Don’t start at the beginning, start at the end!
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
oft mis-quoted from “Alice in Wonderland”, Lewis Caroll
Setting inspiring and challenging goals is a key element of any organisation’s drive to improve its performance. Plans are developed to achieve the goals and implementation rigorously pursued. Yet somehow those plans don’t manage to deliver the results anticipated at the time the goals were set. Part of the problem may be that they don’t go “deep enough”. For example, goals may be simply expressed in terms of “the results that we want”. These may be outcome goals such as “we want to be number one for customer satisfaction”. Better are performance goals, that break the outcome goals down and specify the standards to be met to achieve the outcome, e.g. “all customer orders will leave the factory on time, complete and with no quality issues”. Yet these are still results measures with no sense of how the goals will be achieved. A next step might be to set “process goals”, which define the method or strategy by which the goals are to be achieved. Typically, there will be multiple process goals for each performance goal in the same way that an outcome goal may be broken down into several performance goals. While such a breakdown is helpful, it is often not sufficient to really enable organisations get to grips with the complexity of delivering the standard of performance they aspire to. In my experience, what can really help is to define the conditions that must exist for those goals to be achieved.
“Begin with the end in mind.”
Stephen R. Covey, 7 habits of highly effective people
One way I often do this with clients is to ask them to imagine themselves in their business at some point in the future when their goals have been fully achieved. I ask them a series of questions such as:
- “What is that like compared to now?”
- “What do you see, and hear, and feel that is different?”
- “How are people acting differently?”
- “What are relationships like between team members?”
- “How do they feel about their work?”
- “What is different about the interactions between leaders and front-line staff?”
- “What will results be like?”
- “What will our customers be saying about us?”
- “What will our competitors be saying about us?”
And I’m sure there are more great questions you can think of that will help you. This activity can be done individually or in groups. With the latter, it can be really fun to see ideas sparking one off another, leading to a really rich vision. Sometimes, there will be negative talk about things that won’t be there compared to situations that exist now. Left unchecked., these can drag the mood of the group down and shift attention to the difficulties of today or a sense that the challenge is “too difficult”. A good way to keep groups focussed on the future is to ask them to reframe their comments in the positive – what good thing will exist rather than what bad thing won’t – so that “we can’t do that because . . . .” becomes “we can do that when . . . .” In effect, what we are doing here is “creating the future” in our minds. The author Stephen R. Covey once wrote that everything is created twice – once in our minds and once when we turn it into reality. This is as true for transforming an organisation as it is for the “two-stage” process of first designing a product and then making it. Such a well-defined “vision of the future” can be far more powerful than a series of goals and tasks. Of course, some groups may be so bogged down in the difficulties of their current situation that they struggle to think too far ahead, or perhaps they don’t have any frame of reference for what a truly high-performing organisation can be like, and often ask me for ideas or examples. So, in the rest of this article, I’m going to share what my experiences studying and working with high-performing organisations have led me to believe are the important conditions for true high performance.
Don’t start at the beginning. First and foremost is that everyone has a shared view of purpose. Why does the organisation exist? Who does it serve? What does it provide them with? While many might say “to make money”, I’d argue that this is an outcome of doing something else. Indeed, in his book “Drive” – a great work on motivation – author Dan Pink describes the “bad stuff” that happens when the profit motive is disconnected from that broader sense of purpose. Realistically, any organisation will have multiple stakeholders – customers, employees, shareholders, wider society – and a great purpose will encompass how the organisation serves all of them.
As an example, I might describe the Purpose for my business as:
To enable businesses to create an operational “culture” (operating model) that enables them to:
- meet or exceed customer requirements at minimum cost
- give employees meaningful and satisfying work that they enjoy and that enables them to fulfil their potential
- deliver value to other stakeholders (shareholders etc)
- contribute to society by creating workplaces that are more profitable and sustainable and are happier and more fulfilling places to work
In my “vision of the future”, everyone in the organisation will be inspired by the purpose and know how their role contributes to it.
Much of today’s thinking around the principles of Operational Excellence comes from “lean thinking”, with organisations such as Toyota as exemplars, and very good they are too. However, many of the principles have been around for far longer, even if they haven’t been widely practised. As a Christian, I find much inspiration in the Bible, in particular the teachings of Jesus on leadership and how we interact with one another. In these I find much in harmony with what many describe as the “Respect for People” dimension of Toyota’s way of working:
- Seeing the intrinsic value and unique potential of every individual
- Treating everyone as we would wish to be treated
- The leader as the servant of others, enabling them to succeed
- Encouraging “personal transformation” and growth
Two very different sources for a similar set of ideas! Other lean principles I’d see in place would be:
- A focus on value (from the customer’s perspective) and elimination of waste
- Creation of ‘flow’ of products and information – so no delays and minimal work-in-progress
- A focus on preventing problems occurring rather than fixing them when they occu
- Continually looking for better ways of doing things to make people’s lives easier and more satisfying, improve quality, provide more value, shorten time taken and reduce cost
These principles will be evident throughout the business, both in the way people interact and in the way work is carried out (process). They represent a set of shared values and beliefs that are held by everyone in the organisation.
In the people dimension, most of what I see applies to everyone; we’re all people after all! However, there are some more specific aspects that apply particularly to leaders that are worth drawing out.
Inspiring, empowering leadership
Senior leaders in an organisation are largely responsible for setting the direction of the organisation and determining strategy. They are also responsible for leading the process that establishes meaningful goals for everyone to deliver that strategy. In the best organisations, leaders communicate a clear vision and then involve everyone in developing the detail of that vision along with the goals and plans to achieve it. This includes letting ideas filter back from the front line of the organisation (“lower down” in the traditional organisational model), including the aspirations and ideas, in ways that adjust the plans further back and may even change the detail of the vision itself. Such leaders also ensure that everyone in the organisation is equipped and enabled to play their full part – creating an environment that maximises the potential in everyone even when, in some cases, the focus for that is outside the organisation. This isn’t just about acquiring knowledge and skill through training and practice, but also through creating opportunities for them to share their thoughts about what’s going on and how it might be improved. This requires leaders to create a safe environment – both physically and psychologically – so that everyone can work without fear and knowing they’ll be supported even when they make mistakes. Indeed, trying things out with the certainty that there will be some failures is essential for learning and success. This, in turn, means that leaders must be open to feedback – however critical – from everyone and model vulnerability. They must also be able to deliver feedback that combines the requirements of demonstrating genuine care for everyone with the challenge of holding them accountable for delivery.
Respect for Everyone
For everyone in the organisation – leaders included – it is essential that they are engaged, equipped and encouraged to succeed.
- They are clear about what is expected of them, why it matters and how success will be measured. Their role is well aligned to their individual desires and motivation, connecting them to delivery of the organisation’s overall goals.
- They have the autonomy, knowledge and skill that they need to deliver that.
- They feel they can contribute, and their views and ideas are heard and addressed.
- They have time to get involved in fixing problems and work on their own ideas to improve.
- Their individual strengths are recognised, and they are put in a position to play to those strengths.
- They have opportunity to develop and grow.
- They have facilities and equipment that are fit for purpose and well-maintained.
People work in high-performing, largely self-managed teams. Morale is high and everyone enjoys coming to work, while having the time and energy for those things outside work that are important to them.
There is a lot that could be written about process, so here I’m only planning to cover four essential elements.
Play a game you can win – achievable plans based on demonstrated performance
A frequent complaint from production areas is that plans are unrealistic and unachievable. They seem to be based on some idealised view of what should be possible rather than what is known to be possible. So, in my vision, plans are always based on demonstrated capacity and capability – what have we previously shown that we can deliver routinely and consistently? This enables planning with the confidence that – barring major incidents – plans will be achieved in a way that brings reliability, consistency and confidence. Note that this applies to supplier performance as well as internal processes. Opponents of this idea will argue something about there needing to be a “stretch” in the plan to encourage good performance, or that using demonstrated capacity will lead to a gradual reduction in output. In my view, this may be acceptable for longer-term planning, where we can realistically hope to reduce the gap between what is theoretically possible and demonstrated performance. Indeed, understanding and taking action on that gap should be a feature of our “execution system” (see below). Conversely, in the immediate term, such an approach is more likely to introduce instability, pressure and “knee-jerk” reactions to keep up with the schedule. Far better to start from a firm base and improve from there, adjusting what is given as “demonstrated performance” once the improvements have been bedded in.
Operational processes routinely delivery on Quality, Time and Cost
Near 100% delivery on Quality, Time and Cost is the norm and achieved with ease rather than exceptional effort. I say “near 100%” because, as far as I am aware, no organisation gets it completely right all of the time, even if that’s the aspiration. Getting close should be possible, though. This is driven by having well-defined processes (standardised work) for all work enabling it to be done consistently time after time with confidence that it will deliver the result required within acceptable limits. Standardised work represents the “best way we know today” how to do something, while recognising that we are always looking for better ways that we will try out and then adopt if they prove to be better. With that in mind, everyone accepts the need to follow the standard work instruction. Process confirmation, rather than being seen as an audit or “checking up”, is seen as a source of valuable feedback from a colleague to enable better performance. There are daily routines in place to manage delivery. Past performance is reviewed for learning, potential issues are identified in time for corrective action to be undertaken and assigned with confidence that they will be completed on time.
Proactive focus on prevention and improvement
All problems are identified and resolved as part of the routine. Root cause investigation is carried out to a level where action can be taken to prevent the problem recurring in the future. The business recognises that, even though it is performing well today, there is always potential to be better. I refer to this as the state of “happily discontent”. Opportunities for improvement are identified and acted upon as part of the rhythm of daily life. Ideas are evaluated quickly for their potential and feedback provided to those making the proposal where they are not part of the evaluating group (although routinely they are). Provision of time and resources to make improvements is included within the planning process almost without exception (there will always be some need to over-ride that, but these should be as few and far between as possible).
Decisions based on fact and data
While there is very much a place for intuition, using data and other observable evidence is a key component of gaining a real understanding of what is happening. This gets beneath top line measures of performance – “did we hit the target or not this week?” – to understand the true behaviour and capability of our processes. Such understanding is an enabler for robust problem solving and making improvements.
A long-term focus on sustainability A key factor of such a high-performing operation is that it is thinking about long term sustainability. This cannot be dependent on any particular individual, whether they are in a leadership role or elsewhere. Rather, the “secret of its success” is inbuilt – contained within the way the organisation goes about its work day by day, through the shared vision, values and behaviours of everyone in the organisation and by the processes it operates. It is simply “the way we do things round here”. It is committed to developing its people and enabling them to continue to progress should they wish to, so employee turnover is low. Leaders at every level are generally identified from within the organisation, with clear succession planning for every key role. That said, the organisation recognises the need to be continually looking outside itself for inspiration on how to become better, and routinely brings in new people with valuable knowledge and skills to ensure that it always stays “fresh”. The organisation is known for developing great people and, where there are insufficient opportunities for development internally, the organisation encourages and supports individuals to find suitably challenging roles elsewhere as part of its wider contribution to society.
And now for your organisation
What I’ve written above is, by its nature, somewhat generalised and a little idealistic. However, it is not some fantasy. Rather, it is based on the example of many highly successful businesses in a variety of sectors. So, if you are inspired by this, what would it look like in your organisation? Why not take time to imagine what might be possible in one year as a step towards creating the conditions to achieve the vision, then maybe where it could be in five or ten years?
Is it all worth it?
Of course, you may be wondering if all this work to put such detail into your “vision of the future” is really worth it. My simple answer is “yes”. Without this level of clarity:
- It can be easy to “force” achievement of performance goals in ways that are unsustainable for the organisation and may even do damage.
- Actions can drift “off course” without a clear reference point for whether or not they will help to establish the right conditions. Then additional work is required to recover.
- Where you end up might not be where you think!
If there’s one consistent piece of learning from almost every job I’ve done over the years – whether it be creating new product, planning a project or deciding how to spend my day -is that doing more work up front, before huge amounts of time and money are committed, is more than paid back by the speed and focus of subsequent work. Creating a clear vision for the future is no exception.
Don’t start at the beginning – the journey to excellence
Of course, having the vision in this level of detail is only the beginning. I’m aware of many organisations where leaders, having created their vision, start to behave as though it’s already in place. The reality is that it isn’t realistic to achieve all of this overnight – it’s more a case of steady progress in a consistent direction than one huge step change. People must be ready to change and have a “natural pace” at which they can cope with change. Stretch them beyond that and they’ll break. Establishing the necessary beliefs, attitudes and behaviours is hard work and takes time. Long established habits have to be changed, and there will be stumbles along the way. New knowledge and skills have to be acquired and practised before they become routine. Also, knowing “what good looks like” isn’t enough. There is evidence of leaders and, dare I say it, consultants coming out of successful roles in high-performing organisations who struggle to cope, as they don’t know how to manage the transformation from what exists today to where the organisation aspires to be. So, making the transition takes time and careful planning and preparation. Not every step can be defined in detail – this is a journey of exploration more than a route over familiar territory. However, much can be learned from studying other successful transformations.
The next article in the series will go deeper into what the map of such a journey might look like:
- Identifying your starting point and what you already have that might equip you for the journey.
- Defining a “logical order” for putting in place the necessary conditions.
- Outlining some of the new skills and methods you will require.
- Being prepared to deal with difficulties on the way.
Having lived through the transformation of a major organisation from underperforming to a world-class business, and subsequently enabling the transformation of organisations in a variety of sectors and situations, we are well-equipped to support you on your journey.
For a no obligation initial conversation to explore your situation and how we may be able to help, please get in touch. Details on our contact page here.
Harvey Leach is passionate about helping organisations acquire the knowledge, skill and culture they need to achieve Operational Excellence.
Following a successful career in the automotive industry with Rover and BMW Group, where he worked in a variety of roles covering R&D, production and corporate strategy, Harvey has worked as a consultant, trainer and coach since 2004. He delights in seeing teams “come alive” as they discover how they can apply same principles that underpin some of the world’s leading companies to their organisation to achieve impressive improvements in performance and more fulfilling lives.