Good News – a learning organisation!

I posted back in April about how few organisations seem to learn from their mistakes, with the same errors happening time and time again as people rush into starting the next project.

I was delighted to meet the head of a business unit in a global organization who was not only fed up as well, but has done something about it.

He has introduced a step at the start of setting up a new project that requires the project team to research similar projects and read their “lessons learned” reports!  This is fairly recent, so he’s promised to keep me posted on how successful it is.

I may well have commented before that “Lessons Learned Report” is a misnomer, as very few of these lessons have been learned – they are more correctly labelled “Lessons identified and forgotten” reports.

I have had this discussion with many people over the years, and what I now advocate for the “learning organisation” is that they work out who needs to learn what, from whom, and incentivise people to do the relevant teaching and learning. This needs recognition that learning lessons takes time and effort, but saves far more time and money squandered on expensive mistakes.

The vision – key to success

Many years ago, I learned that building a shared vision and working towards it was vital in married life. I’ve also found the same to be true of business change.

Reading this article on documenting a clear vision reminded me of two discussions with prospective clients; both had decided what they wanted to do without having a clear vision of where they wanted to get to. When I started to investigate their vision, I ended up with the reaction “you’re too strategic”.

I speak from bitter personal experience that it is very easy to get busy doing tactical things that take you in the wrong direction if you don’t have a clear vision of where you’re trying to get to. Losing stakeholder support is even easier if you can’t share a clear definition of what you’re trying to achieve.

I’ve found you can’t be too strategic when it comes to being clear about where you want to get to, and it really helps to take stakeholders with you if they can see what it will be like when you get there.

One small step for a man …

I got a “Thank you” card yesterday from my daughter’s house-mate I had helped. I put him in contact with a company that then offered him an internship for his year in industry (in event management).

As it’s a prestigious company in London, he’s pretty happy (though when he faces the joys of living and working in London, he may be less so) with the prospects it offers. I hope it’s a giant leap for him.

So what was in it for me?

Nothing tangible, nothing financial – just the warm feeling of having helped someone who benefited from it.

There is a downside to trying to help others – they may not want it or appreciate it. Why might that be?

  • Clinical Depression is a real condition that needs treatment
  • Whingeing is the national participation sport of the UK – just read the papers.
  • It’s much easier to feel sad and hard done by than to change your life – change is really hard work and needs help and support

In business, one can try to “pull rank” to insist on some changes, but only if the culture is positive – most of the time it requires deep empathy and influencing skills. Most of all, it requires patience – people sunk in the Slough of Despond are short of the drive, energy and traction needed to get out – you have to help them little by little.

If you have enough money, improve your own life by helping others!

Business Processes; the good, the bad and the ugly

I’ve recently had a series of discussions with colleagues, clients and other professionals that I respect, on the subject of business processes. They are all strongly in favour of them, and I know why, they:

  1. systemetise the work flow, making it more predictable and manageable
  2. assist in delivering consistency
  3. encourage the right people to be included in decisions
  4. make it easy to measure performance (and diagnose issues with performance too)
  5. can prevent individuals making serious errors
  6. make training new staff (and handling staff turn-over) relatively straight-forward
  7. allow straight-forward IT automation

and have many other positive aspects that make them ideal for the more straight-forward jobs.

So are they a panacea? Sadly not, as they have serious weaknesses that can compromise more complex types of work. The key issues are that they:

  1. tend to serialize workflows, slowing them down by introducing bottlenecks
  2. become inflexible and over-prescriptive to prevent a small minority abusing the system, preventing justifiable initiative being taken
  3. become over-dependent on IT performance (which is driven by a completely separate budget)
  4. become more complex to handle extreme cases, causing following them to become a chore that is skipped if possible
  5. remove the spirit to think amongst some staff
  6. generate “malicious compliance” amongst other staff
  7. provoke rebellion from a tiny minority
  8. become a strait-jacket that prevents business agility
  9. eventually break when they no longer reflect business needs

People are not machines, and their greatest asset is their versatility and intelligence – watch a plumber at work!

Of course, the greatest free-thinkers of all are the salesmen, so if we can design for salesmen, we’ve cracked it!

A colleague raised a hugely valuable point – what is needed is something that ensures that all aspects are considered, without forcing mindless compliance, while harnessing the best aspects of human behaviour: checklists.

Yes, checklists – so simple, so easy to maintain, yet so powerful – it’s what saved the lives of all  on board US Airways Flight 1549 when it crashed into the Hudson River (Thanks, Neil)!

So how can we get the benefits of checklists in lieu of hard-coded business processes? Redesigning ICT to provide real-time decision support around a checklist front end could do the job nicely. I know it’s very “Mission: Impossible”, but with 4G, Internet-enabled cameras, tablets and mobile comms, we really do have the technology to build a real-time decision-supported salesman!

What do I mean?

I mean that the salesman can collect information from the client that is immediately transferred back to base, where the team (and IT systems) analyse that information and offer up both validated options and further information to gather.

Such technology has been available in a limited way for contact centre staff for many years  as “case-based reasoning” tools, but we need to include the option of expert advice from real people if the sale is valuable.

Most salesmen can cope with the freedom of the checklist – making sure that they have the right information to correctly tick the box in real time would massively improve both sales and sales quality.

And if it works for salesmen, it can work for everyone.

Organizational alignment: coalescing culture, organization and leadership

Torben Rick’s piece on organizational alignment made me think – it’s a simple concept but never-the-less overlooked: strategy can only be implemented if the organization is aligned with it. A strategy that isn’t implemented is worthless.

So align your organization with its strategy:

  • individual goals and remuneration
  • KPIs
  • structure
  • IT
  • culture

It’s all or nothing.

Do we know UK leaders understand what strategy is?

Quite obviously some of us do, but this question really refers to those who lead through popularity contests – politicians and executives of PLCs. These people are so conditioned to playing to the electorate that I wonder whether they have a  fundamental grip of strategy?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim” – once the duration of the strategy exceeds  term of office, there ceases to be any personal reward for leaders from implementing strategy, and we’re into tactics, with plans flapping around in the wind of opinion.

What prompted this question was reading about some of the seemingly random changes in UK defence procurement during the Second World War. It reminded me of a director’s quote during my last days as an employee in a large corporate – “The thing is, our strategy keeps changing week by week”. I didn’t have the heart to explain that a strategy that keeps changing is not a strategy at all.

We’re well-used to £Millions or £Billions being wasted by cancelling innumerable defence projects when they are close to completion to send the right message to political supporters (TSR2 being the most notorious; fortunately the contract for the QE carriers prevented that happening there) Surely, in wartime, a period where efficiency and effectiveness were everything and political pressure is at its lowest, strategic thinking can leap to the fore at last? It would appear not. Perhaps the “strategy muscles” are so atrophied that these people just can’t do strategy?

In the way, the City seems to operate is on short-term returns too.; cost-cutting is the mantra that people adopt to avoid being fired, whether or not it’s right for that company.

In the current economy, it’s interesting that some UK businesses are booming – Jaguar-Landrover, sold off by Rover Group, BMW and Ford, is finally doing better than ever under Tata ownership – investment in new models and retaining traditional British values (and even British manufacturing) has Halewood working 3 shifts, 7 days a week, still unable to meet the demand. Other foreign-owned businesses are also benefiting from the fact that UK manufacturing, if managed well, is world-class and even world-beating (where in Europe do Japanese car companies continue to invest?).

Is this simply that these oriental companies still understand and implement strategy?