The Fight Against Corporate Inertia

People do not resist change, companies do.

Companies are designed for inertia. They are made up from standard processes to drive productivity and policies to ensure people do not cross lines. We hire people who are like us and place them in an organisational structures where they sit with people with the same skills. We set higher performance targets each year but the default mechanism to achieving them is to work harder rather than change the way we work. To drive improvement in this environment is to push against the very fabric of the organisation and any brute force attempt to do so is destined for failure. Only by systematically addressing each of these components will a climate for change emerge where people can embrace change and sustained transformation becomes possible. In parallel, leaders need to be the enemy of the status quo and create the expectation that improvement across the company is the norm. There are 3 essential areas for leaders to focus on.

Create the expectation to improve

Over a decade ago, when I was studying lean principles, I travelled to Japan on a study trip to tour to and learn from respected manufacturing plants. I was guided round one of the factories by a sensei (quality guru). At one of the stations he stopped, glanced at some documentation displayed and proceeded to scream at the section supervisor in Japanese. Once he had finished he explained to me very calmly that the supervisor had not updated his standard work for 6 weeks meaning that he had not found any improvements on how the job should get done. He added that the role of leaders is to solve problems and drive improvement. Otherwise why did we need leaders? He expected that each supervisor should update their standard work at least weekly. Whilst I did not support his fear-inducing leadership style, his drive of continuous improvement was a light bulb moment for me. The sensei had created an expectation for improvement. He went on to tell me that the 2 most important questions for a leader to ask were firstly “How are you performing to standard?” in other words: given the current resources and processes are you hitting the expected levels of productivity, quality etc. And secondly “What experiments have you run to move to your target state?” You will only be able to improve if you change the way you work – it is not about working harder and this is best achieved through experimentation.

These two questions may seem very operational in nature but they can and should be adapted to all parts of an organisation. People across the company should be rewarded for improving how the job is done not just performing the job.

Create the bandwidth to change and then move to BAU

Back in 2009, shortly after I joined DBS my team ran a programme aimed at taking customer waiting time out of our processes. DBS was known as Damn Bloody Slow since we were famous for long queues at our branches, ATMs and call centres. My team set up a program of process improvement events (PIEs) which were week-long workshops attended by employees who between them knew the target end-to-end process. They physically walked the process identifying issues and then back in the room ideated improvement ideas and implemented as many as possible in the week. In the first year we ran close to 50 PIEs and we dramatically reduced the customer waiting times, taking an estimated 250 million waiting hours out of our processes. We went from the bottom to the top of the customer satisfaction scores in 12 months. The PIE program could only have happened had there been a dedicated transformation team driving it from the centre. The team designed the approach, scheduled the workshops, provided the training, facilitated the sessions and reported on the progress to the CEO. We were highly successful for a couple of years but as focus moved onto the next transformation and since the people participating in the PIEs had day jobs, the focus began to wane. The improvement workshops were seen as one-off exercises. The expectation for improvement was episodic and not continuous.

We realised that we had to embed the need for improvement into BAU. We pivoted the program after a couple of years to replace the workshops with DMS (DBS Management System). Business reviews were no longer conducted in meeting rooms but on the operations floor at visual management boards. Leaders asked a version of the 2 questions from the Japanese sensei – “What are the issues that are preventing you performing to standard levels of quality, productivity and risk?” and “What experiments are you planning to get to the target improved state?”

With this approach the onus was on the leader to walk the floor, to ask the right questions and create the expectation that driving improvement was part of the day job, not a one-off project.

Create a safe environment to challenge

There are points where even the most empowered team feel that they have hit a brick wall. This typically happens when they run into an ingrained corporate habit or out of date policy? Common comments include “We cannot change, it is against the policy” or “our compliance team will never agree”. For people to be able to overcome such situations, it is important to put in place mechanisms to allow anything to be challenged safely. In the PIE program we ensured that there was a compliance person in the PIE team to address concerns early and be part of the solution. Later we set up a Kiasu committee (Kiasu is a Singapore dialect term meaning fear of missing out or to be overly conservative). Anyone could bring a policy to a Kiasu Committee to be reviewed. The committee was chaired by the Compliance head (who dressed up a like a judge and had an over-sized gavel) and made up of a “jury” comprising senior and junior employees who deliberated whether the policy was “guilty” of being Kiasu. If found guilty the process would be amended. The environment was fun and good-natured. In the first year, around 100 policies were challenged with over half being found “guilty” and amended. Quite often the owners of the policies that were deemed to be “not Kiasu” felt that they could improve and amended their policies anyway.

“Insistence on Improvement” is the first of the 6 essential habits of leading transformation. I will be covering the other 5 in coming weeks.

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