery arrived and by the end of the day the road was complete. Bingo! At face value the job looked a good one. The resurface was well finished sealed to the existing surface. But then oh no! I walked down the road a few days later and happened to look down a drain cover. I was shocked to find it full of road chippings. On my way back I decided to look at all the drains on the road, and guess what all of them were full/blocked by road dressing. So a great job on the face of it had turned in to rework. A further job for a different team to return to site and unblock each drain. More inspection, rescheduling and prioritisation; not to mention cost.

Given the weather this year I decided to take action and logged on to my local county council web site to see how good their on line service was. It took me a while. I decided not to ring the hot line number as the council has decided to charge me for the priviledge. So, having navigated the web site I found the section I needed. Not that easy to do. I have an advantage because I know what I am looking for because I understand how council departments organise themselves. I started to enter the detail in to the web site: a tedious process. I got an acknowledgment on the site and advised that I would get a response within 10 days! This was followed a few minutes later by a standard email saying my request would be dealt with soon! More duplication, and a confusing series of messages.

Let’s hope that it does not rain too hard before the work is scheduled. The damage caused by blocked mains drains is obvious; and all caused because the job was not done correctly at the time. Bad system or sloppy workers? Ironic really that the council faces a financial crisis, and by taking sort cuts based upon unit cost it has increased its costs! Madness.

As I write the saga goes on. Watch this space.

Money down the drain!

Can you spot the problem here? The team on the job left the site after a job well done!

Is this good work? Time, money and effort go into resurfacing a road that creates more work for another team to fix the failure. There is not one, but six drains like this!

Time pressure, unit costing and specification all got in the way of a job done right first time. I assume that the road has been not yet been inspected. This is another function that is better built into the role of those doing the work.

Do councils really have money to pour down the drain?

A change of leadership thinking is required, but are they up for it?

Sheep dipping or feathering nests?

A friend of mine called Jane mentioned to me that HR have finally got their programme of courses out for the year, not bad it’s only August. Now she has the task of trying to link the results of her learning and development reviews to the courses on offer. I know that there is usually a bit of a rush on to book places on the courses as the dates are fixed for the year.  Jane admitted that if she was being honest back in February when she was doing her reviews she had no real idea of the development needs of her team because she had not finalised the business plans that had started being written back in November of last year.  Surely, it would make more sense to concentrate learning and development effort based upon the demands placed upon employees by the customer? In that way training monies would be spent at the right time on the right support.  Not on a standard set of events determined remotely by someone in HR months before they are offered.

Anyway back to the story… The Policy team had messed about with the dates for publication in previous years; leaving Jane and her colleagues in the dark about requirements and timescales. This year she told me that she had tried to get ahead and start the conversations with her team and start pulling plans together. Since last year Jane has had to enter all the plans in to an on line system. So, quite rightly she thought that her action was doing the right thing, until Policy decided that yet again they needed to change the format of the plans to make it easier for them to produce the corporate plan for the organisation. I could see by the expression that Jane gave me that she was fuming! Quite rightly so in my view. All of the work that she had already done was in the wrong format, and according to them (Policy) she had to re- enter the information in their new format. Jane admitted that she tried to ignore this requirement for a while, as her plans were already in the system.  Ironically, she said she never used the online system apart from having to enter her performance data once a month. Like most of us, Jane acknowledged that she fudged the numbers to make them look ok, and had not been caught out so far because ‘no one really looks that closely at the data’.

In the end Jane’s name came up on the naughty girls/boys list, and she got a stern email from the Chief Executive’s Office telling her to get her finger out and get her plans in the right format.  Brilliant! You cannot beat a bit of extrinsic motivation to kill morale.

Anyway, Jane decided that she could avoid the issue no longer, took the ‘bull by the horns’ and copy and pasted the detail from one part of the system to the other. A waste of time and effort! I was chatting to another friend the other day and he was telling that a similar thing happens in the organisation in which he works.

What is going on in the world? Can organisations really afford to waste resources messing about changing templates and entering plans into corporate systems? Reality proves that plans get compromised after month one and become a work of fiction as people fudge the system to show progress again objectives that have been rendered worthless in view of changing priorities. The problem is that the new priorities do not replace the last set, they get added to them.  All this planning and monitoring is little more than a smoke screen. We all know that the real work gets done off plan and often by getting around the system to make it happen in a timely fashion.

If leaders took time to understood the true purpose of their organisation in customer terms, and then designed and managed the work around that purpose they would soon learn that all this corporate business planning and performance reporting added no really value to the bottom line. In really it has the reverse impact. Money down the drain!

However, such action takes guts and determination; and too few seem prepared to do what it takes. Sad really!  Leaders are happy to feather their own nest at the expense of others. Not really leadership at all is it!

Room service

I have been using a hotel recently on business and have managed to strike up a good relationship with the local staff. My business priorities changed after I had made a booking locally at the hotel. No worries I thought I will ring them and let them know that I need to change my plans. That’s when the fun started. How hard can it be?  Well I was about to find out!

I googled the hotel to find the number and make the call. I hit an IVR system, I thought this is strange –  the hotel is not that big and an IVR system seemed a bit over the top. I started musing about the IT salesperson the had flogged them an overly specified system for the purpose. A large bonus would have resulted and you would have not seen him/her for dust. Anyway, back from my day-dream and  having chosen the bookings option I was then surprised to hear that I was 5th in the queue! It started to dawn upon me that this was not a call that was going to be answered by the hotel reception, but by a call centre somewhere in the world. To cap it all the message playing advised me that I was being charged 10 p a minute by the hotel for the call and I was still 5th in the queue. At this point I thought stuff it! I put the phone down and emailed the local sales manager at the hotel to make her aware of my experience and to change my booking. She answered first thing the following morning and all was well.

Upon my arrival at the hotel the sales manager immediately apologised for my experience and said that they had no control over the phone calls. The hotel group to which they now belonged had centralised it call handling facility some time ago and that there was nothing that she could officially  do. However, she then whispered that I could have the local number for reception which is managed about 20 hours a day and that they would be very happy to help me in future. Of course she was quick to let me know that this was against company policy,and she could be shot for giving the number to me. Shot for doing the right thing!

The conversation then went on to reveal that the centralisation of the booking system causes all sorts of problems for not only the customers, but also to the local staff. She said, Imagine trying to book a conference or a wedding through a call handler somewhere else in the world who does not understand the local hotel, its provisions etc.  It causes a lot of problems which have to be sorted out once the hotel become aware of the booking, causing duplication of effort and frustration for the customer who is keen to ensure that their event goes off well. As is always the case the local team pull together and do their best to make sure that the customer gets what they want on a way that best suits their needs, but at what cost to the business and its hard-working employees?

Another classic case of a bunch of suits in an ivory tower somewhere in the world thinking that they can save money by centralising and standardising their approach to customer enquiries. Of course they will be using a bunch of metrics that tell them that the system works wonderfully and probably also helps to justify the decision to invest in the IVR system and call centre operation. If only those guys got out of their tower and came to study and understand the reality of their decision through the yes of the customer and colleagues in the workplace they would understand that all was not what it seemed. Until then I will use the local phone number to sort out my accommodation. However, the obvious frustrations and morale of the staff will continue to suffer along with the reputation and lost business to the hotel and others in the chain until someone is brave enough to wake and realise that this does not make good business sense.

Data data all around, but not a bit that’s useful

It’s that busy time of the year for people in finance in local government –  ‘close down’.

A magical time when every last ounce of energy goes into the exercise.

There is a target date to meet and everything must add up, balance and be filed for inspection by the dreaded external auditor.making efficiencies

Life and death for accountants: like watching paint dry for everyone else.

During ‘close down’ it’s very difficult to get any useful information out of accountancy, as they are ‘too busy’.

So whilst the business goes on spending millions of pound a week managers run blind on what’s actually happening with cost, until they get an update at the end of the quarter. That’s when the fun starts again.

One persons view of a budget and spend profile is different to another. As the manager of the budget you often have limited say in what get reported to the many meetings that purport to scrutinize the detail only to nod it through.

It’s claimed that only the accountants really understand what the figures mean. In practice I wonder if even that it true.

The slight of hand that goes on to churn money in the system means that it’s difficult for anyone to know what the true picture is. By the time it gets reported, and audited the game has moved on.

Every year as a manager you do you best to manage and profile your spend to get value for money.

Now let’s not get started on VFM that will come up in a later blog.

A while ago in quarter two I was told that I was going to over spend by the end of the year by £2M (I was naturally quite worried) at the end of the following quarter I was going to underspend by £550K (now I was even more worried, did anyone know what was really going on?)

You could not make it up. What are you supposed to do!

Experience says keep your own information, so most of us keep our own spreadsheets just in case. They obviously sit outside of the main financial system, possibly even on memory sticks, but don’t tell IT as its against the policy to stick anything dodgy into your USB port.

At least having your own records gives you something to argue with when the accountant tries to manage your codes and your budget for you, and gets you in to hot water.

Ironically the latest accountancy system was introduced to remove the need for all those spreadsheets, but I am really glad that I secretly kept mine. It’s duplication of effort, but you cannot be too careful.

Another thing that bugs me is that fact that you are accountable for the budget and its spend, but the accountants mysteriously have secret powers to enter the system and move numbers around, seemingly at will, to balance things out for that all important financial report.

Overspends of course remain the managers problem.

This can be hugely frustrating when the overspend is cause by a cock up in accountancy when a Zero or the comma in the wrong place. Opps sorry these things happen!

Can you give me an explanation of the reasons for the overspend, and what you intend to do about it for the Management Team report. Oh and by the way the Director of Finance needs it by tonight.

The irony is that the budget is pored over and used as some amazing tool that informs our decision making.

In truth it’s a lagging measure, historical information regurgitated at various meetings to show everyone that we are in balance for the year against the agreed allocation of spend.

This whole exercise is an arbitrary judgement made largely on the basis of rolling forward previous years spent plus or minus a percentage.

It has little relationship to community or customer need, and gives us little if any information about true end to end operational cost of the services being delivered.

Why?  Because budgets are apportioned to hierarchical structures and further subdivided into functions and cost centres causing the system to sub optimise.

In practice this means that individuals manage the money that they have been allocated and spend it on the part of the organisation for which they have responsibility.

Simple really.

The issue is that each of us looks after our bit and has little, if any, focus upon the impact this has upon the customers that we are all here to serve. This in fact drives massive inefficiency and therefore cost into delivering essential services.

The result is that the organisation runs very inefficiently, but few people realise that this is the case because they are focused on their bit. The drive for efficiency only compounds the problem faced by many organisations.

Salami slicing or prioritisation of spend via a lottery causes individuals to act in a territorial way to protect spend in their area. It’s human nature.

The true cost of the system is in the flow – how things actually move around the organisation, not in unit cost.

Only by studying the organisation as a system can you begin to understand where and how to act to improve service and reduce operating cost.