FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

June 5, 2015

Business processes-getting the balance right

Filed under: Tim Aikens — tfoxlaw @ 12:01 am
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7K0A0501Ed. Note-today I cross-posted an article from the blog, Brains, Business and Culture by Tim Aikens, with permission. 

Ever since Messrs Hammer and Champy published Reengineering the Corporation in 1993, consultants have done good business in helping clients reengineer the way they do things.  Many companies have benefitted greatly, others have struggled either to make effective change or to make the change stick.  What has generally emerged is the recognition that any business has a set of key processes which have a major impact on the success or otherwise of the business.  Getting these right is critical – it is important to have ‘good process’.

Typically, a good process is very clear, well operationalised and the staff are well trained in its execution.  In the world of CRM (customer relationship management) the processes are supported by significant IT infrastructure.  In some areas of manufacturing the process is almost entirely automated.  However, in developing a good process we can potentially create a dilemma.  The clearer and more ingrained the process – or the bigger the investment in the process, the harder it becomes to change, adjust or even improve.

So where is the balance between a really good process that is well executed and the ability to remain flexible, seek further improvement, respond to the competition or take advantage of new technology?  The answer isn’t simple and it is one most businesses will struggle with at some stage (or even all the time).

At a very high level, I think two things are needed to address the issue.  The first is – of course – a process that considers the impact and need for change in a process and how this is undertaken.  The second is a culture that openly desires and encourages a level of constructive challenge and the third is an organisation that has the freedom to challenge.

Taking the first of these, most processes can be defined in two dimensions.  Firstly, the extent to which they are critical to business success.  Some will always be more important than others.  The second dimension is the extent to which they may susceptible to rapid change – by new technology, competitive forces or the customer for example.

In a diagram it would show that up in the top right hand corner the ‘process’ needs undertake a regular review, whereas those in the bottom left corner need perhaps a less frequent and less intense review.  These reviews need to look at the process against;

Strategic fit; does the process continue to support strategy?

Technology; what technology changes are worth considering to improve the process?

Competition; is the process still delivering competitive advantage, what must be done to stay ahead or get ahead?

People; are the staff effectively trained, properly competent and are there enough of them?

The customer; what if anything has changed with the customer, how can the experience be improved?

Integration: does this process ‘fit’ with all other related processes; have changes to other processes had an impact on this one?

This is not an exhaustive list – there may well be other considerations.  The important thing is to have a structured review in a timely manner.  Doing this will require time and effort which is why you need to consider the relative need for such a review on a process by process basis.  James Dyson and his company rely a lot on their reputation for innovation and leading edge technology.  Consequently he will always be looking not only at his development processes, but also at how he manufactures his products, given that they will be subject to regular technology upgrades.  On the other hand a good old fashioned whiskey distillery might want to focus more on its customer and marketing processes than the manufacturing technology!  The outcome may well be plans for change or may simply be confirmation that the current purpose is good and can be continued with confidence.

What about culture?  How can that affect your organisation’s ability to both deliver process and allow an environment for healthy challenge and change?  Consider this scenario.  As a young graduate you have been working for a telecommunications company for a couple of years on the development and delivery of new networks.  With your recently acquired experience and expertise you believe that some significant improvements can be made to a number of processes.  To what extent do you feel comfortable with talking about your ideas to your superiors even if they mean cutting across what might be ‘accepted wisdom’?  Equally, to what extent have you felt free (or even encouraged) to explore and challenge new ideas, yet still meeting the needs of the currently accepted process?  In a number of industries the need to follow approved processes is paramount – not least for health and safety reasons.  Yet creating an environment where these can be challenged is equally important.

Culture is set from the top.  The management team need to be clear about the behaviours they expect to see and set the standard themselves.  If you see a senior manager asking what could be improved on the one hand and setting clear expectations for process compliance on the other it could appear confusing unless clearly articulated.  Yet it is possible.  I have seen this happen myself in working in the oil industry where process compliance is essential.  Yet staff have come up with ideas to challenge the status quo and made them work!

How good is your organisation at managing process and encouraging change?

Tim Aikens is an experienced management consultant specializing in business and organizational transformation. I have worked for several large consulting companies and now offer my services as an independent consultant. He provides partner level consulting at a fair price! He can be reached via email at tim@azarel.org or by phone at 44 7917565011.

June 10, 2013

The Business of Successful Transformation

Ed. Note-today we have a guest post from out colleague Tim Aikens, which originally appeared on Tim’s website, Azarel.com. 

This month I have chosen a couple of topics that most of us come across at some time in our career.  The toxic culture – being in an organisation that clearly has little or no moral compass.  Secondly how do you tell your boss he or she is wrong? Nobody is perfect, but the boss will often think they have a divine right to be . . Right!

Read on . . . . .

Toxic Corporate Culture – What is it and does it really matter?

A couple of months ago an article in the BBC internet news caught my attention: – ‘Australia London 2012 Olympic swim team ‘toxic’. The first paragraph read ‘Australia’s Olympic swimmers existed within a “toxic” team culture that led to bullying and misuse of prescription drugs, a report has found.’  The inference was that this culture had contributed to the poor performance of the team at the Olympics.

In a world where competition is increasing and becoming more global, a corporation will need to use every tool available to gain competitive advantage.  This would include having a ‘good culture’.  But all too often the drive for success leads to the opposite.  I googled toxic culture and was amazed to find a plethora of learned papers and news articles about the topic.  The issue would seem to be big and important.  But what is a ‘toxic culture’ and does it really matter?  I believe there is such a thing and long term it can destroy an organisation.

Firstly it is important to summarise what we mean by a ‘toxic corporate culture’.

A few extreme examples in recent history of toxic cultures are Enron, Tyco and WorldCom.  Others might include News International and Lehman Brothers. Some have imploded in a spectacular manner, others are still very successful. The single most common feature in all of them is the desire for financial success at almost any cost. Put more simply – greed – especially at the higher levels in the organisation.  There are other signs that appear to be common – bullying, lack of transparency, a closed circle of influence at the top, words (in the sense of written values or behaviours) not matching actions, placing unreasonable demands on staff (from hours to how they are expected to treat others), a win lose style (i.e. my gain is your loss – lots of internal competition).  There are many others, but from a review of the literature these are the main signs.  You might see one or more in your organisation; none are perfect, but when you begin to see a theme, it’s time to change something or move on.

Many organisations will exhibit some of these traits somewhere and some may be tolerated – the perpetually angry boss, a ‘long hours culture’, or one where rules are regularly ignored or abused.

Does it really matter? So what if life is hard at the workface?  Some staff members may be happy to be workaholics; others may enjoy the competitive aspects of a zero sum game when it comes to sales. As long as the company remains profitable and stock price keeps going up why worry?  At this point the question becomes partly ethical and partly business.  A leader might say I have to treat my staff this way in order to get results, others (both staff and workforce) might know no other way.

My view on the ethical side is yes, it really does matter.  How can we tolerate this kind of behaviour yet admonish other nations for corruption and slave labour.  It is perfectly possible to run a business well without even small amounts of toxicity.  A quick review of the Sunday Times Best Companies to work for will show that not only are they good places to work, but that they are also successful.  At an individual level, who believes that they will be more productive long term in a toxic environment?   A couple of years ago I read a great book entitled ‘The No Asshole Rule’.  The author is passionate about civilised workplaces and believes that they can be achieved and boost performance.  An organisation full of ‘assholes’ has to be toxic. The book is a wonderful antidote to this even if a little tongue in cheek at times.

From the business perspective the answer ought to be clear.  There is no long term future for a ‘toxic’ organisation as Enron and others have demonstrated.  Yet there are many businesses that have a reputation (deserved or otherwise) that are still doing business with little or no pressure to change (yet).  Most of them manage to keep the toxicity under control, whether it is the way they treat staff or the products they sell.  In many cases they are tolerated because the public likes what they make or do, or because the product is cheaper.

What to do?  You work for a company that expects long hours and pays poorly.  If you quit another job may be hard to come by.  You are a partner in a big firm that makes a lot of money, but there are some questionable practices.  Leaving means a big drop in salary.  For the hard pressed employee it is often a matter of comfort.  Can you stick it out and continue to work in an organisation that behaves so poorly?  For others it is a matter of conscience.  Is the way this organisation operates right, ethically and morally correct?  There are lots of books and articles that tell you how to deal with a toxic culture.  None of them will work if the leaders do not change and make a decision to operate their organisation in a morally, ethically and socially responsible manner!

What do you do when your boss is wrong?

Who would you rather tell that they had made a mistake and were wrong over something – Lord Alan Sugar or Sir Richard Branson?  They are very different characters and how you might approach them over an error might be very different. Some people are simply more approachable than others.  But move away from the character and ask the bigger question, how do you tell your boss when they are wrong?  There are two issues at stake in this situation.  Firstly, your relationship with your boss and your career – the consequences of handling the situation wrongly.  Secondly there is the business.  What are the implications for the business if the error is not taken on board and corrected?  When the boss is wrong – and you know it, it can be quite an emotive time.  Decisions can be made more through the heart than the head.  The direct approach may not always be the right one.  Here are a few things to think about before raising the ‘error’.

The situation.  If your boss is talking about how many times a football team has won the league and you know he is wrong, what is the impact on the business.  In a social setting he or she might be quite happy to be corrected or not (see next comment).  If the error has no impact on you or the business consider letting it slide.  What value do you add to a relationship by telling your boss he is wrong!

The other side of ‘situation’ is the environment.  If you are in a meeting, telling your boss he is wrong may not be a good idea.  In some societies (e.g. China) this loss of face is a big issue.  If the boss is wrong and it needs correction consider an indirect approach (see comment 3) that allows him to save face and you are not seen as the ‘bad guy’ who made his boss look bad.

The boss.  I have worked for just about every kind of boss there is.  Their personal nature and style are key to the approach you take:

  • Big ego.  Be very careful.  Do not say anything in a public setting unless really forced to. E.g. his error could impact a major business decision about to be made.  If possible, correction should be offline and in private.
  • Consensus Manager.  You are probably OK to deal with this upfront, but be careful about the words you use.
  • Sensitive Manager.  These people are often quite happy to be told they are wrong in private, but fall apart and can react out of character if confronted in a more public setting.  The language has to be very carefully chosen.
  • The grandstander.  Usually someone who wants to make a big impact.  If you announce the error he would look bad, if you don’t he could make a fool of himself, as well as lead to a poor decision. They often have big egos as well so treat them in the same way.

Recognising the type is an important first step, and of course it always pays to understand your boss in any job.

The approach.  How do approach the situation and what do you say.  From the comments above it is obvious that there is no one right answer.  However there are some guidelines that will help:

Think first!  The old saying, ‘engage brain before opening your mouth’ is universally true.  Think about three things. Should I actually say something, what should I say and how do I say it?  Examine your motives.

Style. You can go for the open and honest approach, but as noted above that may not always be best (for you or the person in error).  There are other ways:

–  the evidence approach e.g. ‘I understand your viewpoint, but have you considered . . .’. You are not actually saying the boss is wrong, but introducing new evidence and giving him or her the chance to change their mind.  However, with this approach make sure you really have good evidence supported by numbers.

–  use dialogue.  Rather than say ‘you are wrong’ start some dialogue and get into a debate if circumstances allow.

–  be positive and supportive.  You are there to support your boss not see them fail.  Make sure you say something positive and supportive as you open a debate.

–  get the boss to explain.  Rather than state what you might thing is obvious, get the boss to expand on their viewpoint.  This gives you and others opportunities to move into debate.

Words.  Be very careful about the words you use.  Avoid clichés like ‘with respect’ (which usually means with no respect), or ‘as you know’, or ‘I hear what you say’.  These and many others will be interpreted for what they are – a precursor to saying or implying you are wrong!  Try and use ‘yes AND’, not ‘yes BUT’.

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Tim Aikens is the founder of Azarel, a consultancy which helps companies manage transformation and change. He can be reached at tim@azarel.com

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This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. 

February 15, 2013

What else is needed to make change successful?

Filed under: change management,Tim Aikens — tfoxlaw @ 1:01 am
Tags: , ,

Ed. Note-I saw this article by a long-time friend and colleague, Tim Aikens. I was going to write a blog about it but Tim said it so well that I asked him if I could repost his article in its entirety which he graciously allowed me to do. Tim helps companies through the management of change. His website is http://www.azarel.org/index.html. 

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What else is needed to make change successful?

I have recently been involved with two clients who are about to embark upon major change in their businesses.  They are very different and each has a very unique style or culture.  As they prepare to set off on their journey I have wondered what else is needed to succeed beyond the ‘usual suspects’?

John Kotter and others have all put forward their ideas, mostly honed after years of practice and delivery.  They are all very useful and I have many of their books on my shelf.  But I am always drawn back to the question above.  After going through some of my own success stories and taking out the usual suspects, I have identified a few things that I believe really matter.

Openness, honesty and transparency.  It’s one thing to create a compelling case for change; to then be fully open and honest about it to everyone concerned is another matter entirely.  I have always been impressed by senior managers who lead from the front and don’t hold back.  I remember one Engineering Director sitting down with his team and saying ‘not everyone around this table will have a job here when we are finished’.  It was direct, open and honest. His team respected him for it.  On another project the manager of the business unit spoke openly to everyone, showing them the chart of financial decline and ultimately failure if there was no change.  One member of the workforce asked me why no one had had the courage to do this before. He now fully understood the need and was fully engaged.

Being transparent means being available and open to debate.  I have run transformation programmes where the project room was always open to anyone at any time; the General Manager held regular town hall meetings and did not shy away from either difficult questions or making difficult statements.

Knowing how to decide.  Many people often think that consensus is a good thing.  In most situations it is, but it is important not to confuse consensus with alignment.  To me the former is about getting everyone to agree and in many cases participate in arriving at consensus.  Alignment is where you have a team thinking and behaving in the same way.  This might be achieved through consensus it may also be achieved through leadership and sometimes by a more autocratic decision making process.  The decision to change is usually taken by a small group.  Decisions on what to change and how to change can vary on a spectrum of autocratic to consensus.  The secret lies in knowing your organisation and making decisions in the right way.  I worked with one client where two members of the senior management team were less than supportive.  After talking to the General Manager the two people concerned were moved out of their jobs and the project regained the necessary momentum.  This brings me to my next point.

Honour and Respect.  In the early 90s Peter Noer wrote a book entitled ‘Healing the Wounds’.  The book is about how to deal with those who remain after a downsizing exercise.  The book has had a major impact on how I think about this issue and I have always insisted that any change project that might involve redundancy or layoffs addresses this issue carefully.  The results are remarkable.  If those remaining know that their colleagues who are leaving are really being given the honour and respect they deserve their input to the project is so much better.  I have even had members of a project team working incredibly hard with a really positive attitude despite the fact that they would be collecting their redundancy cheque at the end of the project!

Positive and creative.  I am a great believer in positive thinking.  I am also a great believer in people’s ability to be creative.  Both are essential to generating successful change.  A positive approach is, I suppose similar to John Kotter’s making an emotional case for change, but it is also more.  Being positive is about leading from the front and clearly demonstrating that not only do you believe the change is right, but you also believe it can be achieved and you believe in the team you have.

Most people can be creative.  In the work environment it is easy to let others do the creative stuff and you get by on doing what you are told, challenging little and following the book.  Whilst I am not advocating anarchy, I strongly believe that this mould has to be broken and staff encouraged to be more creative – especially in any role as a change agent.  I have run workshops on creativity, usually as a precursor to some kind of reengineering exercise.  It works! People like to see that they can be creative and they move on quickly to apply this immediately after.

Next time you are involved with major change, don’t just think of the usual things to do, but consider really soft topics above.

Are you as good as you used to be?

We all have our employment because we are good at something.  Usually this has been demonstrated by academic achievement and a subsequent track record in our chosen career.  Through that career we receive training in various things to improve performance and add additional skills.  So far so good, but are you as good as you used to be?

In some jobs this question is really important.  As a regular flier, I am glad that airline pilots are regularly tested to make sure that they are still on top of their game.  The NHS has recently introduced regulations to make sure that doctors are assessed on a formal basis.  But what about the rest of us whose work does not endanger lives – but could endanger corporate success.  The question can then be considered across the whole of an organisation from the top to the bottom.  At board level, assessment comes through share price and profit, but below that how do you know?

There are plenty of management tools in place to assess leadership and other skills, but how often are they used or should they be used?  I don’t have the answer and I suspect there is no single answer.  I do believe that a lot of testing only happens when an organisation is in trouble which is often shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted!

What about the workforce.  Most businesses rely on skilled staff to deliver, whether it is a skilled mechanic, a call centre operator or a retail assistant.  Their skills can make or break a business.  Training is good, but how does the organisation know that an individual is still exercising all the proper skills and methods they learned during training?  Most of us have come across the surly sales assistant, or the tradesman who does shoddy work.

I think there are two issues to address:

  • Making sure that there is some appropriate mechanism to review and test skills on a continuing basis
  • Developing a culture which accepts that being assessed is OK and not an assault on your integrity or capability

The two go together.  Airlines believe it is good business to test their pilots regularly (do they do the same for cabin staff?).  Equally the pilots readily accept these assessments as part of the job.

A first step might be to decide which critical roles should be assessed and how. At the professional level the performance management process identifies poor performers, but this often occurs too late.  On the shop floor production and quality control act as a measure of capability (how much and how good).  Other roles may need specific intervention, some of which could include self-assessment.

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Tim Aikens can be reached via email at, tim@azarel.org.

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This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. 

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