28 March 2018

Why it's all about the thinking

For my first post, I'm going straight to what I think is the most important topic  management thinking

One of the biggest lessons I've learned is that if the thinking doesn't change, real and sustainable improvements won't happen. 

If you're familiar with John Seddon or his organisation Vanguard, you'll probably recognise this diagram, showing the relationship between thinking, the system, and performance:

Performance means things like customer satisfaction, costs or revenue, and staff morale.  It comes from the organisational system  rules, structure, performance measures, policies, procedures, roles, IT, etc.  The system isn't there by accident or chance.  It's been designed by people (usually those in charge), based on their thinking the assumptions and theories about the design and management of work, and about the people who do the work.

Conventional organisations are based on what you might call command and control thinking.  Typically you find top-down control, decision-making removed from the work, targets, functional silos, etc.  Although often well intentioned, it leads to poorer service, increased costs, and a disgruntled workforce. 

Most of my failed attempts at improvement are because I didn't change the thinking.  At best those efforts lead to minor and short lived process improvements.  I've typically made at least one of the following mistakes:

1. Putting too much focus on the analysis, rather than changing thinking.  In the past, my focus has been on gathering data and analysing data. For example, big sample sizes of demand and end-to-end measures, or detailed process maps showing.  Data is important  really important but on its own it won't change the thinking.

2. Doing all the learning myself.  Or sometimes only doing the learning with  the front-line team, and not with the leader who has the authority to change anything.  This comes partly from the previous point my desire to get all the analysis.  But if I do all the data gathering and analysis, nobody's thinking will change.  It's also because I've not always put enough focus at the beginning on what Peter Block calls contracting: "an explicit agreement of what the [in my case internal] consultant and client expect from each other and how they are going to work together".

3. Leaving the thinking bit until last.  I used to get all my analysis done, and then finally try to introduce the thinking behind it all at the end.  This didn't work well.  Now I take any opportunity to talk about thinking right from the start.  For example, early on when listening to demand we might discover an average call-handling time target.  Before, I would have saved talking about the thinking behind it until the analysis was done.  Now I'll pause, and start asking questions like "how does this target effect the customers?" "how do your colleagues feel about it?" "why did someone think setting this target was a good idea?" "what are the assumptions behind it about how we should manage, and about people and their motivations?"

So now you know some of my mistakes.  You might be wondering a few things.  How do you change thinking?  What should you replace the old command and control thinking with?  And how will you know if the new way of thinking leads to better performance?  These are all subjects I'll attempt to cover in future posts.

For now, what do you think about thinking?  Please feel free to leave a comment below, or share this post with anyone who could be interested.

1 comment:

  1. "Leaving the thinking bit until last". Aaah, now why does that make me think of Br***t?