Sunday, 27 June 2010

What is your cutting angle?

In many organisations there is a great deal of what I call ‘quick fix’ (QF) activity. You can recognise QF by the fire-fighting loop that many parts of an organisation get caught up in going round and round. People come to work and work hard – “bloomin’ hard!” And, every now and then, something goes wrong and there is a mistake. And as we all know, often from a very early age, “you can’t win ’em all!” To err is human, near enough is good enough. But the mistake has to be fixed, using up more time and resources. This only adds to the work load and probably increases the chances that more mistakes happen.

Stay fix (SF) on the other hand takes a subtly but radically different approach. When the mistake happens the ‘stay fixer’ will wonder “why?” In other words they will wonder what elements of the system (the whole system) made it likely that that particular mistake would occur... They are thinking about prevention. The mistake still has to dealt with of course but at this point, the stay fixer spins out and seeks to fix the system and put in place changes that reduce the chances that a similar mistake will happen in the future. At this point prevention is done (not just considered) and so work becomes easier and indeed people begin to work smarter not harder.

In any organisation, activity can be classified as QF, SF or Doing the Business (DTB) where the service / process happens as it should do with no mistakes occurring. Hence an audit of QF/SF/DTB can be conducted. When organisations have done this, they often find that vast amounts of money, time and stress are expended on a combination of QF and SF – sometimes up to 20% or even 40% of the overall budget.

But a choice then emerges. Do you want to carry on spending vast amounts of resource on this ‘cost of failure’ or do you want to invest in SF in order to bring down the costs of QF. Ultimately if you do this well, there can be massive savings in QF costs, even SF costs which in turn bring down the overall cost to the organisation. Not only is the organisation more efficient, it is more effective, economic and indeed elastic (since good SF builds in versatility to changing contexts too). And if SF is done ‘with’ the whole system, rather than ‘to’ it, more energy and commitment is released as well.

However there are a couple of big(ish) problems. The reductions in QF take time to come to fruition. Also investing in SF is a bit like stoking a steam train engine, it takes a while to gather speed. As a consequence, the overall cost to the organisation goes up before it can come down. This is always the case. QF savings do not magically appear without some effort. There is no easy solution to this but the only one which can work, in my experience, is prioritisation of the SF activity. For example avoid trying to reengineer all of your processes in one go – instead select a couple where some early gains are possible which then gives you some commitment and slack to move onto the next and the next and so on. This is why strategic planning is so very important as it helps an organisation select where to invest its SF activity.

There is another significant problem too. Thinking of the QF and SF loops, there is a small tunnel from thinking about prevention back into “you can’t win ‘em all”. People often go through this tunnel when they say things like “I am so busy right now, I don’t have time to think about the wider system, I will do the prevention task a couple of years from now, when I am not busy...”

Blocking off this tunnel requires leadership. This leadership must:
  • Role model SF practice (which is hard for the leaders who have been promoted on the strength of QF ability)
  • Provide structures, tools and techniques to educate, enable, empower, support and inspire people to work in a SF way (such that QF becomes the work equivalent of leaving home without brushing you teeth!)
Organisations are far more complex than this, but I have found over the years that people find this model helpful in making sense of why continuous improvement is difficult but also what can be done to design a way forward that is doable.

In these current times when resources are going to get ever tighter, the need for investing in SF to bring down the costs of QF has never been greater. However, one can imagine the costs of an organisation laid out as three blocks: DTB, SF and QF. The shrewd leaders and managers will identify where the QF costs are and tackle them one by one. The less shrewd leaders who are in a hurry to sacrifice the future for the price of today will cut horizontally as it were and slice through DTB and SF as well as portion of QF. This will damage the short and long term capability of the organisation as well give up the opportunities to be had from investing in SF. It will also cost more in the long term.

Perhaps one key measure of how shrewd & strategic a leader is, in this current context, will be the angle of the cut: somewhere between horizontal and vertical.

What is your angle?

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Cutting without bleeding

Advice to senior leaders on how implement cost savings in the public services

The public services are facing an unprecedented challenge to reduce costs by upwards of 25% whilst maintaining frontline services. There are some who would say this is impossible and that, after years of efficiency savings, there is simply no more ‘fat’ left to trim. This article says the opposite and offers you 10 progressive ideas to assist you in making these cuts without doing any long term damage to the social and physical fabric of this country, or indeed the public services we have grown to depend upon. 
  1. In all of your communications about your strategy to implement these cuts make sure that you only discuss the costs of services, never the benefits. For example when you come to publish expenditure on the web, as progressive councils are already doing, do not outline what the money was spent on. Staff and public alike are only interested in what cash (their cash of course) is going out and not on what has been purchased or provided.
  2. Beyond telling the public and staff what you are doing (mostly, of course, to avoid Freedom of Information enquiries and comply with statutory consultation requirements), do not seek to involve or engage them in ‘thinking’ about how the resource challenge might be met. They will only bleat on about ‘saving jobs’ or ‘saving services’ and offer no constructive ideas whatsoever. They are not paid enough to be creative. You, however, are paid enough to have all the ideas, take action and be a decisive leader.
  3. Make sure you hire a team of expensive, but valuable, consultants to do most of the unpopular leg work for you. Many of them are very bright economics graduates who will have spent all of 8 months or so learning their consultancy craft and gaining experience of the ‘real world’. They will get to understand your organisation inside out in a matter of hours. Do not worry that the partners who sold you the consultancy assignment now seem to have disappeared as they are there in the background closely ‘supervising’ the team that are now working with you.
  4. Absolutely do not let smooth talking ‘process consultants’ lure you into thinking that the public services can be ‘reshaped’, ‘redesigned’ or indeed ‘re’ anything. They may even try to suggest that if you work in partnership with other public service providers that ‘things can be done differently and more cheaply’. This is a distraction from the main task of reducing your budget and your budget alone. You did not get to where you are without being fiercely parochial! Be on guard against any talk of ‘whole systems’, ‘total place’ or members of the public ‘living joined up lives’. Dismiss all talk of 'radical efficiency' as well, as this is full of daft ideas like 'empowering consumers'.
  5. Sometimes you may get to hear of ministerial announcements or emails from central Government Departments advocating ‘collaboration’. This is a clever ruse to persuade you to give up some power and control. This is to be resisted at all costs. After all, since when did Whitehall Departments ‘collaborate’? Never of course! So their attempts to get you to do it, is clearly designed to weaken you and strengthen them.
  6. The best way of achieving cuts, of course, is to demand that every budget holder makes a similar percentage cut no matter what their department, unit or function does or achieves. Although you may be aware (or not) that some functions provide more vital services to the public than others, and indeed some units have already been cut within the last 12 months, this is no consequence. A uniform ‘salami slice’ taken off everyone is the only fair and responsible approach. There are several accountants who will support this strategy.
  7. This is not say of course that you do not have a few favoured functions who have shown over the years to be of huge value, who may have invited you to open a new facility or indeed have asked you to speak at their ‘team away days’ etc. The heads of these functions will have shown themselves to be of particular value for money in that they have never challenged any of your decisions. These value for money functions should of course be allowed to cut their services by slightly less than the others. But this should not be widely known until after the event.
  8. Whilst you may talk about accountability and empowerment (always very good words to use during downsizing) and that you will ‘leave it up to the budget holders to make their own decisions’ about how to implement their contribution (another very good word) towards the cost reductions, do make sure that you put in place a few ‘no go’ areas. Yes of course it may be cheaper and perhaps better to empty bins once a fortnight, you will know that this is not popular with certain parts of the news media. There are other examples too. Therefore it is your leadership responsibility to make sure these ‘no go’ changes are clear to all concerned. Some managers may moan about having ‘no room for manoeuvre’ but dismiss these people as ‘troublemakers’ who do not really understand what empowerment is all about.
  9. Although it might seem like a soft target, one function that must not be cut more than the very minimum is ‘public relations’. These are the people you must rely upon to get your message across to a sceptical public and staff. Money spent on glossy publications and road shows explaining how frontline services are not (really) being cut and only the ‘chaps and chapesses in the jolly old backroom are having their belts tightened’ is money very well spent.
  10. Above all, whatever you do, do not let anyone including even your most trusted lieutenants suggest that your assumptions should be examined. You are a senior leader and therefore all that you believe and say must be correct, if not enlightened. 500 years ago Machiavelli may indeed have suggested that true leaders need people around to tell them the truth. But he was clearly wrong as evidenced by the fact that he died a long time ago. Be certain, be sure and be confident: the strategy that you are implementing is unavoidable. (You may wish to write this last statement out and place it on your bathroom mirror.)

On 26/6/10 this post was mentioned by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government who tweeted "Without endorsement, I loved this" ( Thank you Mr Pickles!

And today I noted that this blog is now listed on McArthur's Rant - Human Resources, Organisations and HR 2.0 as one of a number of blogs that rant!! I am tickled! Thank you Scott McArthur!

Monday, 21 June 2010

Radical Efficiency: Different, better, lower cost public services

Went to a fabulous session this morning which launched a new report from NESTA about 'radical efficiency' and how to make it work. The point was well made that delivering public services in a radically different way is no longer just very important or even critical - it is an imperative! Here is a link to their excellent report:

The launch had some excellent presentations and questions - which prompted lots of ideas in my head about how to make effective and efficient innovation happen. I will write more later - but here is quick summary which I have already tweeted (of course!): 
  • Use the common wealth to create more common wealth...
  • Look for ways to connect consumers together to create new expertise resources
  • Stop blaming central govt and just get on with taking radical action locally
  • Break accountability 'rules' and give authority to the point of service delivery
  • Lead so that you enable risk taking, not to close it down
  • Get everyone in one room so that professionals can 'hear' the voices of consumers directly!
  • Think of doing more with more (not less) - but redefine what you count as your resources
  • Create a culture where structure & passion coexist sublimely to achieve real results
My huge thanks to everyone involved with the report and indeed present at this morning's event. (I wish we'd had the whole day to debate the issues emerging... perhaps NESTA would like to organise such a day....?)

Monday, 14 June 2010

50 years of research into expectations

I have had the pleasure of being a cohort member of the National Child Development Study which is a longitudinal study extending back over 50 years. Throughout my life I have completed various questionnaires and being medically examined in order to trace the ingredients of what goes to produce people of my age. The Study's data have been used by researchers countless times and from around the globe.

Most recently, Radio 4 did a series of short programmes featuring cohort members where they compared their predictions aged 10 with how their lives have actually turned out. (You can listen to the programmes here.) I have listened to these broadcasts and not only are they a delightful example of social history, one particular conclusion appeared to emerge.

There seems to be a strong link between how successful a person is and how successful they expected (or were expected) to be. Put simply, if a person's parents expected them to do well in life, people often rose up to meet that expectation and did pretty well. The converse was also true, to a limited extent. Clearly life 'success', however that is measured, is down to a myriad of factors to do with social class, educational achievement, race, gender etc etc. But the importance of expectation, self belief and the confidence in oneself which go hand in hand is there, it seems to me.

This got me wondering about what leaders can do to support and nurture expectation, and conversely what they can (and do) do that erodes confidence and an expectation of success.

The other week, I was running a leadership development programme and we got to talking about how leaders can help build cultures of continuous improvement through praising and expecting the best of people. One manager said that he had not thanked any of his staff of late since none of them had done anything extraordinary that, in his view, deserved a thank you. Another manager suggested that he might not be looking hard enough whilst another wondered why none of his staff were doing anything extraordinary... It was a good debate.

So my questions in this blog post are: 
  • How much success do you expect from your staff?
  • How do you let them know what you expect of them?
  • When do you thank your staff: what do they have to do to get your thanks?
  • What are you doing that shows you expect high performance from your team? 

Friday, 11 June 2010

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge: Albert Einstein

Just been sent this great set of 100 inspirational quotes about education and learning. It is a joy to read! Perhaps one or two of there will inspire you to consider what more you can do to create learning organisations where improvement is in built!

Learning never exhausts the mind: Leonardo Da Vinci

(and thank you Accredited Online Colleges)

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The 4 E's

Clearly we need all public services to be:
  • Effective
  • Efficient
  • Economic
But we also need them to be
  • Elastic 
as well.

These must be the 4 E's of improvement and making sure that the cuts are done strategically not just reactively! Given that 'events' happen (credit crunch, volcanos and oil leaks)... versatility is vital!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Three juggling balls: keeping leadership in balance in these stringent times

A couple of weeks ago, I was facilitating a leadership development programme for some local government managers and we got to talking about the looming cuts and how it will be to work in this environment. We addressed some difficult issues in that context, not least just how far above the parapets they might want to put their heads right now. This was all within a programme which sought to assist them in finding & developing their authentic leadership style and approach. In other words: how to put their heads above the parapet and be an exceptional local government leader.

Out of the conversation that we had (and I am most grateful to the team of managers, whose contributions, declarations and questions helped me shape these thoughts), emerged for me a model based on three 'juggling balls'. I imagine that many public service leaders are, right now, having to work out just how to throw these three balls around:

Ball number one is professional integrity. Almost every public service leader I meet is highly focused on shaping their contribution to making their part of the world safer, cleaner, healthier, wealthier etc... They have a real concern for helping achieve valuable & robust social outcomes in return for the taxes paid, as efficiently, effectively and elegantly as possible. But in this time of looming cuts, these same leaders are naturally worrying that they will have to implement changes which they know or believe will work in the opposite direction. Maintaining a customer / client / user / citizen focus, professional standards and ethics is going to be huge challenge for many public service leaders.

Ball number two is survival. Alongside this desire to deliver VFM with professional integrity, there is natural desire to survive and stay in the job. Balancing how much to 'play the game' and engage in 'career supporting' actions against how much to engage in 'truth telling' which might be perceived as 'career limiting' actions is a dilemma for some, perhaps for many. Working out how best to challenge the status quo to deliver more VFM without upsetting those who structured (and prospered from) the existing regime is an issue that many public service leaders face all the time. The current economic pressures bring this into even sharper focus.

Ball number three is work life balance. Juggling the first two balls could well be at a cost, possibly a high cost to the leader involved. Preparing for change that will deliver increased efficiency in a way that keeps all stakeholders happy (especially those who have more power than others) may well take a great deal of emotional effort and physical toil. There is a need therefore to pay attention to this third ball and keep a close eye on whether the overall impact on body, soul and personal relationships are indeed worth it.  

I am very interested to know how public service leaders are indeed handling these three balls?

It strikes me that the best jugglers will be: 
  • Clear about their purpose and what their ethical 'bottom line' is
  • Mapping their stakeholder interests shrewdly, knowing who has power and what their preferences are
  • Developing their expertise at challenging people so that they 'wriggle but don't squirm'
  • Paying attention to their own bodies, minds and personal relationships, watching for signs of damaging stress
  • Considering their long term career such and exploring how being in a job is not necessarily the same as being gainfully employed
  • Staying in touch with the people and communities they serve and looking for evidence of harm or benefit
  • Practised in looking at innovative ways to deliver more with less

 And probably many more things.... how are you improving your juggling skills?