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


Execution To Die For – The Manager’s Guide To Making It Happen

September 29, 2010

What’s in a name? Well I hope to find out as the above is the revised title for my book. The title doesn’t change anything I’ve written but maybe it will arouse the curiosity of the browser and identify the target market more clearly.

Many years ago, I read a book by the late Sir John Harvey-Jones, Chairman of then British chemical giant ICI, in which he contrasted the planning process used by his own company and the Japanese. He wrote:

“Those of us who have worked with the Japanese and who admire their business achievements as I do know how long it takes the Japanese to reach a decision. One is lulled into a totally false sense of security by the apparently endless debate and the thoroughness of the involvement of people at every level of the organisation in the decision, because when the action stage comes they move like greased lightning. Far faster than we do.

“Some years ago we licensed a process to build a paraxylene plant to the Japanese and as part of the deal put an engineer in with their design team. We were simultaneously building an identical one in the UK and we had each taken the decision to go ahead at the same time. After four months we were already breaking ground and priding ourselves on being well ahead of the Far Eastern opposition who, according to our engineer, were still endlessly debating items of design and equipment.

“Imagine then our chagrin when not only did they complete their plant seven months before us, but it also worked first go while ours suffered from the usual teething troubles and only achieved its flowsheet some three months after start-up.”

The mistake that the British planners made is repeated endlessly in every type of organisation, at every level and with every type of planning. Planning can be simplified to three basic stages.

  • Deciding what you are going to do
  • Deciding how you are going to do it
  • Deciding on a plan of execution

The fundamental error that the British made was to place their plan of execution on Stage 1 rather than, as the Japanese did, on Stage 2. As a consequence, the process of execution was made on the run with insufficient thought given to the myriad implications of the plan on taking a chemical plant from a green field site to commercial production. It’s my experience that most planners have difficulty in separating Stages 1 and 2 and this factor is one of the major reasons for developing my Wagon Wheel business model.

Implementation Plan | Implementation Management | Strategy Implementation | Implementation ProcessThe hub of the Wagon Wheel represents the Plan or Stage 1 of the process. This is connected to (but kept separate from) the wheel rim and the metal band by the spokes. The wheel rim and the metal band represent Stage 2. The question that is repeatedly asked by the planners is “what are the implications of what we are going to do on how we are going to do it”. Only when this question is exhausted, does Action planning start – based on the findings of Stage 2.

There is one further key to the Japanese success in beating ICI so conclusively to the start-up. It lies in Harvey-Jones’ words – “… the thoroughness of the involvement of people at every level of the organisation in the decision”. Such involvement leads to organisational alignment which is fundamental to execution to die for. It’s the first of my five OMLETTE factors – Organisational Alignment, Management of Change, Leadership, Teams and Teamwork and Employee engagement.

Of course, my book is rather more comprehensive than the above brief look, but underlying the detail is the fact that planning is largely a cerebral activity, whereas execution is a human one. “Execution to die for” shows you how to combine the cerebral and the human to really make it happen in the way in which you envisaged.

Connecting The Business Plan To The Current Reality

March 15, 2010

We have all heard of – and probably have first hand experience – of business plans that, to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, died early after a long period of senile decay. From alive and active on the desk to lying moribund in the filing tray, the business plan was eventually laid to rest in the coffin of the bottom drawer.


Connecting The Plan With The Current RealityIn my forthcoming book – Plans to Reality – I’m up to 30 reasons why things don’t happen – and counting. I’ve long ago reached the conclusion that there is no “single most important reason” but a sure fire failure mode is to develop a business plan that is not linked to the current reality. The new business plan represents the planting of a new seedling rather than a grafting onto an existing stock. And if the existing stock is in poor health – and that might have been the catalyst for planning new seedlings – it is almost inevitable that the organisation focuses on treating the symptoms of the current malaise to the detriment of the organisation’s future vitality. The new seedlings are planted in ill-prepared soil, don’t get watered and don’t get fed and succumb to the inevitable.

So in my book – literally – one of the key requirements in strategic planning is the need to give equal emphasis to improving the existing business as well as developing new growth strategies. I’m not talking about tinkering at the margins – I’m talking about a fundamental re-think on the way you do business – how can you make a step change in serving your markets?

  • How can you improve order fulfilment times?
  • How can you make your manufacturing more flexible?
  • How can you make it more efficient?
  • How can you cut the cost of inventories?
  • How can you get closer to key suppliers and customers.
  • How can you improve product development times?
  • How can you improve profitability?
  • How can you enhance organisational alignment?
  • How can you manage change better than you do?
  • How can you re-structure your business to reduce bureaucracy and enhance cooperation and teamwork?
  • How can you create an environment that results in greater employee engagement?
  • How can you radically improve customer service?

Of course there is no magic bullet but there is no better starting point than the adoption of lean thinking. Lean thinking as a business philosophy is a major advance on lean manufacturing. The problem with the latter was that it only addressed one stage in the total supply chain and it started at the wrong end – with suppliers rather than with the final customer. And – as the name indicates – it was a manufacturing concept and so largely limited to that sector.

Lean thinking, in contrast, starts with the customer and works back from there. It is also applicable to any business – after all, what business doesn’t have customers – even if they are called clients, patients, students, consumers or employees?

Now I’m not a lean thinking consultant but I know people who are. The results that can be achieved through lean thinking are truly remarkable. What’s more – your business is in much better shape to pursue the growth strategies that were a part of the strategic plan. It’s much better to graft new stock onto an existing root that’s in the best of health than to plant one or more new seedlings that you don’t have the resources to care for.

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