Draining the swamp

March 13, 2013

draining the swampSometimes it’s referred to as fire-fighting; others will tell you that they are too busy avoiding the alligators to drain the swamp. But whichever figure of speech or analogy you use, the meaning is the same. You keep treating the symptoms and fail to address the causes.

I recently received an e-mail from a colleague in the UK who was bemoaning the fact that “companies seem to be perpetually in a flat-spin and using all their energies killing alligators.  There is little left for swamp-draining”.

We tend to associate swamp-draining with the big strategic issues and the belief that this is the preserve of senior management. Yet all too often we fall into the trap of increasing our implementation activities rather than questioning the goals that these activities are designed to achieve. As the Duke of Wellington is reputed to have said, ”having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts”.

  • So if sales are down the answer is to increase the call rate
  • If product quality is variable, increase the inspection rate
  • If the order fulfilment time is blowing out, change the transport company and increase the stock

But there’s an opportunity coming up that you should take advantage of…

Most businesses display some degree of seasonality and for many the pre-Christmas period is one of frantic activity followed by a welcome lull in the beginning of the year.

So how about using the beginning of the year to identify the swamps that need draining in your company?

Start with the assumptions behind the Strategic Business Plan.

Are they still valid? Because if they are not, no amount of implementation effort will succeed in realising the Plan’s objectives. So update the plan. Think through the implications of drought, a new competitor or new technology and adapt the Plan accordingly.

But if the assumptions are current, any problems must lie in aspects of its implementation. The symptoms of poor implementation take many forms but the cause is invariably a lack of organisational alignment.

Do all your employees:

  • Understand where the organisation is now?
  • Understand the destination and the journey?
  • Understand their role in getting there?

How do you find out? Ask them. Undertake an Employee Feedback Survey. Our surveys consistently show that the two most common areas of negative feedback are Communication and Participation in Decision-making.

When you are in the swamp up to your neck in alligators, explaining to everyone how you got there and asking them for their ideas for getting you out are not the first things that spring to mind.

  • In addition to feedback from your employees, what about feedback from your customers?
  • Is your understanding of their needs still current?
  • Is the new IT system really working from the customers’ perspective?
  • Do you do anything that is different and better than your competitors – from your customers’ viewpoint?
  • Do you have a competitive advantage – and how sustainable is it?

When it comes to customer satisfaction, the people who most influence this are not the senior management team. How your customers feel about their business relationship with you is dictated by how helpful the staff member in customer service is, how accurately their order is picked, how accurate the paperwork is, how hassle-free it is to do business with you.

So how effective are your workgroups? In all probability, they cover the full spectrum from groups of individuals to a high performance team.

Do you play golf? If so, you will know only too well that the key to a good round is avoiding the double and triple bogies. It’s the same with your workgroups. Your company’s performance will benefit more from effort expended on the poorer performing workgroups than it will by concentrating on the star performers.

How do you know how effective your workgroups are? Ask them using Towards Ten Thousand, our workgroup assessment survey.

One of the major reasons why we continue to treat the symptoms and ignore the causes is that the former tactic is more likely to result in an immediate “cure”. Uncovering the cause takes time and intelligent analysis. The reward is a cure that might take longer to take effect but which provides a permanent solution.

So why not spend some time in the beginning of the year making a list of swamps that you need to drain?

If you have the need, we certainly have the tools to get the job done – see www.planstoreality.com.au

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Whatever Happened To Leadership?

January 19, 2012

Whatever happened to leadership?Despite the millions of words that have been written or spoken on the subject; despite the DVD’s, despite the training courses, I have yet to see any convincing evidence that the quality of organisational leadership has risen.  On the contrary, my anecdotal evidence suggests that it has in fact declined, the reason being that the current organisational environment is not conducive to the practice of leadership.  Let me explain.

Leadership is a selfless exercise and the corporate world has become less selfless.  Too many managers seem preoccupied with their own aggrandisement to devote much time to the interests and welfare of those who respond to them.  Yet there is ample empirical evidence to suggest that, in the words of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner who wrote “The Leadership Challenge” that “successful leaders, by using their own power in the service of others rather than in the service of self, transform their constituents into leaders themselves – and end up with extraordinary results”.

Given that we all know what to do – and are very conscious of leadership shortcomings in others – why don’t many more managers practice the attributes of leadership?  There are three reasons, each of which reflects the realities of modern corporate life.

  1. Short-term mindset

    Most organisations operate for the short-term – they want results NOW.  They pay too little heed to the human and long-term cost of their achievement.  As a consequence, their best people leave in search of an environment that values them and their contribution.

  2. Short-term tenure

    People’s tenures in the same managerial positions or the same organisations are so much shorter these days.  Most are never around to reap what they sow.  Based on the superficial evidence of short-term results, they are either promoted or leave for another organisation.  Their promotion is self-confirmation that their management style is the right one and so they continue to be promoted until their past eventually catches up with them.

  3. Time poor

    Lastly, people lack time, and leadership – good leadership – takes up time.  Faced with the choice between finishing a report or explaining to a staff member the rationale behind a change in corporate strategy, there are too few who would opt for the latter.  Submitting the report on time and there’s the prospect of a few more brownie points being chalked up against your name.  In contrast, spending time keeping your staff “in on things”, listening to their views, involving them in decision-making – this is an investment with no specific pay-back period.  It does not attract the attention of the boss and wins no kudos in the short-term.

Is your experience similar to mine? Post your comments below on your thoughts on leadership.


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