There is a local government council, that provides benefits for the public. When a member of the public comes in to make a claim, they are seen by a front line clerk. The benefits claims are entered on the IT system, and passed to a trained assessor to decide the claim.
In this council there are 10 benefits assessors who assess benefit applications. These assessors make mistakes, and the manager created a checking team on the floor upstairs, of five assessors, to check their work. The errors were somewhere around 40%, and the manager found this situation hopeless.
“Look John, we need these checkers because of the poor work from the assessors!
In this system the manager would give each assessor a target number of claims to assess for the day - then they could go home.
Ok, what in this system is creating the behaviour of errors???
Answer: the target system tells the assessors that the manager is primarily interested in quantity over quality. And if there are checkers upstairs, it does not matter if I make a mistake, as they upstairs will fix it.
Now, lets fix the root cause.
What we did is work with the assessors, and the manager. The manager gave the assessors some new instructions
The result of the change of the system, and the behavioural change of the manager, was a new set of working principles. These principles then caused a new mindset in the department, that it is our job to get it right. If an assessor was having problems, the manager would not summon them to their office, they would ask a colleague of the assessor to help them.
Can you see that the actions above have broken down the idea of; my turf, too busy, it not my job, blame, etc.
In the example above it took the departmental manager to fix the issue in their area. Then the manager started on other problems, primarily with issues of working better with others. For example, the assessors hated the front line staff. The answer was, on rotation during the week, for one of the assessors to be available to coach the front line, and be available to immediately go to a front line staff and help them with the applicant sitting there. The result were that the barriers got broken down completely.
The whole change above, is primarily down to the leadership of the manager…
The cuts in the public sector have created a situation where changes like this are more difficult to create. What manager will have the courage to stop the targets of the daily assessor quota, when that manager’s main metric to their manager, is the number of completed claims?
Since the early promises of great teamwork from Japan, like many others, I am searching for something that allows for employees to truly contribute and be create a positive work environment. Over the last few years, I have worked with teams that have been able to work in a very different way to the past. Individuals have become motivated, effective, and collaborative. People coming to work to do something they want to do, and do it well.
Good teams don’t not exist, they are visible in pockets of parts of organisations. You come across them now and again, seemingly by accident. ‘I wished they worked for me!’ is a thought that might pass through a managers mind, as they envisage their service filled with people like that.
From working with teams over the last 12 years, and with other colleagues, here is some learning that may be useful for others who are wanting to create a more participative work environment.
What is a self managed team?
It is a work environment - the work system, that is designed to allow anyone in that system to work with some autonomy and with others in the workflow, and make decisions to achieve a goal.
The manager working with such a team is doing less of the administration of micromanagement and firefighting, to making sure the team can work well, and developing the rest of the employees. The managers role is also transformed in terms of their motivation and contribution; it feels like doing the job the manager should always have been doing.
What does it look like watching people in this system?
They are able to adjust procedures to suit the situation that presents itself.
They talk to anyone in the organisation that they need to, without requiring permission.
They freely share knowledge, and seek knowledge from others.
The support others and accept work from others.
They give the best service possible to the customer.
They are motivated to do a good job.
True case study
Example of the old system:
A very irate and possibly aggressive member of the public come in, with no money, and the worker is faced with a myriad of rules that guide them to tell the person to go to another department. At that other department, the person has to queue for an hour, repeat the whole story again, fill in a form, and go to another place to eventually get some money.
The same situation in the new system:
The person was listened to by a worker. That worker made a phone call, and then dealt with the person. They then gave them funds to take them through two days of buying food. It took ten minutes and the one worker was the only one the person talked to. No violence from the person, no rules needed to be broken, and no forms needed to be filled in.
What are the outcomes?
Who is working like this today?
Very few organisations truly operate like this, Toyota in Japan being one of the most well known. Despite decades of time, and a gaggle of ‘experts’, we seem to be moving very slowly in truly realising this approach in work environments.
An self-managed team environment does not just happen, it needs to be created. Then, when its created, it needs to make happen. All things that are difficult, especially when there will be some who don’t want to participate, or who cannot work in such a system. Its the manager as a leader that must be the creator.
Helping others to do better things