15% productivity gains for support functions in 3 months… the instruction manual

Sounds like a great target, right?

And in addition, simultaneous improvements to:

• quality of service and added value perceived by internal customers
• the atmosphere and trust within the team
• the team’s autonomy and maturity

It’s looking better and better! These are actual results we obtained for one of our clients.

objectifA key driver to obtain these results: create a quality environment!

The awesome thing is that this is precisely a manager’s job!

If we were to add a hint of digital transformation to this paper, we would quote Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, the true pioneers of big data in management and HR. Their analysis of 25 years’ data collected by the Gallup Organization (400 companies, 80,000 managers) allowed them to cross-check the common qualities of great managers (“First, Break the Rules” – this way for the original). They also showed that in order for coworkers to perform well, it’s crucial to ensure they feel good at work. They were the first to identify managerial practices that have an impact on performance, and addressed the issue through 12 key questions (for more details about the method and the questions, look here).


How to create a quality environment

Let’s use an example: an industrial group we’ve been assisting for two years in implementing an Operational Excellence approach. One of the first steps was to implement a management system (1), the purpose of which is to help team leaders and department heads to manage their activity and take good care of their teams.

We are currently deploying across a third wave of factories; the project manager was entrusted with a Methods department (34 staff in production support functions). He quickly made the following observations:

  • production teams (customers) are not happy with levels of service provided by the Methods team,
  • there’s an atmosphere of mistrust within the department, between method technicians & engineers and team managers,
  • emergencies follow emergencies,
  • high value-added issues are postponed to “later”
  • department priorities are poorly defined, poorly shared, and generate conflict
  • he’s not happy with the speed and quality of both upward and downward information.

He then contacted us with a simple objective: “let’s do the same as what we did for production departments”. He wants to create a quality environment to develop the team’s engagement and motivation. He’s aware that a well-adjusted management system can quickly contribute to this type of quality environment.

Given the differences between a department comprised of mostly operators and this new team of young, experienced technicians and engineers, he’s also fully aware that he can’t just “copy - paste” the model rolled out in production.

He is asking us to help him develop an efficient and sustainable management system adapted to his new environment, and to start examining the best way to deploy and help his team change their practices.

In view of the new environment’s specificities, we identified and shared four drivers that can be leveraged to implement a new management system.

Four levers to design a management system

  1. 1Grow your team’s autonomy

comprendreAutonomy boosts individual and collective performance. It gives time back to managers, of course, but more importantly it empowers employees. Moreover, unlike an industrial process, there is no single way of reaching your goal. Finally, it’s important to talk in terms of deliverables, not in terms of time spent. Everyone must be able to organize in order to stick to their commitments, i.e. to deliver a document (market analysis, balance sheet, operating range, FMEA, workgroup report, etc.) by a defined date (project milestone, personal commitment, management deadline…).

René Rupert has worked on this autonomy requirement: he has written a fascinating analysis of the necessary balance between perceived autonomy and desired autonomy (see “Réponse à la complexité avec la Boussole du Management” – “Addressing Complexity with the Management Compass”). The illustration below is a key element to understand.

 Illustration based on René Rupert’s matrix


3photoStriking the balance may require adjustments, especially when:

-         - an employee confuses autonomy with independence

-         - the manager is younger and less experienced than the employee.

2. Serve… your team

Much has been written about management, and Ken Blanchard is a major contributor to the genre. In his book The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do, he suggests an original and potent approach to improve your professional leadership. A leader is not there to give orders or for himself: he is there to SERVE those with whom he works. The best-selling author (18 million books sold) uses the five letters in the word SERVE to describe how leaders must proceed to successfully manage their teams.

3. Process problems at the right level, escalate as soon as necessary

In line with what Kenneth Blanchard explains, a manager should help his employees find solutions to their problems. This is achieved through proper use of lean and problem-solving principles and tools (going on the shopfloor, qualifying a problem with the “Five W’s and two H’s”, looking for the root cause with “Ishikawa” and the “5 Why’s”…).

Illustration of Ken Blanchard’s 5 precepts to develop leadership.

When employees are unable to come up with a solution, and only then, the manager must take charge of the problem and contribute directly to solving it. He must then ensure that the analysis and the solution are understood and sustainable (updated standards…).

      4. Accept mistakes and see them as an opportunity to make progress

We often say “Problems are Welcome!” to trigger discussion (and it works - try it with your employees or boss: “Hey, great, we have a problem!” and watch their reaction), and because it’s the truth! Solving a problem helps you make progress… as long as you learn from it. You will need to identify the root causes and how to make them disappear (see point 3). We believe this is a necessary condition: a manager who wants his employees to grow must carefully disseminate and maintain this mindset. Several authors published about this topic, you’ll find an accessible method described by Ion Valis in his book “The Magnificent Mistake: Why you Earn more from Failure than you Learn from Success”

Transformation must be rooted in your everyday business

After sharing our beliefs with the client’s team, we co-constructed a management system reflecting their specificities. At the same time, we provided mini-training modules to make the link between Gallup's Twelve Questions and managerial practices. Next, we supported all managers over several weeks (preparation and presence during routines, feedback ...) to build the four levers into individual managerial practices. And finally, we designed and deployed self-diagnostic tools to help them foster a culture of continuous improvement.

meetingAfter a three-month pilot, results came, sometimes beyond expectations:

-          - + 15% productivity within the department,

-          - Satisfied customers (production), particularly on taking notice of their priority and on the transparency implemented

-          - Renewed confidence and an improved work atmosphere within the team,

-          - Teams confident in their managers’ ability to solve their problems.

With great results and a high level of ownership, this management system has now been integrated to the company’s “Operational Excellence” standards regarding support functions.

What about you: are your support functions delivering what you expect?

How much do you think they would agree with Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s Twelve Questions?

Let’s talk – and start finding suitable solutions together!

(1)  : We believe a management system is based on three necessary and complementary pillars. It helps to drive any kind of activity: production, marketing…