Does your organisation have a codex?

Pirate Codex for 8 year olds

Pirate Codex for 8 year olds

The other evening I sat down in front of the television with my eldest son. The first film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series was playing and, although I had seen the film on numerous occasions, I was just looking forward to us spending some time together. We were not disappointed and had a great evening. But what caught my attention was the part where the governor’s daughter invoked the right of “Parley” from the Pirate Code when she was captured by Captain Barbossa’s crew. Wow, even pirates have a code of conduct! Come to think of it, so do the Mafia and many other successful organisations nowadays.

As we have learned, a code of conduct can be a powerful motivator and engagement tool when used properly; in fact, it is the foundation of most religions – an example being the 10 Commandments, the ultimate code of conduct. So, what is it about them that makes them effective?

Clarity – Both the rules and the consequences of not following the rules are clear, and everyone knows and understands them. Knowing the boundaries of the framework in which we live and/or work promotes trust.

Common understanding  ­–­ Being able to trust that everyone else in the organisation will follow the same rules reinforces our sense of security.

Fairness – The rules are the same for all. A sense of justice is achieved by everyone living and working by the same guidelines, no matter what their position is in the organisation.

Nowadays, it’s not surprising that companies strive to establish common values and a distinct culture, as they have understood the power of codes of conduct. But beware – codes of conduct are like a double-edged sword: for all the positive energy that they can bring about, there is a lot of damage that they can do, as well. Only those prepared to follow all three points above can succeed.

If the rules are complicated and not clear, leaving room for interpretation, then people will invariably interpret situations differently, and this will ultimately undermine trust. If they can’t be sure that everyone is acting according to the rules, then people will become insecure and secretive. If the rules are not applied to everyone, then there will be no role models and no justice – sooner or later, this results in a “what can I get away with” attitude.

Francis Lambert – Zabok, 31 October 2013

Keeping up expectations

“If you paint in your mind a picture of bright and happy expectations, you put yourself into a condition conducive to your goal.” Norman Vincent Peale

You may have heard me talking about my wife and how we are complete opposites. I like to see it as a “yin-yang” relationship. Of course this also means there is constant tension, which is both good and bad. Good because we are always exploring the limits of our individual comfort zones, and bad because this process requires an endless amount of patience and understanding. One of our recent debates was about a weekend escape I’d planned for the two of us. After 20 years of marriage, I finally convinced my wife that it was okay to leave our kids at home alone. (Our eldest will be 18 in September, and his brother is only 17 months younger.) Eventually, it was agreed that we should go somewhere for the weekend – but where?  This seemed to be an impossible question to answer; there were just too many variables. In the end we conquered our indecisiveness: we just got into the car and left. I figured we would get as far as Zagreb (which is about 25 km away) and then make our decision just where the motorway splits in two. I’m all for adventure and this was certainly testing the limits of my comfort zone. Deep down I believed my wife was afraid of being disappointed; however, not knowing where we were going to end up meant that we had no expectations.

But it is one thing for my wife to choose not to have expectations about her vacation, it’s another when this becomes your guiding principle. Expectations are the carrots that dangle in front of mankind; they pull evolution forward. We see them at the personal level, for instance, a scientist would not perform an experiment if he did not expect some kind of result, or you would not go on a diet if you did not expect to lose weight. However, we also see them at the societal level, where expectations are derived from religious norms and beliefs and guide our social maturity. Expectations are the seeds of hypotheses and science.

You may ask yourself why I chose to write about this; after all, there is nothing new here. But you may be surprised to discover that I regularly observe missed opportunities that are simply due to low expectations. I have also realised that setting proper expectations feeds the “Strength of the Workplace” model of Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, published in their book First Break All The Rules. The model depicts three main elements of employee satisfaction: meaningful work, opportunity to contribute and feedback for good work. Setting expectations reinforces all three elements and enables employee growth and development. The same is true for personal development. Expectations of one’s own performance – be it about staying in shape, attaining at school or triumphing on the sports field – dictates one’s success. Without expectations there are no champions. It is through having expectations that progress is made and learning takes place. You see, expectations allow you to calibrate your efforts and set “smart” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) objectives that will help you overcome challenges along the way to your goal.

In consulting, one of our favourite tools is getting people to describe what a perfect day would look like and how others would know it was a perfect day. Similarly, we like to ask the “consulting genie question”: if you had three wishes, what would you change about your work, in terms of your job and the company you work for? This line of questioning raises awareness and helps create a vivid image of an ideal situation – even if it’s only a dream at that moment.

By creating a contrasting image of a better environment we raise awareness, which allows us to see the deficiencies and opportunities for improvement in the current work environment. Once we have this information we know where we’re heading. It is then a simple task to divide our journey into several stages, each with its own milestone. These stages, in turn, will get broken down further into smaller measurable criteria and units that will provide the basis for your planning.

It is easy to set expectations for yourself and your team when the purpose is clear, the task is meaningful and you are contributing to make things better. The other vital ingredient is feedback: expectations don’t work if you don’t measure results or don’t get any feedback about your effort. It is all very well if we diligently measure our performance using certain indicators; what is crucial is that we seek an explanation for any deviation from that which we had expected. The indicators you use to measure performance will take on a new meaning when you not only understand them but also are able to influence them with the quality of your work. Analyse the deviation and learn from it, no matter whether it’s positive or negative in its outcome; that is the essence of continuous improvement.

Francis Lambert – Zabok, 12 June 2013

Operational Excellence and the Basics

In this day and age, there isn’t time to sit and watch what happens in your market. If you want to succeed, you need to take control of your own destiny.  Most CEOs realize this, they often scramble for ideas on how to improve their operations and, too often, jump on the bandwagon of the latest fad with the hope that it will solve their problems or give them an edge over their competitors. They have heard the stories from their peers on the golf course or the tennis club. They have read the articles in magazines, they may even have spoken to a smooth talking consultant; all singing the praises of the latest “revolution” in productivity and lower cost. The more they think about it the better it sounds.

One classic example goes back to the late ‘90s, when the 6 Sigma methodology became widely seen as the Holy Grail of business improvement.  Many people thought: “If companies like GE can be successful with 6 Sigma than why shouldn’t we?”  What a lot of people learned, though, is that there is no point in learning 6 Sigma if you don’t have any data to process. And, of course, that success isn’t measured in the number of, say, trained Black Belts. Success appears as an increase in bottom-line results.

So before you sign up your organisation to the next revolution you need to ensure the right conditions are in place, that the grounds have been plowed and fertile so the seeds you will plant through the new approach and methodology will have the best chance to grow.

The biggest killer of such initiatives is the lack of time. If your organisation operates in fire fighting mode your people are busy running from one emergency to the next. It is very difficult for them to find the time to sit down and analyse a problem to identify it’s root causes. It’s like the story of the lumberjack who was so busy cutting down trees that he didn’t have time to sharpen his saw.

Besides, the reactive nature of the organisational dynamics make it difficult for people to accept the proactive approach of the new methodologies; it goes against the organisational culture of rewarding people who solve problems when they happen rather than rewarding people who anticipate and take actions to avoid problems altogether.

This is why your journey to Operational Excellence needs to start with the basics: Planning, Execution and Follow-Up. By forcing people to think about the future you automatically change the organisational dynamics away from fire fighting to proactive actions.

This may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed to find how many companies operate without one or two of the three.

Execution is a given—without execution, there is no revenue. And every company engages in some degree of Planning, whether it’s in budgeting, sales or logistics. How ‘granular’ that planning is, and/or how much room for improvement is built into that process, are two different questions.

It is in Follow-Up that most organizations stumble. There often just seems not to be enough time to do a proper review of the Planning and Execution, let alone perform root causes analyses on the deviation between what you planned to make and what you really made. People forget that deviations are golden opportunities to learn, improve and save time. But I guess this is also nothing new, most managers will regularly look at deviations to understand performance. There is even a name for this: Management by Exceptions.

Note that it is one thing for managers to practice Management by Exceptions; it is another when operators do it. In my experience, to achieve the next level of organizational maturity, one needs to look at plan deviation, from management to the operators. If you can get your shop floor operators to apply the same techniques, then you will have made a huge jump in organizational maturity. Empowering employees to analyze deviations and make decisions without consulting their superiors (within their freedom box) not only gives employees more job satisfaction, it tightens the control of your operation and produces better results.

Zabok, 12th May 2013

Austerity vs. Prosperity

Ok, I got distracted by the election and was so flabbergasted by what I was hearing in the media that I was too emotionally charged to be writing anything.  Now the election is over and we are back to square one, yes Obama has been re-elected but the status quo in the House of Representatives and the senate has not really changed the divisive political mood; not to mention long list of other threats menacing us, Greece and the rest of Europe have not resolved their debt problem and the US is heading for the fiscal cliff, let’s just hope this is not a remake of Thelma & Louise.

Consequently, there is a lot of talk about austerity in Europe at the moment, and in some cases it makes good sense but people tend to forget that austerity is by design a constricting measure for the economy. One of the things I have learned during my consulting career is that unintended consequences can sometimes undermine the very effort to fix a problem.  This is where “system dynamics” and causal loops diagram can be useful to explore and express the dynamics at play in a given situation. To help explain what happens with austerity, I have developed the following model. The model is quite rudimentary and as it was created in Insight Maker, it is available to anyone to expand on, improve or correct what is already there. (so if you have any input to making my model better, please update it yourself or let me know). You will notice that austerity has the potential to be a severe vicious cycle depending on how it is applied.

Quite frankly I don’t believe Greece will ever be able to repay it’s debt, especially not by cutting spending alone. The current depressive cycle the country is one is only exacerbating the problem. In fact just like in the US, the debt problem needs to be a balance approach of revenue generation (ie Tax reforms) and spending reforms. Let’s face it the tax system in Greece is a disaster, and this is nothing new. The Greek politicians have kick the tax reform “can” so far down the road that the “can” is falling apart in pieces and there is nothing left to kick.

But, whatever gets done on taxes, it will have to be attractive. Greece needs urgently to get its population back to work, so creating private sector jobs has to be a priority.

The other side of the coin is spending. You may have picked up that I just the term spending reform rather than spending cuts. That is because I believe there is a fundamental difference and that one is sustainable and the other isn’t.  Spending cuts equal less services or investment in the future, and as you have seen in the model they constrict the economy. Spending reforms reviewing what you spend money on and what you get in return.  There are some great success stories of how one man was able to transform the purchasing process within government, under President Clinton, there by savings 100’s millions $ in the process. My experience tells me there are still billions $ if not 100’s billions in inefficiencies within government processes, in six sigma we call this the hidden factory. In fact perhaps the best way to think about this is the illustration with the iceberg.

The estimated cost of poor quality, expressed as % of turnover

The estimated cost of poor quality, expressed as % of turnover

The sad part, and often overlooked, is that the majority of these inefficiencies are known or have even been documented. The organization, in our case government, is just not capable to foster the kind of organizational maturity that would allow such opportunities to be addressed. And although the government may be often ranked at the bottom of the scale when it come to “appeal”, there are only a few organizations, world wide, that have the necessary transparency and values to motivate their workforce to truly strive for perfection and continuous improvement. Look at it this way:  how many people do you know trust their boss and organization so much that he would be willing to tell his boos how o make his own job redundant; because he would know that was the best way to demonstrate his value & commitment to the organization?

Ok some of you may have some Japanese friends where something like this is more likely to take place, precisely because they have developed mature organization where the workforce feels stronger together than the sum of the individuals, creating a strong identity! Identity is one of the magic ingredients that separate “groups” from “teams”. But wait a minute we are talking about government here, not Google! Looking for saving opportunities in government processes should be like looking for eggs in a henhouse. There may not be an egg under each hen but you pretty certain you will find some eggs.

As I mentioned above the first step of sliming down government were initiated under Clinton, and a lot of services and processes have been out sourced. In fact the Bush administration conveniently rode that wave when the same trimming down effort and clarification of “core competences” was applied to the military and the military contractor industry was created, suspiciously creating huge profits for companies like Blackwater & Halliburton in the process.  This is also the message Obama is trying to tell the American people when he says that some things are best done together. He has put a canvas that has some broad strokes on it but the question remains whether the other politicians will be willing to shape the landscape and add the color. Nevertheless the road to sustainable prosperity would clearly be smoother with a reinvigorated workforce of loyal civil servants that pride themselves on their work and looks after the governments interest as if the were his own.  Seeding the seeds for continuous improvement in government could be a low cost endeavor with immense potential returns.

Zabok, HR – 14th November 2012