Necessity is the mother of invention

In Productivity and motivation on March 14, 2011 by Tim Aikens

Or so goes the saying.  It can also be the mother of a leap in performance and productivity.  Everyone has seen the disaster that struck Japan last week and my sympathies go out to the people of Japan.  Fortunately the Japanese army and a number of international support teams are now working to alleviate distress and start the long road to recovery.  The people in these teams are remarkable.  They achieve amazing results. often with little equipment and frustrated by the devastation all around them.  Yet they perform wonders, often in a short space of time.  These organisations and their people have interesting attributes that ‘normal’ organisations might well benefit from.  Here are a few of them, not in any special order.

Training. These special teams all have extensive training in their roles – even at the lowest level.  They know what to do and how to do it well.  A recent publication about productivity in the construction industry cited poor or insufficient training as one of the main causes of low productivity compared to other countries.

Teamwork. The people in these teams are developed and trained to work as a team.  Not only are the teams highly effective, they are also innovative, able to move away from standard procedure and use their initiative when demand dictates.  ‘Management’ is often a long way away and decisions need to be made quickly.  Increasingly in the business world, the concept of ‘self managed teams’ is being used to build teamwork and the effectiveness of individual teams.  Responsibility and accountability is being pushed downwards in a lot of successful organisations.

Motivation. The circumstances and nature of the individuals in emergency teams mean that they are highly motivated from the moment they arrive.  It is difficult to contemplate how most other organisations could generate and sustain a similar level of motivation.  But pause a moment and think of the key motivators.  Each individual knows they are doing an important job in a constrained situation.  Often life and death is dependent on their work.  They are working with like minded individuals and support one another.  They all have a determination to do a good job and see results.

Preparation. The team arrives as fully prepared as they can be.  Not only in terms of training as noted above, but also in terms of equipment, planning and especially preparation to deal with the unexpected!

Leadership. There is good leadership at ‘head office’ to make sure the teams get to an emergency quickly and properly equipped. There is also good leadership on the spot to lead the teams.  The leaders are recognised and supported by their teams.

Of course, not all such emergency teams are perfect, but in general they deliver quite remarkable results very quickly.  People I know who have worked on disaster teams return home completely exhausted, both mentally and physically.  They need a rest before returning to normality.  Working at this pace  would be unsustainable in any normal environment.  The question is how can such effectiveness be translated and sustained in a more mundane business or organisation on a day-to-day level?  There are a number of ways of translating these aspects into an ‘ordinary’ organisational situation and I will have a look at this next week.



Growth through productivity

In UK productivity, Uncategorized on March 7, 2011 by Tim Aikens

Just before Christmas I shared some statistics about how far productivity in the UK  is behind the USA and other countries .  The current rhetoric from both the Government and CBI is about growth.  Mr Cameron says the only way out of the recession is to boost growth and the budget in March is aimed at doing that.  The CBI says that economic policy has to focus relentlessly on growth.  Its hard to fault both of these comments and good to see that they are in accord.  However there are two issues that are raised by these comments.  The first is that a government can only create an environment to encourage growth, the second is that business cannot expect government to wave a magic wand and growth will ‘happen’.

Taking the first issue.  There are some things that the government can (and hopefully plan to ) do.  Removing yards of red tape would be a start.  Ask any senior manager of any size firm and they will complain about the non value adding activity they have to do to ‘satisfy’ regulation of one form or another.  Then there is waiting.  Mostly this has to do with planning, licensing or approval of some form.  Whilst a business is waiting, staff, capital, and resources are all tied up, but not adding value.  Cameron has offered to streamline planning in key enterprise areas.  How about everywhere?  There is a concept in business called Zero Based Budgetting.  This is aimed at developing realistic budgets to fit only what is going to happen, instead of taking last year’s budget adding 5% for inflation and there you go!  The latter approach is quick and easy but often ends up with inflated budgets and little incentive to cut them.  A zero based approach forces the budget owner to build and justify a budget from scratch.  It’s about time we introduced Zero Based Regulation.  Every piece of legislation and regulation has to demonstrate its value added from the ground up!

The second issue is one I have mentioned before, but it is worth raising again.  If UK plc wants to grow (given that there is a market), then one of the best ways to do this is to offer better products and services – at lower prices.  This will only happen through improved productivity.  Cutting regulation  will help, but businesses themselves have to take the lead in working out how they are going to do more for less.  Relying on tax breaks, soft loans, preferential treatment and other devices will provide some respite, but they will never solve the problem.

There are plenty of business in the UK who are showing that it can be done.  As well as his budget for growth Mr Cameron also needs to incentivise productivity.  Perhaps in future, government should not spend money on failing businesses (like Northern Rock) but spend the money on those businesses that succeed by improving productivity and performance!


Privatisation – good for productivity?

In Productivity culture, Public sector, The board, The workforce, UK productivity on February 28, 2011 by Tim Aikens

There has been a lot of press recently about rises in water prices.  One of the Thatcher era’s ‘big successes’ was the privatisation of utilities – water, gas, electricity and telecommunications.  Of these water is the only one to have maintained a monopoly.  Water prices for the average household have gone up in real terms by about 45%  since 1989 (source; Ofwat).  Leakage is till at some 19% of supply!  Compared to the price of many other things, water has become increasingly expensive and yet the commodity has changed little as far as I can taste! (note I am talking about the cost of water, not sewage or drainage)

So is this a case of privatisation not working or are the water companies simply catching up after decades of underinvestment?  OR – does their monopoly position allow them to get away with inherently poor performance despite the existence of Ofwat?  This is not going to be a rant about privatisation or Margaret Thatcher, but simply to ask the question is privatisation necessarily good for productivity and the objective of delivering More for Less?  Another privatised utility that has had problems is Railtrack – the privatised organisation set up to manage the UK’s rail infrastructure.  Network Rail was set up to take over the remnant of Railtrack after it’s failure.  Network Rail is now desperate to introduce large efficiencies in its business.

There are some interesting similarities.  Two utility organisations, set up as private businesses yet not delivering real cost efficiencies.  They are both monopolies.  You have no choice over who provides your water and the train operating companies have no choice over who supplies track and services!  Despite government regulation neither have delivered. There are other similarities. Both have long thin infrastructure (pipes and rail tracks) with points of focus (waterworks and stations).  Both have a legacy of underinvestment.  Both like to think they have delivered a lot – but my water tastes no different and the journey time to my home town of Norwich is little different than it was in 1960!

I have talked in the past of a ‘productivity culture’.  Post privatisation, both management and the workforce stayed essentially the same.  If the people don’t change (either physically or emotionally) the culture won’t change.  If processes don’t change the outcomes won’t either.  Network Rail is being forced by budget cuts to deliver some big efficiencies.  This is an external driver acting on the organisation.  No such driver exists within water (Ofwat seems to rule with a very gentle hand).

The obvious conclusion that privatisation to a monopoly delivers little benefit will be of no surprise to students of economics .  The problem is that they can reap the benefits of a PLC and still behave like a public utility!  Things need to be the other way around,  perform like a PLC, but have the constraints of a public utility.

So what to do?  All the usual suspects come to mind:

  • have a formal and real focus on productivity (with clear, stretching, targets and objectives)
  • change the people or change the people (be both committed and ruthless)
  • processes will need to change and innovation will be vital (difficult without the previous two)
  • without real leadership in the area of productivity little will change!

Network Rail have a lot to do.  The driver for them is financial stricture.  It remains to be seen if their management and workforce can deliver.  The utilities don’t need to worry unless Ofwat really decides to use its teeth.  As well as measuring all the good stuff on water quality and availability, Ofwat needs to get back to basics.  What is the cost of a unit of water and just how efficiently is it being delivered?


Public Sector Staff – for Sale

In Public sector, UK productivity on February 21, 2011 by Tim Aikens

The UK government believes that some 330,000 public sector staff will lose their jobs over the course of the next four years.  They also believe that the private sector will generate enough jobs to soak up this surplus over the same time period.  The burning question is will the private sector want these ex public sector staff and will the latter really want to work in the private sector?

A recent survey by Barclays and the Financial Times indicates that over half the companies polled would be reluctant to take on staff from the public sector.  The most popular view is that they will be ‘ill equipped’.  To some extent you can see the obvious in terms of technology and private sector skills like sales – perhaps, but is this  taking a broad brush view.  I suspect that there are some really good people in the public sector who will lose their jobs and it will be a loss to all if they are ignored simply because their experience is not private sector.

However, I also think that there is a bigger worry and one that may be hidden.  Companies may well be reluctant to take on ex public sector staff because they do not believe they will be either as motivated or productive.  In some cases that could be a reasonable concern.  But I think that this also represents a huge opportunity to bring more people to understand the importance of self motivation and doing the best you possibly can.

It’s hard to boil the ocean – it’s just too big.  Equally one drop of cold water will not cool down a whole bath of hot water – rather the drop is brought up to the temperature of the bath (almost).  If a company chooses its ex public sector staff well and introduces them in small numbers across the business, the chances are that the business will have a much bigger influence on the newcomer than the other way around.  The question is do you believe in McGregor’s Theory X- inherently lazy or Theory Y – people want to work and do a good job.  I’m a Theory Y person myself.  The environment and conditions around much of the public sector encourage the typical picture we have of their workforce.  There are a lot of big exceptions – military, police, fire service and front line NHS for a few.  My personal experience of these people in the private sector is that they make just as big a contribution as anyone else.  Now admittedly they volunteered to leave, but there will be a lot of pragmatic people out there both willing and able to take on all that the public sector asks of them.

Bringing these people into the private sector is important for them and the UK.  This is an opportunity to boost UK productivity not weaken it!


Motivation – what do I want? (2 of 2)

In Productivity and motivation, Uncategorized on February 15, 2011 by Tim Aikens

Picking up from last week, let’s imagine that you have decided to do something about helping your team or staff to make a positive move towards achieving what they ‘really want’!  What are you going to do?  All thought and no action gets no results, you have to make a start somewhere.

Of course if you simply started going up to your staff and saying ‘what’s your dream?’ you might be met with some strange looks and a few unappreciated comments.  The first step is to build relationship with your staff.  They need to get used to you talking to them – beyond work and believing that you really took an interest in their lives not just what they are up to.  You might already be there, but sadly all too many organisations take too little interest in their staff beyond their direct effort and contribution at work. This might take some time (depending on where you are starting from).  In one organisation I used to work for, one of the senior directors knew everyone. He always spoke to the office cleaners, canteen staff and knew all their names.  He would be in a position to start straight away.  Ask yourself, how genuine is my relationship with my staff?  Until you get to a real relationship you will not be taken too seriously.

Even at this stage you will benefit.  Staff will see the change and, as long as it is REAL, it will be appreciated.  Now you can start to move forward.  As your relationships build you move into a position to start asking about dreams and hopes for the future.  Keep a short, very private, record – Fred wants a house that will hold his seven kids without four in a bedroom; Joe wants to sky dive; Alice wants to work part-time, Anne wants to be a software engineer – and so on.   When you begin to get traction you can then think about talking to staff in general terms.  Not about individual dreams, that would be a breach of confidence, but you can talk about the fact that we all have dreams and that you would like to see how you can help your staff achieve them. In his book, the firm that Matthew Kelly describes appointed a ‘Dream Manager’.  That might be the right way to go.  You may only have a small company or department and may not need someone full-time (which is of course expensive. It would be a good idea to see what a business case might look like i.e if we hired a part-time Dream Manager, what is the increase in performance we need to achieve in order to break even?).

Who would be best in this key support role.  You need someone who is passionate about people, believes in moving mountains, highly practical and does not readily take no for an answer!  Their role is to take time with each person, identify a key dream and build a plan with them to turn it into reality.  It is not to do it all for them, although many will need help.  Get several dreams, with some more short-term than others.  You need to be able to see some early results, however small, as an encouragement to everyone.  Then see what happens!

Will it work? I honestly don’t know, but I believe strongly ij the idea, otherwise I would not be writing about it. I doubt if it will have any detrimental effect. At the very least it will enhance your relationship with your staff and the organisation’s reputation as a good place to work. That alone has to be good.

Let me know what happens in your business!


Motivation – what do I want? (1 of 2)

In Productivity and motivation, Uncategorized on February 7, 2011 by Tim Aikens

How often has your boss, supervisor or leader come up to you and asked you what you really want to do with the rest of your life?  I’m not talking about career or just the family, but about the broadest concept of the rest of your life.  Most of us have dreams of what we would like to see or do or become.  Indeed, if you look at a lot of famous people a common theme that applies to many of them is the dream that they had from an early age.

Now, let’s move back into the less exciting arena of work.  For most people a career or job that is exciting, satisfying, well paid, good promotion prospects and a good work life balance is hard if not impossible to find.  Even at a senior level there are many who have no real satisfaction in their work, driven more by the need to pay the mortgage or from fear of the sack or redundancy.  Going into the workplace is rarely fun and leaving at the end of the day a huge relief.  For many thousands, clocking off at the end of a shift is the best thing that happened that day.  How do you motivate an office cleaner, a road sweeper?  How do you generate real pride in their work after all the usual tricks have been tried?  I believe that if people are turning their big dreams into reality they are likely to come to work significantly motivated.’

Here I must confess to being heavily influenced by a book I read just before Christmas – The Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly (Hyperion Books). The book tells the true story of how an organisation started to pay attention to and help staff with their very real dreams and the business success that emegerd.  The company engaged a ‘Dream Manager’ to help staff turn their dreams into reality.  Compare two members of staff, both doing a fairly mundane job.  They both have dreams outside of work.  One talks to a good friend who says  let me help you turn this into reality, whilst the other holds his dream in private and keeps on wishing.  Six months later one set of dreams is becoming real, the other still just a dream.  One man comes into work with a spring in his step a willingness to work and engage.  The other sees no change and no reason to change!

Does it work?  According to the book it does!  From my own experience, looking back at times when areas of life outside work have taken a major upturn, there has been a commensurate rise in desire to do well at work.  Looking at situations where I have been able to inspire groups of staff to head towards their dreams, there has been a noticeable upswing in motivation. I think one reason why large organisations have social, sporting and other clubs is that it helps staff work out some of their dreams, some of the inner desire of  ‘what I want’.

Would it work in the UK?  I’m not totally sure about the concept of a paid Dream Manager, but I am sure the principle is correct. whenever you pay attention to staff as a manager (in a positive sense!) there is a lift in spirit.  But what if, as a leader or manager, you started to pay attention to the dreams of your staff, they saw you were taking an interest and willing to help!  Put yourself in the shoes of the worker. How would you feel at the end of the day as you think to yourself  ‘funny thing  today when I opened up to my boss and told him about our dream to own our own house – he’s agreed to help’?  Uplifted, more committed, motivated and encouraged are a few words that spring to mind.

Of course doing this would require effort, commitment and a willingness to be open.  But think about what could happen. Next week I will look at some of the practicalities.


Motivation – flat out for the common cause

In Productivity and motivation on January 31, 2011 by Tim Aikens

Dunkirk, England’s 1966 World Cup  win, the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in South East Asia are all examples of situations where a team or people are drawn together by a common cause and go on to make a remarkable effort to achieve a much needed (or desired ) result.  Contrast this with five men standing around the proverbial hole in the road whilst one man digs, or the postman who cannot be bothered to deliver all the mail so he stashes the rest in his home (as has happened).  In an organisation how can you establish common cause and achieve high levels of motivation that are both enjoyable AND sustainable?

It’s easy to see the link in a sporting team.  The more everyone works together, the more likely there is to be a good result.  The adrenalin rush of winning is almost sufficient reward on its own, let alone the other benefits.  As a lawyer, being on the winning team enhances your personal reputation – and that of your organisation.  And even if you lose – well you have still been paid and the case was an interesting intellectual challenge!  But what about the shelf stacker, the checkout assistant, the road sweeper or office cleaner?  Establishing common cause in these situations is much more difficult.  It is possible and the benefits are huge.  Of course money can be a great motivator, but this is not about money.  Indeed a number of studies have shown that money is not the great motivator it is cracked up to be.  Here are some thoughts from my own past.

Firstly the two Ps – PEOPLE and PROCESS.  You may call them staff, partners, employees, labour or anything.  BUT, every one of them is a human being, a person with a name, personality, history and a future.  Start calling your colleagues and subordinates by name. remember names, ask about them and their day.  When people are called by name and someone takes an interest in them they are lifted up, they start to feel good about themselves – work harder, be more efficient.  A little bit of recognition and relationship goes a long way.  This is more than a Hawthorne effect (look in Wikipedia), because you can keep this up.  All the best ‘bosses’ I have had in my career or seen at clients’ offices have done this.

The second P is PROCESS.  Hopefully everyone in an organisation is doing something that adds value and is therefore a relevant and important part of the process.  For example, no food stacking means no food on the shelves to sell.  Have you ever passed by an empty shelf and made your purchase of that item at another store? Empty shelves mean lower sales!  The key here is to explain the process and make sure everyone is aware of the importance of their role and that the role is recognised as such.  Supervisors – give recognition to the lowest role, it is still important.  Don’t demean your colleagues because they do not have a high profile role.  Do you wonder why the credits at the end of films are so long? Well the company is giving credit to all who helped put the film together, not just those who were in front of the camera!

The third big area for me is leadership.  Part of the role of a good leader is to establish common cause.  Don’t confuse this with vision.  Apple’s vision of an Apple on every desk is not going to motivate the microchip worker in a factory in China!  Leaders all through the organisation need to think about what their common cause is and how it can drive up performance for the whole.  Having created common cause, they then need to make sure that (by using the two Ps above) everyone understands the importance of their own contribution.

But what about those roles where it is hard to apply the two Ps or a leader cannot figure out something to generate common cause?  For example the solitary road sweeper (who is nevertheless part of a bigger team) or the late night office cleaner.  This is where we need to consider personal Interest, the topic of the next blog!