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


Strategic Market Management

March 13, 2013

planningWhenever I hear a radio interview with a public figure who speaks candidly on a topic without the usual spin, resists the temptation to offer black or white solutions and is prepared to admit that he or she does not have all the answers, a flood of text messages always seems to follow  from listeners saying how refreshing it is to hear someone speaking with such candour.  Rather than detracting from the interviewee’s reputation, it actually enhances it.

I wish more of this country’s politicians would get the message.

What triggered the above thought was the recent announcement by the government that bringing the budget into surplus in the current fiscal year was no longer achievable.  Most commentators had always believed that it was an objective doomed to failure and that Labor regarded it as a political rather than an economic necessity.  Treasurer Wayne Swan was at pains to point out that the government’s expenditure cuts had been outdone by the fall in tax revenue due to a variety of factors outside the government’s direct control.  I just do not understand why governments and organisations of all sorts make promises when their ability to keep them is beyond their power to manage.  All plans and strategies are developed on the back of certain assumptions and when those assumptions no longer hold true, it’s time to adapt and revise the plan to the new reality.

This is no more true than with business plans and the adoption of the Wagon Wheel Enterprise Operating System (EOS) provides executive management with not just a process for achieving great execution but also one for testing whether failure to meet the planners’ expectations is due to circumstances beyond or within the planners’ sphere of influence and control.  If the latter, the solution lies within the organisation itself; if the former, there is no alternative but to revise the plan – as Wayne Swan has demonstrated.

If the plan under consideration is a far-reaching one – a strategic business plan for example – the assumptions or the rationale behind the Plan need to be summarised in the planning document.  In the list of the 36 barriers to making it happen, Barrier No. 2 states – “The rationale behind the Plan was never incorporated in the final written document.”

Apart from providing a point of reference, this summary of the Plan’s rationale and the assumptions upon which it was based also pays dividends at the implementation phase.  Barrier No.18 states – “The rationale behind the proposed changes was not sufficiently explained to those most affected by them”.

Unlike the majority of organisational “visions”, Wayne Swan’s policy did have a clear objective so it was possible to do the sums and conclude that a budget surplus was no longer achievable without inflicting unnecessary damage to the economy.  Note that the budget surplus has not been wholly abandoned; it has just been put back a year.

In this age of on-going change and the global economy, it is inevitable that plans at best need constant adaptation; at worst, complete revision.  Yet so many organisations develop a plan and then fail to keep check on the assumptions on which it was founded.  Such organisations run foul of Barrier No. 35 – “Although we recognised that the external environment is changing. we continue to focus on implementation rather than revise the Plan”.

Successful plans and strategies are always a combination of doing the right thing and doing things right.  If a continuation of doing the right thing is still practical and realistic, then the emphasis remains on doing things right.  But if doing the right thing is no longer feasible then how well you do it is irrelevant.  You have to face the new reality and do what Wayne Swan has done – change the plan.

One Page Business Plans

July 10, 2012

One Page Business PlansAre you an aficionado of the one page business plan?  I’m not and here’s why.

The first question I have is – who is the plan written for?  If it’s written for those who developed it as a sort of aide memoire, then that is a worry.  It’s equivalent to the person I met who asked me what I thought of Mission Statements (read my blog post about Mission Statements.  So I asked him if his company had one and he said yes.  So I asked him what it was.  He couldn’t remember.

If it’s written to provide guidance to all who work in the organisation then the lack of rationale behind its content will render it ineffective.  I heard of an organisation that had the business plan printed in minute type on a card that staff were encouraged to have with them at all times.  Did that promote organisational alignment – the fundamental requirement for effective implementation?  I doubt it.

In addition to its inability to positively influence its target markets, it has many other shortcomings as well.

  • Given the lack of space, it’s odds on that it’s only a summary of “this is what we are going to do” – the markets, products, activities, competitive strategy and competitive advantage that make up the Hub of the Wagon Wheel Way Operating System.
  • It won’t detail the rationale behind those five components.  This is essential for effective implementation.  If you want your staff to embrace change, they need to know the reasons behind the changes proposed.
  • The implications of “this is what we are going to do” on every function in your organisation will not be tabled.
  • It won’t have an initial Action Plan.
  • It won’t address one of the key components of any business plan which is – how do we do better what we currently do?
  • It doesn’t address the factors required to implement the plan.
  • It suggests – particularly if you print it on a card – that the plan is fixed for the period it covers.  Business plans need constant up-dating.
  • It’s unlikely that it says anything about how the plan and its implementation is to be monitored, measured and adapted.

That’s my view – what’s yours?

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?

A New Year’s Resolution – Communicate

January 21, 2011

If I ask people whether they enjoy their work life and the response is negative, there is an odds on chance that they will cite lack of communication as one of the key reasons.  This anecdotal evidence is supported by the findings from bpi’s Employee Feedback Surveys.  Among the 60 odd statements that make up the survey, many relate directly or indirectly to communication.  Three of them are reproduced below.  Respondents are asked to rate their degree of agreement with each statement on a scale of 1 – 10.

  • We are sufficiently informed about decisions that effect us
  • We are sufficiently consulted by decisions that affect us
  • We are sufficiently involved in decisions that affect us

What we consistently find is that:

  1. The average rating indicates disagreement with each of these statements; and
  2. The last statement has the lowest rating of all

The_Benefits_Of_Communication_SkillsHow important is communication to an organisations well-being? 

In the Wagon Wheel Way™ communication is the grease on the axle that keeps the wheel rolling.  No grease and the wheel seizes.  Or if you prefer a biological analogy, communication is the Central Nervous System of any organisation.  If it’s damaged, paralysis is the result.

Macro versus micro communication

One needs to distinguish between macro and micro communications and between communication that takes the form of a debate and that which is used to inform people of decisions that have been made as a consequence of that debate.

Macro communication tends to be associated with the dissemination of information whilst micro communication mostly involves debate and feedback between individuals.  Macro communication is more about “telling” whereas micro communication involves a lot of listening and decision-making.

What to communicate

The basis of effective execution is organisational alignment and organisational alignment has three components to it.

  • Everyone knows where the organisation is now
  • Everyone knows the destination and the journey
  • Everyone knows their role in getting there

The more people involved in determining the above the better.  Remember the axiom that the more people that plan the battle, the fewer there are to battle the plan.

  1. Everyone knows where the organisation is now 

    If you are planning a new direction for your organisation or merely needing to do  better what you already do, you have to be able to explain what has happened in your  business environment that has necessitated this re-think.  90% of people in your  Company will change if you give them a good enough reason to do so – but 70%  would prefer to maintain the status quo.

  2. Everyone knows the destination and the journey 

    Organisations need goals that everyone can relate to.  I’m not talking about nebulous  visions.  I’m talking about Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Time-related Results.   People need to know how the Company plans to achieve its goal.  What are the one,  two or three major strategies?

  3. Everyone knows their role in getting thereIf you want your staff to feel engaged to the organisation they work for, they need to  understand how their work relates to the achievement of the overall goal.  If they are  involved in determining this so much the better.

In addition to organisational alignment, there are four further factors that are crucial to effective execution and communication plays a vital role.  They are the management of change, leadership, teams and teamwork and employee engagement.  Here is a selection of the negative comments I hear and which are linked to communication.

“If they had only asked us, we could have told them that it wouldn’t work in the way that they envisaged”

“I watched “Undercover Boss” last night.  I wish our management would spend a day or so on the ward with us – then they would appreciate the lack of resources”

“I wish I understood why they want all this paperwork – what do they do with it?”

What to communicate is one thing, how to communicate it is another

Today we are spoilt for choice.  Web sites, blog sites, intranets, emails, Facebook, Twitter, news bulletins, in-house magazines and newspapers etc.  But I’ve deliberately left out the two most effective means of communication.

What are the two most effective means of communication?

Communication through listening and communication through action.  When did you last deliberately set aside time to wander around, engage your staff in conversation and simply listen to what they have to say?

When did you last spend a day with one of your service people responding to a customer complaint or sitting with your warehouse manager learning how your IT systems work in practice rather than in theory?

A lot of managers would tell you that they don’t have time to do these things.  The reality is that they don’t have time because they are too preoccupied dealing with the issues that arise from a failure to do these things in the first instance.

Responding To Changing Market Conditions

November 29, 2010

These last six months, I have been busy doing Customer Feedback Surveys for clients, anxious to measure their performance from their customers’ perspective, both in absolute – and competitive terms.  Significantly, all these organisations are existing bpi clients, having undertaken previous surveys and this gives the feedback an added dimension.  It enables us to track satisfaction levels from one survey to the next and reassess their competitive position.  Does the attribute that made you different and better in 2003 still make you different and better in 2011 and beyond?

Plans To Reality - Change ManagementThese surveys have yielded some highly significant results – here is a small selection.

    • In the space of eighteen months, one company’s market has split into three segments.  My client used to own the whole market.  Despite the continuation of customer satisfaction levels of a very high order, my client is faced with some key strategic decisions.  Making the right ones will have a major impact on the company’s future.  But it is debating the options with highly accurate data at its disposal.
    • Feedback from a previous survey indicated that this company really struggled to satisfy the needs of one segment of the market.  My client’s business model was simply not appropriate to meeting the needs of the customers in this segment.  Wisely, it withdrew from this segment and focused its resources on others.  The latest survey confirmed the correctness of this decision but also identified and quantified a continuing problem in execution that my client thought had been rectified.
    • No change in customer satisfaction levels but major changes in my client’s competitive position.  It used to enjoy a competitive advantage in the quality of the service provided and in its quality of customer support.  My client hasn’t got worse – but its competitors have got better.  They have realised that if they are to compete with my client, they need to improve their own performance – and they have done this.  It just proves the axiom that it’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay there.  So what does my client do now?  That’s the $64,000 question.
    • Another client’s very sophisticated IT system gave it an important competitive advantage.  The latest survey showed that that advantage is under attack.  The question asked in the survey was whether the quality of my client’s IT systems were better, same or worse than those of the competitors that the respondent was using.  “Quality” was defined as “IT systems that make life easier for you”.  At least one of my client’s competitors has a more user friendly system.  It’s not remotely as sophisticated as my client’s but it has one major thing going for it.  It doesn’t require double entry.


The one common denominator in the feedback is that the business environment in all cases has been subject to significant change – whether it’s the impact of the GFC on demand, changes to the hierarchy of customer needs, market fragmentation or new competitors – both direct and indirect.

Part 3 of my book, “Execution to die for – the manager’s guide to making it happen”, concentrates on the need to monitor and measure the progress on the implementation of the plan to see what’s working and what’s not. If the objectives of the plan are not being achieved, then the cause of failure must lie in one of two areas. Either the strategy implementation is not up to scratch or one or all of the assumptions on which the plan was founded no longer hold true. Frequently, of course, it’s a combination of both.

It’s my experience, however, that the majority of companies look to deficiencies in execution rather than any in the plan itself and thus embark on a program to treat the symptoms rather than investigate the causes. As Pogo – the comic character created by cartoonist and animator Walt Kelly once said – “having lost sight of our objective, we redoubled our efforts!”

If you are going to develop an effective response to these changes, you need to understand them – and there’s no better way to do that, than commissioning a feedback survey from bpi.

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