So far in Smart Working in Turbulent Times:
– management gurus proclaim empowerment and innovation as everyone’s job
– but there is already a legacy of learning on this and it is largely overlooked in practice
– rather than waiting for the High Heid Yins
to instigate change (too few do) we can grab the opportunity and do it
in the part of the organisation over which we have influence.
Experts on the Ground
Those closest to the action often know
better what is going on in a business. One of my favourite TV programmes
is Undercover Boss. I really enjoyed a recent episode
with Nikki King, Managing Director of Isuzu Trucks UK. The reason this
programme is so heart warming to me is that it consistently confirms
what I saw repeatedly on manufacturing shop floors: that there is no
shortage of people who are committed to their work and to the company.
They are frequently frustrated because they know where things are going
wrong and how they could be made right. The other consistent feature is
how out of touch those at the top can be.
It is not possible to summarise years
of observations and findings into one blog post so what follows is just a
sample of observations on doing better and differently. From an
analysis of literature and interviews I carried out as part of my
doctorate fifteen years ago, my conclusion is that workforce empowerment
is ultimately an outcome of:
a) trusted workplace relationships that value, welcome and seek workforce participation
b) systems of leadership and engagement
that let people acquire, share and deploy knowledge for their own
satisfaction and to the benefit of the business.
Trust people, provide effective
performance environments and give them tools that let them get on with
it? It is hardly rocket science.
The cumulative outcomes of innovating
through the small steps of continuous improvement can create
organisation-wide capability that yields siezable business benefits.
Shapiro (1998) *reported savings of $13 million made over a three-year
period at one plant of Caterpillar Tractors. I found other claims in
1999 of estimated savings between one million and ten million U.S.
dollars within a year.
Transition to new ways of working is
also about doing things differently as well as better. This is messy and
organisations in the past have typically “failed their way to success”
In my experience, there is always one
person with vision and passion setting the conditions for effective
transformation. In the two examples described below, there was a sense
of immediate crisis in one organisation and not in the other. One is an
example of transformation initiated from the top, and the other from
within. Both are about doing things differently. Despite the difference
in scope and complexity in what they set out to do, I could see
parallels between the experiences of these two leaders.
A Tale of Two Leaders
He is a very senior executive in a
municipality in Siberia and his motivation was to introduce
customer-focused service delivery into the municipality. Implementing an
IT system as the vehicle for transforming service delivery meant
fundamentally examining business processes and interactions among
different stakeholders, which included government bodies at federal and
municipal levels. This was a highly complex and far-reaching
The other leader, who happens to be my
sister, is a senior nurse. She would have been a matron in ‘old money’
and she exhibits many of the caricature features of a matron
(except that she is physically tiny). She manages budgets in the
millions of pounds and staff of around forty people spread over shifts
to provide 24 hour patient care. This is comparable to being the
Managing Director of a small factory. She took over a ward that “was
chaotic”. While she appreciates that much of the work of the ward is
unpredictable, things needed to change to set the conditions for
exemplary patient care.
Anything in Common?
What could these people in different countries and cultures, and operating at different scales, possibly have in common?
They are both driven by deep personal values and commitment to excellence in service delivery
They both understood the political and organisational context within which they were trying to instigate change
both understood the power of alliances and influencers. They both
explicitly and at the outset sought to get their immediate managers
behind them – keeping them informed, included and ensuring that they
received recognition and kudos for positive publicity. This was
particularly true of the executive in the municipality.
The nurse did not have to do as much
persuading. The new nurse manager, who came into post just as my sister
was setting out to transform the performance culture on her ward, was
completely supportive and provided her with the armour that she needed.
This was just as well – she lost about 40% of her staff almost
This is transformation through
partnership. They both set about creating a network of alliances among
peers and deputies, providing them with the same level of personal
support they received.
Both had to draw on personal resilience to deal with the flack they were generating.
said that they acted from intuition and experience of people. My sister
has no formal business education. I was academic supervisor for the
executive on a post-graduate course. Using models, frameworks and
theoretical perspectives to reflect on what he perceived was happening
(or not) came after he had acted. This is exactly what Weick means by
“chaotic action” – doing something and then see what you think happened.
Reflections following action feeds forward into future action.
Stories From the Trenches
I will leave the last word to my
sister. The last time I talked to her about all this, she said a couple
of interesting things. The National Health Service has been promoting
the Lean Ward in the five years since she initiated transformation of
the performance culture on her ward. A lot of learning and change are
taking place on other wards. She tells me that her peers are all doing
things differently. She believes that what they are doing is deeply
influenced by their personalities. I find this fascinating.
Without using the words ‘learning
network’, she said that she would love the opportunity to share what she
is learning with her peers – and she is eager to learn from what they
Delia, my lovely, fierce and determined
sister, is the inspiration for The Smart Work Company’s
soon-to-be-piloted learning communities. More about that next time.