We all accept the need to make our businesses more efficient, to continually improve and to innovate in process and customer experience as well as product.  However, many companies struggle to consistently improve efficiency levels throughout the entire business.  The focus on “doing the day job,” the pressure to “get deliveries out of the door,” the attention to “headcount and manage overheads” in order to control costs, all inhibit the progress we know we need to make.

As Operations Director I’m constantly pushing my team to do things differently, to challenge the status quo, and I see the need for our customers to do the same.  Obviously this is easier said than done, and one major barrier is not finding the time away from everyday tasks to really push innovation.

For me it comes down to four key principles:

  1. Leading from the front; managing from the back
  2. Choosing the right team
  3. Creating space
  4. Making mistakes

Leading from the front; managing from the back

There is much academic debate about leadership versus management, but in practice you definitely need both to make change happen.  The most successful business transformations are always driven by commitment and leadership from the top of the business, without a clear vision, strong priorities and adequate resources, no plans for change emerge.  People can have good ideas but if the person at the top isn’t interested in a change agenda, then things just won’t happen. The best, most successful projects I have been involved with have always had a strong leader, someone who wasn’t afraid to make difficult decisions, and someone who championed business change regardless of the opposition.

To support that leadership, you need to have the right management.  You just can’t have one without the other.  Often those at the top of the organisation are too far removed from the reality of the operation, expecting change to happen just because they said it should.

Business change is made up of a series of activities, each one is crucial in the overall change.  These activities need to be broken down into individual tasks, with resources, people and timescales assigned.  People need to be accountable, they have to be measured and rewarded.  Management has to take place.  A good project manager is critical to the delivery of any business transformation project.

In my own business, I know I can influence and inspire, but I also accept that I need help with the day to day management, so I make sure I have a strong management team around me that can pick up the detail.  In my experience, my customers who have a similar structure of strong leadership and careful management deliver, pound for pound, more value through business change.

Choosing the right team

Many organisations select people based on their talent, but their cultural fit to the business is just as critical.  A business is only as successful as its people, so you have to pick new team members that match where you want to go, not just where you are.  Often you find you have the right people in the wrong places. You need to work with people to identify what their key strengths are and how you can use and develop them for the benefit of the business.

When customers are embarking on a change programme like implementing a new business process or SYPSRO ERP, they make the mistake of employing new people with experience of similar projects, rather than looking into the business and finding hidden stars. But I’ve always thought that every business has people who possess the ability to transform the world around them, you just have to look for them.

You need to focus on:

  1. People who have a passion for the business, its success, the business process and technology;
  2. People who have an eye for detail, are good communicators and can document both ideas and decisions well;
  3. People who have a natural ability to influence others, are thought leaders and can negotiate win-win situations.

Finally, business leaders have to trust the team around them. You have to feel you can share everything with them and them with you.  That openness and honesty will provide a robust environment where good ideas flourish and the not so good ones can be filtered out.

Creating Space

It sounds really obvious, but to change you have to start doing something differently.  The very act of doing something differently takes time.  People need time to understand the ideas and reasoning behind the change, to accept the change and to work out how their roles fit within the new regime.  All this takes time before the actual changes to day-to-day working life start.

To get the best out of people, they need time to be able to talk to each other, to bounce ideas about, to try out new things.  If there is very clear direction set from the top and people are aligned in their thoughts about what change is required, they can generate some really positive and creative ideas that often an executive, who has much more on their mind, wouldn’t have initially thought of.

Once you actually start the new processes, whether that is using a new computer system or adopting a new business process, people need more time to carry out their business-as-usual activities.  Change leaders need to make space for people to put the new ideas into actions.  At first, new ways of working don’t come naturally; people have to think more carefully about what they are doing.

Managers have to accept that utilisation rates or overhead recovery will go down, that back logs may temporarily increase, or that customer service statistics may take a dip.  Being prepared for this and having a plan in place to deal with the decline in productivity is key. Alerting key customers to the change and bringing them along with you is also key.

ERP is naturally a disruptive system to have implemented into a business because it does affect every part of an organisation. Even though we always work hard to deliver on time, on budget ERP implementations, we always advise our clients to plan for a small amount of disruption, which can often be beneficial.  Even in my role now I find that when customers understand the reasons for change and the positive benefits they bring, they are willing to put up with some temporary disruption, provided they are prepared for it.

Making Mistakes

Human beings just don’t always get it right first time.  If people live in fear of getting it wrong they never take risks, they never go out of their way to “make it happen,” they always play it safe.  And guess what, you always get the status quo.  It’s often good, but it’s not progressive.

A progressive company like 3M, who have built their culture based on an attitude which encourages innovation and accepts that change can involve mistakes, is a great example of an organisation with a healthy attitude to inevitable human error.

Not Maintaining the Status Quo

So, how not to maintain the status quo?  Firstly, you have to have the right leader; someone who can create a vision that the rest of the organisation wants to follow.  That leader then needs to be backed up by good project managers and line managers who can affect the changes required.  You have to have the right team in place, select people based on their talent, but also on their attitude, particularly their attitude to change.

Once the people are in place, then you have to create the right supportive environment around those people, giving them the time and resources to make change happen and finally, allowing them the freedom to experiment in the knowledge that people won’t always get it right first time.

When you get the change formula right, change becomes part of business as usual.  The status quo becomes one of progress.

Often I look into my business and think we aren’t moving forwards, then I flick through documents and presentations from a year ago and I think “crikey, we have changed.”  It’s not always as fast as I would like, but it’s definitely happening.  That’s when you know you have the right people and the right culture in place.