October 2010

I paid my weekly trip to supermarket X today to top up the family grocery supplies.  I don’t want to name and shame them because they’re not uniquely slipshod in their detail so let’s just say that I did at least collect my Nectar points at the checkout.

This is today’s customer experience.

It’s Halloween so there’s Halloween tat everywhere as if the world has gone mad for what is essentially an imported American commercial opportunity.

It began at the entrance where the witches’ capes, broomsticks and pumpkins had ousted the useful battery recycling container which was nowhere to be seen.  I enjoyed carrying the 15 batteries I had accumulated at home (why do we get through so many in our household?) all round the premises and out again.

It continued at the end of every aisle with more “special” offers in bins, narrowing the aisles and slowing down the flow of people.

Battling past the rammy at the entrance I reached the fruit and veg aisles that had been cunningly rearranged a while ago so you have to walk a much longer distance past more items before you can get to the next aisle.

Apart from this irritation, the plastic bags for loose produce are now only located at the ends of both sides of the longer aisle, reducing the opportunities to extract one (itself challenging unless you have un-naturally clammy hands) and requiring either a high level of planning skills (“Now let me see, in this aisle I’ll need 7 bags bearing in mind the current disposition of produce” – which of course changes all the time) or frequent treks back and forth to get the next bag.

Except today, of the four corners of the long aisle, three had empty bag containers, adding new excitement and mileage to the regular bag hunt.

A few aisles further on the family’s favoured loaves were not visible anywhere on the bread shelves.  Intuition told me correctly that if I kneeled on the floor (literally – it was the only way) I might be able to see if there were any at the back of the lowest shelf.  There were, and being neither disabled nor a pensioner I was able to reach in and retrieve one from the dark recess.

More labour, at least labour correctly deployed, could have removed all these barriers to the weekly transfer of money from me to the company concerned.

But I was pleased to hear that they had enough staff on the customer service (sic) desk for one of the teenagers posted there to read out every few minutes one of the spontaneously scripted exhortations on the PC to buy this that or the other.

By the time I’d worked my way to aisle 43 I must have heard “Good afternoon shoppers.  Welcome to Sainsbury’s Garthdee [damn, that’s blown it].  Today on special offer we have…” at least half a dozen times.

Well, that’s got that off my chest.

But before you ask what it’s got to do with a blog mainly about the public sector, just reflect.

If you work in the public sector, can you be so sure that the all-important detail of the experience you provide your citizens/customers is that different?

I’ve been reminded on visits to both my GP surgery and a hospital recently that the NHS suffers from two diseases unique to it – posteritis and advanced leaflet mania.

Having to wait both times beyond my scheduled appointments (although to be fair not for too long) I had plenty of chance to look at the helpful information displayed in the two waiting rooms concerned.

In one there were 76 posters, in the other over 30, some on notice boards, some on walls; some horizontal, some hanging at an angle obscuring other posters; some professionally designed, some apparently knocked up by a visual illiterate…and so on.

I didn’t count the leaflets and newsletters on the various racks but I did notice that one newsletter dated from 2007.

Any important messages that might have been conveyed to the halt, lame and infirm parked temporarily in these dreary rooms was completely blunted by the lack of attention to detail the displays demonstrated.

Once again wasted effort and resource and lack of attention to  customer (patient) needs.

Have you ever started telling a story that seemed to have no end?

I have.

I did it with our first daughter who would insist every night I tell her the next bedtime adventure of the Pink Mummy Car (PMC)  – a rather limp-wristed Citroen 2CV I had unwisely invented in a rare moment of literary creativity (©, just in case there’s any commercial mileage in the idea in a future career as children’s author).

Many years later I find I’ve done the same thing with my tales of redemption through improvement at work.

Bringing five real but suitably disguised people plus a composite facilitator figure to life has reminded me of the power and richness of story telling.

As I said in my introduction to the stories, I knew the series would end with my reflections in a final post.  But I’d forgotten how many lessons these wonderful people have taught me.

So I’ve modified my original intention to only add some reflections.

In a self-denying ordinance I’ve decided to use this post to briefly highlight eight themes emerging from these tales of redemption.

In future posts I’ll go into some of the themes in more detail.  If any especially interest you let me know.

What did I learn from these clients, put-upon hosts for my various visits, colleagues, and team members?

Let’s start with the most important.

Leadership is critical

Without leadership, thorough-going transformation through lean/systems thinking is just not possible and that leadership has to come right from the top – as in my tale of Dave, the chief executive.

The customer is king (and queen)

Often challenging in the public sector, but a focus that both Jasminder (the registrar’s tale) and Jeannie (the mail room supervisor) had: by focusing on their customers’ needs they also made their operations more efficient and moved closer towards the ideal of doing no work that did not add value for their customers.

Get the basic principles right

There’s no single blueprint for lean/systems thinking (some zealots claim there is) and you must do what works for your organisation but there are some fundamental principles you must get right:  you’ll find them in all six tales and in the other themes here.

Get the culture right

Leaders – CE Dave with his belief in empowerment, the NHS trust with their culture change workshops – understand that the right behaviour throughout their organisations is essential to achieving the improvements they knew were needed.

Involve everyone

Part of the culture that’s needed but important enough to warrant emphasising separately – the people who do the work are the best to improve it (with help and support), not only CEOs and directors but the middle-ramking people like NHS property manager Mike and front line workers like housing depot storeman George who was, to be blunt, illiterate: oh, and watch out for the professionals who try to opt out (like the NHS trust medics).

How to do it – processes, tools and techniques

Understand that all work flows step by step in processes and use the right tools and techniques to improve how it’s done, from Jasminder’s brainstorming with her team to generate ideas, through Xyz Ltd’s use of A3 reports that NHS manager Mike saw, to  George’s 5S depot tidy ups.

Get some early wins under your belt

The tales don’t spell it out but both Jasminder’s registration service and Jeannie’s mail room were early wins for lean thinking in their organisations – this is not about glib low hanging fruit but proving early on that this approach to work both increases efficiency and improves customer service.

Support, support, support

Make sure your experts are supporters, the heroic facilitators of my last tale – not a tribe apart.

Finally, like my desperate attempts to dream up more and more bedtime PMC stories (see above) remember, as CE Dave said, the good stuff is never easy and it’s a never-ending journey – which is what the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle in my introduction to these six tales is all about.

Well, there’s two lessons learnt for this neophyte – look it up – blogger about blogging and holidays (Menorca if you must know – very pleasant).

LESSON 1.  You can write posts and set up them up to go live on a particular day.  I did this.  That’s why Tales of redemption through improvement at work – No. 6: the facilitator’s tale and Blog Action Day 2010 – water, water everywhere… are on this blog dated 14 and 15 October respectively.

Unfortunately, idiot blogging child here didn’t quite work the technology properly (either that or, heaven forefend, the otherwise-estimable WordPress.com’s instructions aren’t quite right) and it was only when he got home and pressed the right buttons that they popped up live, with the right dates but on the wrong day if you see what I mean.

My apologies to the folks at Blog Action Day for messing up the statistics for their great initiative

LESSON 2 (reinforced by LESSON 1).  If you don’t blog on a regular basis your readership falls away – from my previously magnificent daily readership to something considerably less than magnificent.  So come back folks.  Normal service is henceforth resumed.

(I understand a few small issues may have been current in my absence – neither featured on Spanish TV for some strange reason – including the transfer of large sums of money to one W Rooney and the transfer of much larger sums of money from one P Sector.  The one may engage my attention shortly.  The other certainly won’t, except in moments of private bile)

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

For the first time I’m starting a blog post without knowing where it’s going.

When you read this I’ll be on a warm (I hope) Mediterranean island surrounded by water (salt) water, nor any drop to drink – at least from the sea.

I rashly promised several weeks ago to contribute to Blog Action Day 2010 whose theme this year is water.  You can read about it here.  As I write this 2,924 people in 120 countries have promised to blog about H2O today.  What are they going to write?  Profound worthy things?  Outraged concern at their fellow human beings deprived of the stuff?  Of the wars driven by it?  Of flooding and catastrophe?

Let’s just celebrate it briefly.  The cool, clean, clear life giving liquid it can be.

The beauty of it cascading down a waterfall.  The rainbow in the sky marking the supposed pot of gold.

How people have used and tamed it.

The dams that irrigate and provide sustainable power.

Our Victorian ancestors’ foresight in bringing clean water to our great cities like Glasgow, heroes like the engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette building the sewers to take the dirty water away safely from London.  Eliminating cholera at almost a stroke.  Transforming the lives of ordinary people.   Amazing examples of municipal vision and enterprise.

A vision still to be delivered in so many parts of the world.

So get serious about this.  Sign the petition for an international water treaty to provide clean water everywhere.  Donate online to help.

And, perhaps more prosaically than the poet, let’s transform Coleridge’s couplet

Water, water, everywhere,

And all we need  to drink.

Facilitation is a fancy word for helping.

The best people to improve any work are the people who actually do it on a day to day basis.  But they do need some help.

I’m not so keen on experts – the whole tribe of people who know better than anyone else and are keen to keep their trade secrets to themselves.

Their motivation is sometimes commercial.  How much better to have a culture of dependency when you’re selling your services.  You can sell the same thing to the same organisations time and time again.  These people may have heard of the old age Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, give him a net and he’ll feed himself for a lifetime.  But they certainly don’t live that particular wisdom.

Then again, their motivation is sometimes professional or even psychological.  How much better to have that glow of superiority and be indispensable – the black belt, the guru.  If these people have ever heard of the cliché the graveyards are full of indispensable people they’ve forgotten it.

No, the most productive way to get systematic improvement into an organisation is through helping the people doing the work in it.

So this is the facilitator’s tale.

For a whole raft of reasons, this is the only one of our six tales that is a composite portrait of what is by and large a heroic and talented type.

As I said in the chief executive’s tale the good stuff is never easy.

That’s why facilitating improvement is challenging – whether it’s the consultant helping to transfer skills into the organisation (don’t hire them for any other reason) or the internal facilitator supporting people in the organisation.

There is an approach that says all this stuff is not about personality or people, but about system and process.

My answer to that is the old cliché Yes but…

Yes but because no matter the fair wind that a new endeavour has (chief executive’s, management team’s support, whatever), the first time people encounter this new way of working almost anywhere in an organisation it’s going to need Oomph! to make it work.

What I mean by Oomph! is what a good facilitator can deliver and what you must test before you train them and let them loose.

A good facilitator IS

  • a risk taker
  • competitive
  • intolerant of mistakes
  • assertive and confident
  • good at influencing people
  • enthusiastic
  • imaginative
  • idealistic
  • persuasive
  • good with words
  • fun and can entertain people.

BUT can be

  • intimidating at times
  • resentful of anyone wasting their time
  • disorganised.

and tends NOT TO BE

  • patient
  • conservative
  • careful before they take decisions
  • analytical
  • logical
  • a perfectionist.

And of course underlying all this they need to get it, to understand or be capable of understanding the lean/systems approach.

It’s a pretty formidable list and some of the characteristics may seem counter-intuitive.  But if you get a facilitator like this you’re flying.

I’ve probably never met (or hired) a facilitator with a 100% match to these skills but it’s also amazing how often the best turn out to have a 90-95% fit.

And if you’re recruiting your facilitators it’s amazing where you’ll find them.

They’re not necessarily the obvious professional high flyers with significant public sector experience.  Some of the best facilitators I’ve worked with in the public sector have come from backgrounds as diverse as the airline industry, the voluntary sector, retailers, sales training and the clerical office.

I hope you recognise facilitators like this who feature in my other five tales of redemption through improvement.

When you find them cherish them!

This is the last of this short series of “tales of redemption through improvement at work”.  It will be followed next week by a round-up of what I’ve learnt from the fantastic people I’ve described over the last few weeks.

The poor old middle managers get it both ways.

They’re a prime target for the senior people.

We’re on board, we’re walking the talk, but you can’t get them to buy in.  Always the weak link in the chain” says the director (at least in the CE’s presence).

And the front line staff aren’t usually too impressed either.

“They don’t communicate, they don’t understand what it’s like down here,” says the worker.

The truth is, it’s tough.  It can feel like you’re the meat in someone else’s sandwich.

Once upon a time there was an NHS [non-UK readers – National Health Service] trust that committed itself to the lean approach to improvement and did it the right way.

Unlike many, they realised it wasn’t just about efficiency and improving processes.  They understood it needed a change of culture too (see Footnotes).

They started by running a culture change workshop for their management team.  Like lots of these things it focussed on a before and after simulation of a work task, in this case building and delivering a large piece of capital equipment (one made out of string and sticks it has to be said).

They then ran the workshop in each of their directorates.

That’s when Mike, the property maintenance manager in the facilities directorate, got involved.

Maybe it was the nature of his work that made him see the point more easily than others (some of the medics in the trust were even trying to opt out of the whole process).

Mike came away from the workshop enthused and keen to apply what he’d learnt to the unplanned repair and maintenance that seemed an inevitable part of looking after a mixed bag of buildings of all ages on a number of sites.

But he was struggling with his own manager (who had different priorities) and his site supervisors (who hadn’t had the chance learn as he had).

He shared his concerns with the consultant who was helping the trust make their transformation.

The consultant was keen to get some early wins.  So they could see how all this worked in the real world, he suggested that Mike, some of his staff and his manager take a trip to the HQ and main distribution centre of a logistics company about 50 miles down the motorway.  Xyz Ltd (let’s call them) had a reputation for purpose and efficiency based on their application of lean principles.

There was some resistance to the proposal – “What can a hospital learn from a private sector company that distributes widgets?” was one of the comments – but Mike persevered and, arrangements with their hosts made, off they set in a hired mini-bus.

This is what they found

  • a spotlessly clean and tidy warehouse
  • purposeful work by a well-motivated welcoming workforce
  • charts and graphs on the workfloor showing the progress by the quarter hour of scheduled work
  • a group tackling a problem that had cropped up with what they called an A3 report (see Footnotes)
  • a new shift coming on sharing an update on the tasks for the day
  • a separate training room right next to the warehouse floor to teach people the new way of working (the company called it the University of the Shopfloor)
  • on the way out, two teams processing invoices, one traditional and unimproved, the other just getting into their stride with a new floor layout, display boards showing progress,  a new process eliminating blockages in their workflow, and significantly improved performance.

It was just what Mike needed to move his aspirations into reality.  The group came back buzzing with the purposefulness of what they’d seen, already discussing in the minibus how they were going to make their own transformation.

And the myth of the middle manager as the weak link in the chain took another small blow.


Culture.  The experts write volumes about work culture.  For me it’s the answer to the simple question “How do you do things around here?” – “You can’t break wind without signing a form” vs. “My boss dropped by yesterday to say ‘Thank you’”.  Both tell you more about the culture of those places than a book on the subject.

A3 reports.  A standardised report developed as part of the Toyota Production System showing on one piece of paper an overview and current state of the problem, a root cause analysis, proposed countermeasures, an implementation plan, the results, and future plans.

A great post from Lesley Thomson (organiser of the successful ScotGovCamp back in July) summarising the Scottish Parliament’s second Communities Conference – Understanding and Influencing Your Parliament.

Hung on the back of the social media theme of ScotGovCamp, her account is actually of much wider interest for the advice it gives on how to approach and influence parliamentarians, advice that applies to all politicians, not just MSPs.

I especially liked the list of Don’ts from Labour MSP Susan Deacon.


  • bombard or overplay your hand
  • use the begging bowl approach (there’s no money!)
  • lobby the wrong people (she apparently expressed some surprise that there’s still a lot of confusion about which tier of representation to approach for a particular issue)
  • view the politician as an enemy
  • paint the politician into a corner.

Wise words.  My thanks to Lesley for the chance to use her summary.

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