Making it personal from Eduard Iacob's blog

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Making it personal

Tom Francis offers a personal account of the journey that he and his senior team colleagues are undertaking as they make their business ‘fit for the future and fit for people’. Tom is Business Manager at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in Bristol

 

The Philosophy

It’s hard to pinpoint a time when our transformation started and when we began to get clarity on what we wanted to achieve, but for the “aha” moment came when I heard the term “fit for future, fit for people”. I think the phrase has been plagiarised from Gary Hamel’s Fit for the Future, and for Human Beings? but for me it sums up what we are trying to do – yes, of course we want to focus on the business (profitability etc.) to ensure that we are here in 350 years (we just had our 350th birthday), but it also puts in equal balance that it has to be a place that is fit for people. By this I mean we want to provide an environment that the whole person can turn up to and contribute, and not just a portion of the person.

We also have our external brand promise which is “making small parts, making a big difference”. When we are talking about transformation we look at it on three different levels – I, We and It:

  1. How do I make a big difference (I)
  2. How do we make a big difference (We)
  3. How does the business make a big difference (It).

I – providing individuals with a safe place where they can understand themselves and their purpose, have balance and fun, and be supported to develop. It’s also about helping to put people in places that make them spark!

We - creating trust and accountability in teams plus open communication and collaboration. We want teams and individuals to have the power to make the right decisions.

It – putting us in the customer’s shoes, understanding what they need and creating innovative products around those needs. It’s also about creating a sustainable future based on the notion that the decisions we make today matter for our tomorrow.

Great in principle, but what about in practice?

Yes, in principle this makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, but what about in practice in the hard light of day? How do we translate this into the business and make changes? The way we use this in our day to day decisions when talking about transformation is more of a check and a guide, plus a way of explaining to people what activities we are doing. For instance, when we are looking at transforming something we can ask – “is this going to impact our business in the future?”, “is this going to positively impact our workplace in making it more fit for people” and “at what level are we looking to make the transformation: I, we or it”.

For instance, in our Bristol site, we recently changed the way we authorise holidays. Now, instead of requesting the day off from your manager, who then has to ask the team and approve, individuals can now book time off with no sign-off. The only stipulation is that they consult the team before doing it. When we look at this example, it has no impact on the business in terms of numbers but it does have a significant, positive impact on making the work place fit for people. It puts trust and accountability in people’s hands, encourages open communication between team members and reduces the bureaucracy associated with a simple request.

It starts with the top . . .

From our experience it is not possible, and unfair to the workforce, to ‘expect’ them to transform without change at the leadership level, so ironically we started our transformation in Bristol in a hierarchical way! I remember Clive Hutchinson from Cougar Automation telling me once (and I am paraphrasing here) – “don’t blame people (especially the dreaded ‘middle management’ group!) for behaving the way they do; blame yourself as a leadership team for creating the environment that creates those behaviours”. I think this is true, and as a leadership team we had to do a lot of development on ourselves before we were able to transform the business.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, we were following the idea of Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team which suggests that building trust is the foundation for a high performing team. Without this you have fear of conflict (people don’t talk about things and you leave elephants in the room) which leads to lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and ultimately inattention to results. We worked on this for a number of months involving offsite management meetings that were about team development rather than daily business. These meetings gradually focused on how we can transform and help the business naturally as trust built up.

Some of the techniques we used during this phase included:

  • Personal journeys: each person sketches out their lives, taking in the highs and lows. You explain your life journey (or as much as you are comfortable with) in groups of three (“triads”) and discuss what you learned from each stage. The idea is that you give your team members a deep understanding of what you have been through in your life, and that gives them a perspective on why you may behave in certain ways in certain situations.

  • Feedback: a facilitated session giving feedback using sad/mad/glad or stop/start/continue so that people can see what the team appreciates about you and also what they would like to see change. The format we started with involved talking about your team as a whole (i.e. “what does the business want your team to stop/start/continue) and then, as the trust built up, we moved on to the individual managers. We would each have a stop/start/continue poster and we all rotated round the room every few minutes so that we each had a chance to write on everyone else’s poster. Eventually this feedback became more natural and unforced to the extent that now the management team appraisal is done as a group.

    A big part of this development is providing support for leaders to work on themselves in overcoming barriers to achieving our goal. A common barrier we came across was the inability to relinquish control. The reasons for this differ from person to person, but it usually stems from past experiences. Each individual is able to find help to overcome this (we’ve tried things like NLP and EMDR). We also noticed that we naturally started forming triads or little groups to help and support each other.

  • Competition: A lot of effort was put into removing the need for competition between management team members. Historically we were encouraged to be the loudest, strongest and the best as we competed for the next step up the ladder. Now we don’t compete, we collaborate and this is far more productive, less destructive and creates a much nicer working environment.

After the leadership team, where did we go?

For us it was organic. As managers became comfortable with the techniques that we were using, they started to cascade them down by having their own offsite monthly meetings to develop their teams. What we have done is very incremental and it’s sometimes hard to remember the sequence, so instead of telling the story I have picked some key things out that I think really helped us on the way:

What we did  What level we worked on  Details 
 Feedback WE: communication, accountability, empowerment One of our managers developed a process called Team Speak.  This facilitated process involves providing the team with space to brainstorm all the issues that prevent them from doing a good job.  The team then prioritise the items (using paired comparisons or similar) and agree the top two things to tackle in the next month (we encourage them to start with the small things first).  The items, when resolved, are moved to the ‘done’ section and the next on the list is selected.  No managers are involved unless they are needed for expenditure (even some managers now have agreed a spend limit within which teams can fix problems).
Focus on strengths I: self understanding We also now help people to find their strengths using tools such as i-styles, Belbin, strengths finder etc, and focus them on roles / jobs within their teams that play to their strengths.  
Put people in the right roles I, We: finding your spark, accountability, collaboration Linked to strengths – start moving people to roles that play more to their strengths.  This is a difficult one and takes time to do, but whenever there is the opportunity, do it!  We even have some people working in different departments to where they are costed now. Don’t worry about making it all ‘official’ providing the person is happy to move: in our experience this can complicate things (especially in the beginning).  Try doing trials and secondments to start with -and you will see the amazing results! 
Volunteer for  Projects I, We: working on strengths, trust, open communication Instead of picking teams, let people volunteer for what they are interested in.  You can start with low impact projects, or perhaps one or two volunteers together with selected people.  Eventually you can create completely volunteer based projects.  The last project (for our biggest strategic project at the site this year) we selected some of the leaders for the subprojects, gave an indication of what skills we needed, then let people volunteer to work on them (we had a day where people could come and talk to us to find out about the project, making sure that everyone had the opportunity to do this).  Why do this?  You can match skills (sometimes that you don’t know about) to projects you are working on, plus in general, people who volunteer to work on things are much more committed to it.
Provide clarity on priorities  It Explain to people what the priorities are each year.  We do this in a number of ways:  
1) We have the major projects priority discussion as an open forum (we are lucky enough to have an open space that allows people to sit round), with a few volunteer representatives from the business taking an active role.
2) We have a monthly company meeting to explain and update people about what is going on.  Part of this is an exhibition style session where representatives of the main projects provide stalls where people can find out about the projects that they are interested in.  In the future we would like the priorities to be gathered from the bottom up and not top down, but we are not there yet.
Train Facilitators   As teams began to become more autonomous we saw the need for good quality facilitation.  We started training a group of people (again volunteers) to help teams facilitate meetings (be it creative, team or other).  Good facilitation helps communication and reduces the likelihood of destructive conflict.
 

Summary

We’ve learned that whatever transformation your business is taking, it is a personal one (we even see differences between our sites). There is no one solution that fits all and it really is about finding your own way. Looking at other companies to get inspiration and encouragement through platforms such as Fresh Thinking Labs is a great way to get ideas and helps and to create a support networks, but ultimately it is down to your business and your culture HOW things are done. But I think the biggest bit of advice I can give is just to try stuff and to talk to each other. Experiment with little things, expand what works and kill what doesn’t. Set time aside specifically to talk about development and tackling issues with the whole company.

We know that we have just started the journey; we are still far away from a company that is fit for the future and fit for people, but each little step towards it is better than not doing anything.


This article by Tom Francis, Business Manager at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics first appeared in the EUWIN bulletin.

For a full list of EUWIN bulletins please visit this page.