Thursday, 31 October 2013

How are we doing? Reporting on progress and performance

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  We recently examined ‘cultural friction’ and discussed some of the problems that excessive inter-team rivalry can cause.

We now turn to the issue of reporting progress and performance.
What is the problem? 

The effective management of any organisation involves some degree of planning, which will include an estimate or forecast of how long a specific scope of work will take, how much it will cost, the level of quality expected etc.  Assessing performance against this requires the measurement of work done (and budget spent, quality achieved etc.) and comparison with the planning forecasts, with the results of these calculations often known nowadays as ‘metrics’.
Well-defined and designed metrics allow management to add, remove or otherwise adjust resources in order to achieve the desired outcome.  Poor metrics obscure the true state of progress, thereby preventing effective remedial action.  Often, poor reporting stems from the organic, uncontrolled growth of metrics (as opposed to a deliberate strategy) and a failure to ensure their continued relevance.

How does it manifest itself?
Organisations that do not report on progress and performance effectively may be unclear on ‘what good looks like’, leading to unambitious or unrealistic targets alike; there may be aspects of performance that simply don’t get measured at all, leaving management blind to issues until they become unwieldy and have an impact far greater than at inception (e.g. sickness and absence); confusing comparisons between work done and work planned (as opposed to actual work needed) may lead to false feelings of confidence; finally, irrelevant or out-of-date reporting can lead to reports that are far too long, within which it is no longer possible to find key information without excessive effort.

What is its impact?
Poor progress or performance reporting leave management with limited situational awareness, thereby unaware of what is actually going on; this may mean certain risks do undetected, let alone managed. Remedial actions are often inefficient and expensive, pushing up overall costs and are taken too late to have the desired effect within the timeframe of any original plan. Furthermore, opportunities (such as replicating good practice throughout the wider organisation) may be missed, as the better performance derived from such innovations goes unreported for too long.

Ultimately, inadequate reporting mechanisms lead to a loss of credibility for all concerned, negatively influencing employees, partners, investors and regulators alike.
What recommendations are made to address it?

Unsurprisingly, companies that learn, through lessons capture sessions, how inadequate reporting mechanisms have compounded poor performance, often decide to conduct a performance management review, to examine which areas require metrics and what kind of information will be needed and at what frequency.
Linked to this, some organisations review governance and accountability, offering those doing the work (i.e. team or individuals) an input into how it is monitored, since they will know which aspects they use to gauge their own performance.

A further recommendation is for the encouragement of greater sharing of good practice from those teams whose performance is above average to those whose performance is below average.  This requires a revision of incentives and, above all, the use of a KM framework, about which more information can be found at the Knoco website.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Cultural friction - Please play together nicely, boys and girls...

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  Yesterday we examined ‘supply chain management’ and discussed some of the problems that a blanket approach in this area can cause.

We now turn to the delicate issue of cultural friction.
What is the problem? 

Nations have cultures, as do organisations, departments and the teams within them.  Defining a ‘culture’ as the collective expression of people’s thoughts, feelings, prejudices and priorities, no-one should be surprised that where cultures rub up against one another, things happen – for good or bad. 
The smaller and simpler an organisation, the less scope there is for cultural differences to appear; however, as companies grow, specialisms develop, teams are formed, departments are created…and white space appears between them on the organisation chart[1] within which misunderstandings can grow.   

The problem for any organisation - which is an artificial creation, engineered for a specific purpose (e.g. lending money, playing football, curing disease etc.) – with competing cultures is how to manage these clashes for positive ends and not let them harm the purpose towards which they should all be working.  Some of the bonds that sustain teams can prevent effective cooperation with ‘outsiders’ and lead to inefficiency.
How does it manifest itself?

Companies that have become multinational through merger and acquisition may discover tensions between people used to doing things a certain way; some cultures encourage long lunch breaks and embrace a so-called ‘work/life balance’ whilst others consider ‘lunch is for wimps’.
Some organisations have developed hierarchies by function as opposed to rank, whereby information is judged not on merit but on the role of its originator (in the military, the ‘combat arms’ (i.e. infantry etc.) have a sense of their own importance compared to those in combat service support (i.e. logistics and administration); in banking, such delineation occurs between the revenue-generators (i.e. sales and trading) and those that measure, manage and consume said revenue (i.e. operations staff in the ‘back office’) – in either case, this is prejudice at work.

Other organisations have tensions between project and operations teams, with the former enjoying the variety and ‘expeditionary mind-set’ inherent in large-scale projects whilst the latter seek the relative stability and repetition of day-to-day operations.  Tensions occur when the competing priorities become obvious through working in close proximity (i.e. project people need systems to be shut down to enable enhancements to take place whilst operations staff need minimal interruption, if any, to day-to-day processes).
What is its impact?

Cultural frictions can lead to inefficient ways of working and poor knowledge transfer between teams and departments, as healthy rivalry descends into tribalism, back-biting and the protection of knowledge for internal political purposes; morale suffers and each party blames the other(s); retention becomes a problem, with experienced staff leaving (taking most, if not all, of their knowledge with them) and new-joiners are overloaded and indoctrinated into the internecine warfare as early as possible.

What recommendations are made to address it?
Organisations that, through lessons capture sessions, have identified cultural frictions as a problem have reviewed career structures with a view to promoting those that have broad experience across several functions, to encourage transfer between departments and discourage the ‘stove-pipe’ mentality that comes with over-specialisation.

Others have provided mentoring and coaching to leaders to help them ‘walk the walk’ of cooperation instead of relying on merely ‘talking the talk’ of ‘One Team’ etc.
To address the problem of knowledge loss upon the departure of experienced personnel, some organisations have introduced knowledge retention interviews, personal wikis and communities of practice (CoP). For information about these services and for news of our learning cultural audit, please visit the Knoco website.



[1] Geary A. Rummler and Alan P. Brache Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart; San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995

Monday, 28 October 2013

Supply chain management


A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  Last week we examined ‘contracts and incentive mechanisms’ and discussed how some companies suffer unintended consequences from their contractual arrangements with suppliers.

We now turn to the related issue of supply chain management.
What is the problem? 

Problems relating to supply chain management appear at opposite ends of the same spectrum: at one end are those companies with complete freedom to choose any supplier for any service or product; at the other end are those companies that have chosen to restrict their choices to a handful of suppliers.
At both ends of this spectrum, companies have encountered problems, forcing them to consider a different approach.  Despite the positions being exact opposites, the issue is the same; namely, that a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach does not work for every kind of operation, project or commercial undertaking.

How does it manifest itself?
The ‘free’ companies have to deal with many different points of contact, order/billing/payment processes and currencies, whilst the ‘restricted’ companies have limited choice and their chosen supplier may become a single point of failure if they are unable to meet their client’s requirements.

Other issues include perceived intransigence on the part of a ‘preferred’ supplier and an insistence that the terms contained in the ‘Master Service Agreement’ are applied at all times, regardless of relevance to changed circumstances.
Examples from the news include:

·       The British Army fitted its bases in Afghanistan with air conditioning (ac) under a contract derived from one in the UK. Under the contract’s terms, broken ac units had to be repaired or replaced within 30 days – a reasonable clause in the UK’s moderate climate, less appropriate for the 50 degrees heat of the Helmand desert.

·    Another military example: the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) was revealed to have paid £22 for light bulbs that could be bought for just £0.65 each; screws that sold for £2.61 were purchased by the MOD for £103.
What is its impact?

The ‘free’ companies incur greater costs through having to manage a large number of interfaces and, whilst their flexibility means they are able to switch supply to exploit market conditions, they are unlikely to enjoy the discounts that the ‘restricted’ companies are likely to have negotiated in return for restricting themselves to a limited supply.
Conversely, the benefit of the ‘restricted’ companies reduced interfaces may not be sufficient to off-set the risk inherent in a limited supply (i.e. a supplier unable to fulfil its client’s requirements on time or, in the worst case, going out of business and ‘leaving them in the lurch’).

What recommendations are made to address it?
Companies that have identified these problems often implement the same solution, regardless of the bracket into which they fall; namely, they conduct a review of their supply strategy to identify where more choice is needed and where the benefits of fewer suppliers are warranted.  This may vary according to the maturity of the market for each product or service. 

Another course of action has been for client companies to seek to develop close and collaborative relationships with suppliers, in order to maximise their understanding of the client’s requirements and minimise excessive restrictions.

For more information on how lessons capture sessions and analysis can help identify the big issues faced by companies today, please visit the Knoco website.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Read the small print - contracts and incentive mechanisms

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  Yesterday we examined ‘interface management and communication’ and discussed how some companies suffer blockages in the flow of knowledge and information throughout their organisation and beyond.

We now turn to the related issue of contracts and incentive mechanisms.
What is the problem? 

Most organisations recognise the need to take time when negotiating contracts and will often pay significant sums of money for expert oversight and advice in this area.  However, when time is short, clauses or their precise meaning (as intended by the drafter) can be missed. This can expose both clients and their ‘contractors’ to unforeseen risk regardless of the contract type.
Two common types are the fixed or ‘lump’ sum contract for a defined scope of work or a ‘reimbursable’ one where a daily rate is applied to a forecast of how long the work will take.  Under the first model, the contractor is exposed to risk and thereby incentivised to work as quickly as possible to maximise profit; under the second model, the contractor is less exposed and may actually be unintentionally incentivised to take as long as possible.

Both contract types may use additional ‘key performance indicators’ (KPIs) that incentivise contractor performance through rewards and penalties but unless these are directly relevant to the specific scope of work, these can have unintended consequences.
How does it manifest itself?

Companies come to realise that they have incentivised behaviour that is unhelpful, detrimental or even potentially risky.  Under a fixed-sum model, short-cuts may be taken as a contractor seeks to ‘finish early’; conversely, with reimbursement, work may be prolonged unnecessarily as the contractor seeks to extract as much revenue as possible.
Examples from the news include:

·        The Domino’s Pizza chain’s guarantee to deliver within 30 minutes (customers whose deliveries were made after 30 minutes were fully reimbursed) was amended following high-profile traffic accidents involving Domino’s drivers.

·        Since the ‘credit crunch’, some bank bonus schemes have been revised to incentivise long-term performance since pre-2008 bonuses appeared to encourage excessive risk-taking in the pursuit of short-term gains.
What is its impact?

The skewed risk/reward balance in poorly negotiated contracts and clumsy KPIs can result in either work being performed too quickly (thereby adversely affecting quality and safety) or too slowly (thereby increasing costs and resulting in late delivery).  Failure to recognise the implications of the changed situation reduces management credibility and overall morale suffers.  Excessively punitive penalty clauses can force one side out of business, which often leave the remaining party out of pocket, without the goods or services it sought but now with the additional burden of finding a new supplier in even less time than originally.

Relations between client and contractor can become frayed as one side perceives the other to be ‘gaming’ and taking unfair advantage of clauses in the contract that are having unforeseen consequences.  In such circumstances, the long-term continuation of such business relationships is unlikely.
What recommendations are made to address it?

Client organisations that have ‘learned things the hard way’ through poor contracts and KPIs often subsequently seek to establish long-term relationships with their suppliers and contractors, dedicating time and resources to ensure they have a shared understanding over those clauses that contain rewards or penalties.  Another lesson identified from this is the need for rewards and penalties to be specific to the work in question and the avoidance of ‘one-size-fits-all’ KPIs.

These lessons were identified by clients in facilitated lessons capture sessions run by Knoco.  To learn more about these and other KM services, please visit the Knoco website.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

What is a Knowledge-Driven Culture? New ARK publication hot off the press!

ARK have just published a new journal, "Establishing a Successful Knowledge-Driven Culture", copies of which can be purchased here.

It includes an article by Nick Milton, entitled, "The Ten Dimensions of a Learning Culture" and one by me, entitled, "What is a learning culture and, using the British Army as an example, what can help or hinder its development?"

For more information on how Knoco can help in the audit and development of a learning culture, please visit this page on the Knoco website.


Interface management and communication


A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  Yesterday we examined ‘scope definition and the lack of shared understanding of requirements’ and discussed how contracting parties fail to achieve sufficient clarity over work requirements and their execution.

We now turn to the related issue of interface management and the absence of effective communication.
What is the problem? 

‘Interface management’ describes the processes, tools and behaviours used to communicate between a large project’s many components, teams and disciplines.  Companies that manage interfaces well ensure that knowledge is accessible to all who need it and changes are communicated swiftly and effectively.

Companies that manage interfaces poorly suffer blockages in the transmission of knowledge (to use the ‘stock and flow’ analogy explored by Nick Milton here) and communications are haphazard and sporadic instead of regular and deliberate.

How does it manifest itself?

Manufactured connecting components, software features or even 'ways of working' are found to be incompatible without significant effort; teams that are meant to co-operate suffer poor relations as the boundaries between them become increasingly rigid; only a privileged ‘elite’ seem to know what is going on; rumours are rife; plans are soon shown to be unrealistic as delays build up; even minor events have a major impact and control is lost, with everyone ‘reacting’ and ‘fire-fighting’. 

What is its impact?
Work proves more difficult than expected and solutions of ever-increasing complexity are required to resolve problems.  This results in late delivery which, in turn, results in short-cuts as formal processes are skipped; this adversely affects quality and costs exceed original estimates as corrective measures are needed to address the shortfall.  Morale suffers and all teams agree on one thing at least – that this is all someone else’s fault.
What recommendations are made to address it?

Some organisations that have endured poor communications, either internally or with partners, suppliers or clients, have introduced formal interface management systems and created teams to enable (and enforce) good communications.  Others have considered that a KM assessment may be appropriate, in order to identify and locate any blockages or weaknesses in the system through which knowledge should flow.
A cultural audit can help organisations understand the actual values that underpin their teams’ behaviour (as opposed to the professed values).

Finally, some companies have responded to these problems by seeking to develop long-term relationships between internal teams and with external suppliers, partners and clients; this has included examining and revising the incentives (both explicit and implicit) in place.
For further information about KM assessments and cultural audits, please visit the Knoco website.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A failure to listen - scope definition and the lack of shared understanding of requirements

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  Last week, we examined ‘strategy alignment and implementation’, looking at how companies can become over-extended through uncontrolled, uneven growth, thereby exposing themselves to greater risk through problems of quality or delay.

We now turn to the issue of scope definition and the failure to achieve a shared understanding over requirements. 

What is the problem?
Organisations fail to define a scope of work with sufficient clarity to enable third-parties (i.e. contractors, partners, suppliers) to meet their expectations.  Whilst a contract for work may be agreed and signed, unspoken assumptions about it only become apparent once work begins and both sides realise that there was a lack of shared understanding of the work requirements - for example, ordering ‘beef’ when you want steak results in disappointment when a burger turns up.  Failure to establish the requisite mutual understanding results in more being asked of one party than originally expected, perceived by them as ‘scope creep’.

How does it manifest itself?
Work may take longer than expected, as one side realises it is more complex than anticipated. Quality may suffer as short-cuts are used to try to make up time.  Costs escalate far beyond initial estimates and contractual arrangements may have to be reviewed as one party realises it may incur significant losses. Examples from the news might include:

·         The late delivery of aircraft such as Concorde, the Airbus A380 and the Joint Strike Fighter programme.

·         The over-budget delivery of infrastructure projects such as the Suez Canal and the Sydney Opera House.
What is its impact?

As work increases in both quantity and complexity, one party may find it lacks sufficient resources to execute the work, forcing it to recruit or sub-contract additional capability, usually at significantly increased cost. Original plans are found to be unworkable and become meaningless. Failure to recognise the implications of the changed situation reduces management credibility and overall morale suffers as relations between client and contractor deteriorate.  Delivery is delayed, over-budget and with increased risk.
What recommendations are made to address it?

Breaking down the adversarial model of projects (and associated contractual relationships) and moving towards a more collaborative, Agile approach (with smaller, faster iterative loops) is often recommended as a way of increasing mutual understanding. 

On the other hand, only project teams that have gone through the pain of a creeping scope or increasing complexity realise just how detailed requirements have to be in order to ensure that contracting parties achieve mutual understanding over scope. 

Good lessons capture and re-use help to inform and warn future teams of this necessity and a Peer Assist programme can help teams where planning is already underway.  For further information about these services, please visit the Knoco website.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Strategy alignment and implementation

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance. 

I have helped clients identify, analyse and manage thousands of lessons from a wide range of sectors.  Client confidentiality prevents the sharing of any details but, in general, the following areas come up time and again:
·         Strategy alignment and implementation
·         Scope definition/shared understanding of requirements
·         Interface management and communications
·         Contracts and incentive mechanisms
·         Supply chain management
·         Cultural friction
·         Progress reporting
·         Quality
·         Knowledge gaps
·         Discipline and leadership

Over the coming weeks, we’ll look at each of these areas, using the following questions:
·         What is the problem?
·         How does it manifest itself?
·         What is its impact?
·         What recommendations are made to address it?

These issues apply to all sorts of organisation, including companies, charities and government departments.  Where the concerns of one type of organisation are relevant, we shall use the term most appropriate at the time.  Otherwise, we shall use the word ‘business’ throughout.
Strategy alignment and implementation

What is the problem?
Organisations either lack a strategy or, where they have one, have failed to align all parts of business to follow it together.  Some departments’ activities are supporting the overall strategy whilst others have not implemented it well and are even working against it.  Often this is due to organic (as opposed to planned) growth and an inability to measure performance in all business areas.

How does it manifest itself?
Where a business seeks ambitious expansion (i.e. in market share, number of service or product lines, global presence etc.) it may over-resource the areas that enable that expansion (i.e. the ‘revenue-generators’) at the expense of those that ensure such growth is achieved safely, responsibly and in a controlled manner to ensure quality is maintained (i.e. those that ‘cost’ revenue).

Recent examples from the news might include:
·         The inability of the security firm, G4S, to fulfil its obligations during the London 2012 Olympic Games
·         The inability of many of the world’s banks to measure and manage their risk prior to and during the ‘credit crunch’

What is its impact?
Functions that provide necessary oversight, assurance and quality control find that the increased volume of work can be managed either by reducing quality or creating a backlog, thereby introducing delays. Furthermore, an overall absence of unity of effort and purpose may prevail, thereby increasing staff turnover, with associated cost increases and problems of knowledge retention.

What recommendations are made to address it?
Organisations realising that they have not implemented their strategy well or consistently throughout the business often decide to conduct a strategy review to ensure it remains valid.

Where a strategy remains valid, a business might conduct a systems analysis to understand the feedback loops in play and identify the different business areas that are effectively in competition with one another, as opposed to collaboration.
A KM assessment and strategy review can enable organisations to identify any blockages within their business and remedial actions can ensure that knowledge and data flow freely in support of the overall strategy.  For further information about these services, please visit the Knoco website.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

What are the big issues that companies face? How can lessons help identify them?

A recent blog post examined how using simple analytical tools to categorise and cluster lessons can help organisations reveal some of the underlying issues they face.  As any analyst will tell you, the greater the number of data sources and types of analysis available, the richer and more valuable the final output. 

Hold that thought whilst we look at root causes…

A vital element of any lessons learned process (including After Action Reviews, lessons capture meetings and interviews) is Root Cause Analysis (RCA).  There are numerous RCA techniques but one of the most common is the ‘5 Whys’ method (see diagram).  In practice, this simply involves asking the question ‘Why?’ until you get to the key element(s) requiring change in order to improve performance.  In my experience, this can be uncomfortable for some people but such discomfort is itself often proof that such enquiry is getting somewhere!

Note: insufficient time, people or money are not root causes but are symptoms or reflections of priority.  If something is deemed important, it will be resourced generously.  If a function is considered less important (in relative terms), it will have to make do – I simplify to make the point.  Learning from experience enables organisations to assess whether such resourcing decisions were, with the benefit of hindsight, correct.
Since the experiences from which lessons are identified are merely symptoms of root causes, it is common for one root cause to have many symptoms (and many lessons identified as a result).

Addressing the root cause effectively will therefore ensure a significant number of lessons are ‘learned’ and, from a management perspective, closed and archived within an organisation’s lessons library/database/management system. 

Now let’s come back to the analysis bit…
With a large number of lessons, grouping together the root causes themselves may tell us something.  Combining keywords, a taxonomy and its clustered root causes gives an organisation an even deeper understanding of some of its challenges and, crucially, the effect these challenges are having on its performance.  This new knowledge, to use an engineering analogy, gives an organisation greater leverage, with any intervention having a far greater effect, as shown in the diagram below.

For example, a company finding that >25% of its lessons have ‘poor discipline’ as a root cause might consider a cultural audit, revisions to its leadership programme and a review of its performance incentive scheme as ways of addressing this issue that is producing so many lessons.

So what are these big issues that come up time and again?

I have helped clients identify, analyse and manage thousands of lessons from sectors as disparate as finance, engineering, design, media, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, security, defence, energy, local government, construction and the voluntary sector.  Client confidentiality prevents the sharing of any details but, in general, the following areas come up time and again:

·         Supply chain management
·         Cultural friction
·         Progress reporting
·         Quality
·         Knowledge gaps
·         Discipline and leadership
Over the coming weeks, these will each be examined in greater depth, with a look at some of the potential recommendations that might be made to address them.  Click here for more information on Knoco’s lessons analysis service.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Lessons analysis - what's the bigger picture?

Lessons learned through experience are each, in their own right, simply tasks that need to get done because, as regular readers of this blog will know, lessons are only learned when changes happen.

However, when viewed collectively, lessons can also be used to reveal ‘the bigger picture’ through the use of analytical tools such as keywords and taxonomies.
Keywords

Most online articles use keywords or ‘tags’ to help users find related material.  Applying them to a lesson when it is entered into a database or management system makes it more likely that the lesson will be retrieved in user searches.  For example, an industrious project manager searching for lessons relating to ‘schedules’ will find all related lessons tagged with that keyword.
Another benefit that such metadata provides is ‘clustering’ or grouping lessons into themes which can become topics for further investigation, perhaps through directed enquiry in one-to-one interviews, facilitated discussions or After Action Reviews.

Taxonomies

Taxonomies are simply hierarchical classification systems, through which data is organised to show natural relationships.  Lessons taxonomies should be based on activity and be as ‘flat’ as possible.  The lowest level, applicable to all lessons, might relate to the type of recommendation contained within the lesson, for example:

·       New requirement – the lesson has identified the need for a new capability (e.g. a piece of equipment to be procured or a new post to be established);

·       Quantity – the lesson has identified the need for an existing capability to be increased in number (e.g. ‘recruit more web developers’ or ‘allocate more time to identifying a client’s requirements’);

·       Modification – the lesson has identified the need for an existing capability to be modified in order to adapt to new circumstances (i.e. ‘update the weekly progress report format’ or ‘revise the service agreements with supplier X’);

·       Performance – the lesson has identified that an existing capability is not performing as intended and needs to be improved (i.e. ‘the sales team car fleet needs repair or replacement’ etc).
 
Assigning a number to each taxonomy level (or ‘taxon’) creates 3 digit codes that can be ‘tagged’ onto each lesson.  Once all lessons are allocated a taxonomy code, Excel’s ‘pivot table’ function is used to show a breakdown of the lessons by type.
Conducting periodic analysis of its lessons using these and other methods enables an organisation to identify the ‘repeat offenders’ (i.e. either the topics or types of lessons that come up most often) and respond accordingly.
So what?

For one client, a high number of ‘modifications to training’ lessons resulted in a review of its training needs analysis methods and greater resources were allocated to ensure changed circumstances were fed back to the training design and delivery departments more quickly.  This shortened the time needed to update training to reflect new realities and resulted in fewer lessons of this type.

This kind of high-leverage intervention would not have been possible had the client simply managed each individual lesson on its own.

Knoco now offers lessons analysis as one of its services and more information is available here.

Over the coming weeks, we will be looking in greater depth at some examples of the kind of problems (and root causes) such analysis can identify.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Mind your language, play nicely, listen in!

Before facilitating a knowledge capture (or 'lessons learned') meeting, it is good practice to establish common ground amongst participants on how the session will run. 

People should understand the ‘rules of the game’ so that potentially difficult topics are discussed in an inquisitive, yet collaborative, way.

Asking people to “play together nicely” captures this aspiration well but falls short on detail.

Such guidance might include:

·         Activity, not passivity – People are ‘participants’, not ‘attendees’.  Everyone should have something to say and expect to take part.  Otherwise, they should go elsewhere.

·         Good and bad alike – Lessons can be positive or negative.  People should be encouraged to recall good practice otherwise there is a risk it won’t be repeated.

·         All knowledge is welcome – ‘Rank’ has no place in these gatherings.  People considering themselves to be senior should make a special effort to listen and those that think they are junior should make a special effort to be heard.

·         Disagreement is healthy – the ‘truth’ is revealed through the combination of several perspectives but people must be careful in the language they use.

·         The aim is to learn, not praise or blame – such sessions should not be used to make people feel good about themselves, nor to ‘find fault’. The aim is to discover ‘what happened’ and learn from it.

·         Intellectual curiosity and ambition – People should be encouraged to challenge the status quo and, when recommending changes, be bold; others will always have the option to dilute proposals so there is no need to pull punches.

·         Allow facilitation – A facilitator can only run a meeting if everyone agrees that he or she is in charge.

·         Pay attention! Laptops and mobiles should remain hidden from view.  Calls should be taken outside the room or during breaks.

For further information on knowledge capture methods, please follow this link to the relevant page on the Knoco website.

Exposure by Michael Woodford - a review

Exposure
[Originally published on the Aspley Consultants website]

‘Exposure’ by Michael Woodford (former President and CEO of Olympus Corporation)is a fascinating account of his discovery of inappropriate accounting practices, his efforts to gain reassurance from his Board colleagues, his ultimate dismissal from the company and the ensuing scandal and collapse in Olympus’s share price.

As a study in defensive behaviour and a desire to inhibit learning it may be unsurpassed.

The first I heard of this affair was when Michael Woodford was interviewed on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, just 2 days after his being fired.  Since then I have followed the story and was pleased to read more of the detail in this (bizarrely, given its subject matter: accounting) exciting book.

I won’t give away too much, not least because some of the finer details of the special purpose vehicles, goodwill payments and advisory fees might have passed me by. However, there is much content here that provides ammunition to those of us that believe honesty, leadership and an avoidance of defensive behaviour are essential if we are to (a) know ‘what happened’ and (b) learn from it.

Woodford has much to say on Japanese business culture, for good or bad.  However, readers from all backgrounds will recognise behaviour they have experienced (or displayed) that is designed to hide the truth and maintain a false impression, thereby preventing others from learning.

I give this book 7/10.  I’d have been a bit more generous but for a little bit of padding here and there, resulting in it lagging a bit.  A good read, nonetheless.

Just Culture by Sidney Dekker - a review

[Originally published on the Aspley Consultants website]
Just Culture book cover

This is an excellent book for anyone with an interest in safety, organisational learning or even justice and philosophy.  Dekker’s book explores the tension between enabling an environment that encourages people to come forward with safety concerns and maintaining a degree of accountability so that wilful negligence is punished.  Media demands that “something must be done” following major accidents all too often seek to punish people that were simply doing their job to the best of their abilities.  Dekker shows how hindsight can be very unhelpful, especially when wielded by a zealous journalist, ambitious prosecutor or even an apathetic juror.

Through examples from healthcare, civil aviation and defence, Dekker demonstrates what happens after charging employees with murder, manslaughter, gross negligence when, if a ‘just culture’ had prevailed, the accidents or incidents in question might have been viewed as learning opportunities rather than crimes.  Unintended consequences include colleagues clamming up, with no-one willing to admit to mistakes and work practices becoming increasingly defensive, occasionally increasing the risk to patients, passengers and the general public.

Dekker argues that the absence of a just culture damages morale and people’s commitment to their colleagues and employer; job satisfaction is reduced, as is the likelihood that people will step outside their formal roles, thereby reducing the flexibility that so many organisations need.  Finally, the lack of a just culture causes (and is partially caused by) an erosion of trust between people that should see one another as colleagues.

This book contains ideas that make uncomfortable reading for those of us that like to believe in personal responsibility; it also makes clear that there is no such thing as an objective truth.  There are only multiple perspectives, the combination of which is the best way to arrive at an account of ‘what happened’ that is as fair and accurate as possible.

Finally, Dekker explores the concept of blame and suggests that we blame one another for actions that are errors because of an unwillingness to admit to a lack of control.  The modern world is complicated, fast-paced, inter-connected and prone to unpredictable events.  Conceding, as individuals and organisations, that we actually have far less control than we claim, is too frightening for most of us, hence this fiction that all accidents can be prevented.
Strong stuff.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of these arguments but I recommend anyone with even a passing interest in these ideas to read this book.

The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook - a review


[Originally published on the Aspley Consultants website]

A couple of months ago, I read “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook” and heartily recommend it to anyone seeking skills and knowledge to help organisations learn about themselves and the world around them.

It is not a quick read, nor is it intended to be.  However, it is a very user-friendly aid that should be kept close to hand for quick reference.

Each chapter in the main section of the book examines a learning discipline (i.e. Systems Thinking, Personal Mastery, Shared Vision, Mental Models and Team Learning) and contains exercises, reading recommendations and case-studies that combine to place Peter Senge’s original, “The Fifth Discipline” in a wider and more practical context.

The book finishes with more case studies and examples of how emerging technologies (e.g. modelling and simulation) can help organisations un-tap their learning potential.  However, it is in these sections that the book is really showing its age and could do with a significant update.  The absence of any mention of the internet, emails or any form of online collaboration is unfortunate, to say the least.

Nevertheless, I would encourage practitioners and others keen on developing a learning culture to acquire this book and take from it as much as they can.