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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Managing Change – A Case Study

January 19, 2012

Managing Change - A Case StudyIf it depresses me as an outsider to read of – and in some  instances experience – the impact of the current Qantas disputes, then I cannot  imagine how it must impact on the lives and families of those directly affected  by it.

I don’t wish to take sides – as I am quite certain that each  party has valid arguments to support their case – but I do want to take issue  with the Qantas management for their apparent reluctance to communicate with  their employees over the years that have preceded the present turmoil.

Over my career, I have had relatively little direct exposure  to industrial relations.  However, there  was one episode in the 1980’s that displayed many similarities with the present  Qantas dispute – namely a changing competitive and business environment, the  introduction of new technology, the out-sourcing of a critical service and a  union that felt that its power, influence and membership were under threat.

Read the full Case Study on the Plans To Reality Resource Centre


Employee Engagement Should Be The Result – Not The Focus

November 18, 2011

Employee Engagement Should Be The Result - Not The FocusIf I offered you one free ticket to a presentation given by acknowledged world authorities on each of the following topics, which presentation would you opt to attend? Remember, you can only go to one of them. The choices are:

  • Teams and Teamwork
  • Leadership
  • Management of change
  • Organisational alignment
  • Communication
  • Employee Engagement

I think it’s a fair bet to guess that you didn’t choose Organisational Alignment – not really sexy, is it. No doubt you’ve said to yourself at some stage or other – “I wish my employees were more engaged” or “we need to manage change much better than we do” or “our teams program seems to be running out of steam” but I doubt if you have ever said – “We need much greater organisational alignment”

But if you really think about it, none of these topics are independent and free standing – they are all dependent variables – none more so than the last on the list Employee Engagement. How can you expect employees to have an “emotional attachment to their employer that inspires greater discretionary effort” if they are unsure of the organisation’s goals, lack an understanding of where the organisation is now and really don’t understand what their role is in achieving them?

So it’s possible to arrange these factors in a hierarchy of dependency with each factor dependent on the ones that came before. Here’s the order:

  • Organisational alignment
  • Management of Change
  • Leadership
  • Teams & Teamwork
  • Employee Engagement
  • Communication

On this basis, one might think that Organisational Alignment, being first on the list, is an independent variable. Not so! The quality of Organisational alignment is dependent on the quality of the strategic planning and unless you get the planning “right”, your ability to manage change, develop leadership across all management levels, exploit the benefits of teams and teamwork and engage your employees will be severely restricted.

The definition of Organisational Alignment that I use is:

  • Everyone understands where the organisation is now (the current reality)
  • Everyone understands the destination (overall goal) and the journey (broad strategies for achieving it)
  • Everyone understands their role in getting there

For the complete story on making it happen, see my book – Execution to Die For – the Manager’s Guide to Making It Happen. It’s available on www.amazon.com


Employee Engagement – Or Is It?

November 4, 2011

Employee Engagement - or is it?The definition that I use for Employee Engagement is that “it’s the employee’s emotional connection to an organisation that inspires greater discretionary effort”.  The significance of this definition is twofold. The first is that we are not talking about employees that just do their jobs, however efficiently.  We are talking about employees that go beyond the call of duty.  Secondly they do this out of loyalty to and appreciation of the quality of work life that their organisation provides.  So let me start by giving you an example of classic Employee Engagement.

Recently, I’ve become very conscious of the amazing come-back of Air New Zealand.  In 2002, Air New Zealand was on its knees after the Ansett debacle and few gave much hope for its survival as an independent airline.  In 2010, it was voted Airline of the Year.  It has one of the highest load factors of any airline in the world at 83.3% and in a market that is heavily dependent on tourism – and one would have thought low fares –  Air New Zealand’s Boeing 777 – 300ER’s have more premium seats than any other aircraft including A380’s.  Despite the natural disasters in New Zealand and Japan, the company’s net profit declined by 1%.

This remarkable turnaround has been led by their CEO Rob Fife.  Air New Zealand enjoys very high levels of Employee Engagement because it has clear goals and strategies to achieve them, excellent communication between all levels of management and staff and provides a fulfilling and fun place to work. Rob Fife relates this incident of Employee Engagement at work.

“I had an email from a mother of two young children.  She wrote:  “We were running late for a flight. The plane was fully boarded and our names had been called.  I was struggling with an eight month old and a three year old (plus luggage).  I ran down towards the check-in at the gate and was met by a gentle, smiling man who told me to relax and pass the baby and the bag to him.  He then led me down the aerobridge, chatting and asking about my day.  He didn’t stop at the door (I thought he was ground staff) – he took me and my girls onto the plane.  I said are you on this flight too?  And he told me he was actually the pilot.  His name is Brendan.  He had seen us running and me struggling with the girls and got out of his seat in the cockpit and walked out to meet me.  I was so touched.  He demonstrated what makes Air New Zealand so special. Go well and thank you again.  Kiri’

This is the real McCoy of Employee Engagement but my work with customer and employee surveys suggest that the display of discretionary effort may be due, not to the employee’s emotional connection to the organisation but to the customer or to self.  Let’s take emotional connection to the customer first.  Where people have a long term and close business relationship with a customer who clearly appreciates when they go the extra mile on their behalf, it is this relationship that inspires greater discretionary effort.

Other employees are driven in their desire to give 110% because they are ambitious or competitive or because it’s part of their genetic make-up.  One might question whether it matters, given that the benefit to the employer remains regardless of the motive.  I don’t buy that argument.

If the employer does not provide a work environment that encourages discretionary effort, it will ultimately lose its best and brightest employees to other
employers that do.


Do You Set The Example?

May 12, 2011

Is there anyone reading this blog who answers to no one but who runs an enterprise with more than 20 employees?  If you meet these two rare but simple criteria, you might like to refrain from reading the rest of this blog as I’m talking about you – and not always in glowing terms.

Implement | Plan Strategic | Implementing | Implementation plan | Implementation management | Strategy Implementation | Implementations | Implementation guide | Implementation processFor the majority of us, though, we are not at the top of the pecking order, but we do have others who respond to us and for whose performance and well-being we are held accountable.

Now here’s a strange thing.

We complain about the way we are treated by our superiors, but equally our subordinates complain about us!  And nine times out of ten, both ourselves and our subordinates are complaining about the same things!

What are they?

  1. Management do not adequately consider the detailed implications of their strategic plans to assess their realism and practicality
  2. Management do not explain the rationale behind the planned changes
  3. Management do not involve those charged with the strategy implementation at the strategic planning stage
  4. Management do not set clear realistic targets
  5. Communication and feedback is lacking at both the pre and post strategic planning stages
  6. When some aspect of the strategic plan is clearly not working as intended, it’s those charged with the strategy implementation that get the blame

I could go on but these are six of the most common.  Now, if lower management blames middle management, who in turn blame senior management, where does the buck stop?  With the CEO of course! And the most important role of the CEO? Contrary to what most people think, it’s not to get the strategy right – it’s to create the culture in the organisation necessary for effective execution.  And there is only one way to do that and that’s by example – personal example.

If you don’t consult and involve your fellow executives, you must expect them to commit the same omission with their own reports.  If you do not stress the importance of communication and feedback, your senior management won’t either.  If you take the view that only senior management need to be conversant with the Big Picture they will keep middle and lower management in the dark as well.  The CEO sets the tone.

What sort of organisation do you want to lead?  One that is beset with internal politics?  One where beating the internal competition takes precedence over winning against external rivals?  One where management at all levels bitches and complains about the lack of involvement and lack of communication?

Or do you want to lead an organisation that is aligned behind a common goal, one that exhibits a sense of community, one that truly values its employees and for whom people are happy to work?

Surely no one would want to lead the former?  Yet the former is all too common.  The reality is that in any market sector there are a limited number of strategies that the organisation can adopt.  The key to performance is strategy implementation.  I am reminded yet again of the Harvard Business Professor who asked his students – “what do hospitals do?”  His students responded – “they cure the sick”.  “No, nurses and doctors do that”, was the Professor’s counter response.  “The role of the hospital is to create the environment in which the best doctors and nurses want to work”.

What’s the environment like in your organisation?


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