One of the best parts of my job is when I work with teams who, and it’s very clear from the start, are in a pretty frustrated place. That might sound strange, but let me explain. Firstly, it’s interesting to start understanding why they might be frustrated, and it could be for a whole host of reasons. For example: lots of changes might have been forced upon them that they didn’t want, or don’t think is for the best; the processes that they work on might be broken meaning that they don’t feel that they are able to ever do a good job and they might not feel that they have the opportunity to make any changes that benefit both customers, and their working lives.
Giving employees the time, space and authority to look at the work that they do and to make changes can do amazing things to the organisation’s culture. When I start working with teams, one of the first things that we do is discuss ‘why they are there’… not from a “to earn money” perspective, but to decide what the team’s purpose is – what are they there to do. If it’s an IT development team, it’s really important that they see their role as being critically important to achieving process flow and also as a means to achieving enhanced customer value. We use the act of defining purpose as a mechanism to simplify their workload and to help teams to focus on what’s important. Critically, it’s really important for the whole team to work together to achieve that purpose, so deciding on shared goals can be very effective.
After we’ve defined our purpose, talked to and about our customers and what they need and want from us, we then start to look at the frustrations that they face day to day, bottlenecks in their processes and how much of their work is what John Seddon calls, “failure demand” i.e. work that organisations do because something has gone wrong somewhere. We start to group these issues and then look for the root causes of these issues. Once we understand why the problems occur, we can take positive steps to ensure that these problems do not reoccur in the future.
Fixing a few issues that really cause consternation can really start to change the presiding feelings of a team. People start to feel that they are being listened to and that they can make positive changes to improve their working lives. As their confidence and determination grows, together, you can start to imagine quite ‘challenging’ future ways of working – processes that are simple, streamlined and most importantly, work!
Working with a team and helping them to break free of their current depressing work situation and to start to care about their jobs again, is hugely satisfying. The important aspect of achieving this transformation is not simply giving people the time and space to come up with improvement ideas, the critically important aspect is making tangible changes so that their situation actually improves. To work with a team and raise their hopes that things might change, and then no change actually happens, is actually worse than doing nothing.
This point really hit home when I attended an “Employee Engagement” conference. I attended the conference to learn about different endeavours that had taken place in order to improve a company’s culture. One guy, at the very end of the day, stood up and said that his company ‘had tried everything’ but the thing that really made a difference was when their processes actually worked, when the employees could see that the improvement efforts they were undertaking actually were making a difference – when they felt that they were working for a successful, productive organisation. It’s management’s role to design and create the right system to enable employees to work in excellent processes, delivering excellent products and services that are appreciated by customers.