Thursday 24 December 2009

Happy Christmas

Getting to Excellent has survived a tempestuous year – with the economy taking a nose dive under the carpet and refusing to come out, and now the weather being a little over enthusiastic here in sunny Berkshire. But in between there has been much to discuss, debate, agree and disagree on.

But now Christmas is dawning across the world. The ultimate deadline is making the most determined business person stop and draw breath. And rightly so, because no matter what your religious beliefs Christmas is a time to catch up with old friends, see family and make time for being with people. There are no performance charts, no KPIs, no need to do anything except relax and share with those most important to you.

So Getting to Excellent is taking a break and will be back in the New Year a few pounds heavier and a little better rested. I’d like to thank everyone who has visited fleetingly, those that have visited regularly, and those who have entered into the debate. Happy Christmas!

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Keeping Energy Levels High

Looking back over a year of Getting to Excellent I have had a somewhat mixed reaction to my attempts to improve personal energy levels. I think there is a feeling in business that personal energy levels are not a business issue – providing you do your work then whether or not you have a hangover isn’t anyone else’s concern. And to some degree that may be true, but only to some degree.

Yet for an organisation to do well, so must each of its departments, and each individual within those department. And this is even more important in small businesses. So keeping energy levels high IS a performance management issue.

It has taken me three attempts to give up caffeine. In my usual blasé style, I thought it was going to be easy. I was wrong, oh, so wrong. It’s been difficult, but I'm almost there. In 12 days’ time (yes, I’m counting) I will have gone 100 days without caffeinated beverages. The desire for a cup of tea is now pretty much gone, and the benefits of better sleep and fewer headaches are definitely worth the price. So with an admittedly small test sample of precisely one, I’d say it takes at least 70 days to form a new habit: much, much longer than I had guessed and longer than some other articles suggest.

My return to the gym was less successful. 2009 has been a busy year and I can’t honestly say that exercise is a habit yet. But I’m convinced that this will pay big dividends on the energy front. Getting back in the gym, however, has been massively instructive in managing performance. I’ve written before about the importance of seeing how far I’ve run or cycled, or calories burnt, in keeping motivation levels high. I don’t believe work is any different. Measurement is a great tool in helping and encouraging better performance.

Of course there are other areas to consider in improving energy levels, such as reducing alcohol (I don’t drink much but then it doesn’t really agree with me) and eating better (and eating less).

At the beginning of this post I said I’d had mixed reactions to these initiatives. That would be something of an understatement. Whilst there has been a big interest in my attempts to give up caffeine on the internet, family and friends have been less convinced. One other person has gone cold turkey and given up caffeine completely (and is happier for it) but on the whole everyone else I know has been mystified. But I guess everyone reacts to things differently.

There are clearly different levels of managing performance: personal, departmental and company-wide. However, at a personal level, keeping energy levels high is something that can be measured and managed: and pays dividends for doing so. Keeping off caffeine, getting more exercise and improving diet are all, therefore, on my resolution list for next year. Just so as you know.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

All snowed up and no place to go

Like many other people in the South East yesterday I got snowed up. It took me two hours to go round one roundabout and come back to work. No roads were gritted, and cars were sliding around in their unreasonable and unrealistic hope of getting home. In my short journey I must have seen 3 or 4 blue flashing ambulance lights and multiple roadside rescue vehicles skidding around like everyone else. The radio reported one serious accident that the ambulance was unable to get to because roads were gridlocked. Chaos is too neat a word to describe what was happened on Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire roads yesterday.

But, as Scarlet pointed out, tomorrow is another day so after a makeshift night at the office I’m up to see whether today brings brighter weather and passable roads. Surprise, surprise, after the complexity of the argument about measuring the performance of local councillors, the local Reading Transport web site hasn’t been updated since 15.30 yesterday. I guess they were too busy getting home, or maybe they thought there was no point as stranded cars don’t have internet access anyway. I doubt it’s the responsibility of part-time Councillors to update the web site, but between full time council employees, and local Councillors, basic services like information and gritting were not available.

It seems every year that the local authorities get caught out, which means that every year we get caught out. After the fiasco that has been Eurostar over the last few days, and the complaints about lack of information, even if gritting lorries couldn’t get out you would have thought that someone somewhere would have made information a priority. But even though it’s taken me a full 30 minutes to tone down this blog post, the latest traffic information is still missing.

I have no doubt that it's not much fun being in the firing line when the snow starts to fall, but winter happens approximately once every year and preparing for it seems a sensible precaution. The only gritting lorries that were seen yesterday weren't working. It may be performance under pressure, but surely tax payers deserve better?

Monday 21 December 2009

7 Immutable Laws of Getting to Excellent

Getting to Excellent is almost a year old and it’s the end of the year: a natural time for reflection and review. During my first year of blogging I’ve thought quite a lot about what improves performance. My views have changed little during the year, if anything I've become more convinced of the importance of performance management in business.

So here are my end of year 7 immutable laws of performance management:
  1. The Law of Knowing what Excellence is
  2. The Law of Planning for Excellence
  3. The Law of Measuring Excellence
  4. The Law of Excellent Binary Milestones
  5. The Law of Excellent Visibility (showing visible progress)
  6. The Law of Excellent Reviews
  7. The Law of Recognising Excellence (when good work is achieved)
Each one is a great deal easier to say than to do, and each one contains a wealth of opportunity or pitfalls.

As 2010 approaches, and a brave new decade dawns, the 7 Immutable Laws of Getting to Excellent provide a checklist in striving for excellence in our work and our businesses. Or have I missed something? In which case, let me know ....

Friday 18 December 2009

No one ever got a pig fat by weighing it

Andrew Templeman of the Cabinet Office is quoted as saying:
“No one ever got a pig fat by weighing it.”

Wise words which are well worth remembering as we focus on improving business performance through measurement and evaluation. All the measurement in the world is useless unless the work gets done, and to a high standard. The measurement is only there to help, motivate and enable problems to be identified. So reporting and execution must be hand in glove (that’s execution of the work, not of the person doing the measurement).

As I rattled through my work this morning armed with a report that helped me measure the task (not a job I particularly enjoy doing) I thought about how I get through my exercise routine. I don’t enjoy that either, and certainly not when I’m out of shape as I am right now. But seeing the counter click forwards to my goal keeps me going – whether on the exercise bike or my report. Getting closer to my target, and that magical green traffic light, was enough to get the job done.

Fattening my pigs (or slimming them down) requires solid work over a period of time. Someone once quipped that dieting is like project management: it’s not much fun, goes on a very long time, and no one notices the results. But measuring the results at least keeps the task, project or pig going.

So although no one ever got a pig fat by weighing it, they did get a good meal by making sure the pig got fed every day. Which is really what performance management is all about: measuring the scraps of work that bring us closer to the goal (or lunch).

Thursday 17 December 2009

Measurement is fundamental to performance

I was faced with a task today where I had no immediate way of measuring my progress. Not being able to clearly see my way through a job is frustrating and does not encourage me to perform at my best. It got me thinking about how important it is to be able to see how we are doing vis-a-vis expectations.

It would be a little like driving a car without a speedometer or the ability to measure distance. “Are we there yet?” would be met with “Oh, I think so, a bit further maybe. We will recognise it when we see it!”

We are so used to everything being measured – from the miles that we drive to the hours that we work – that we barely give it a second thought. But the frustration in getting to Birmingham when we don’t know how fast we are going, how far away it is, or how far we have travelled would be significant. Imagine not knowing how much money is in your bank account, or what time your favourite television programme was on. The hit and miss fiasco that would be the weekly budget, or trying to guess when to tune in would be farcical.

Yet how many jobs at work do we tackle without measuring them? Quite a few. How many could be improved through some form of measurement? I would suggest, quite a few.

“The odds of hitting the target go up enormously when you aim at it” is attributed to Mal Pancost. I’m guess he was taking as read that we know how far away the target is.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Visual performance indicators for knowledge workers

I think it was Peter Drucker who first coined the term “knowledge worker”. It is now a term we know and understand well. At least, we understand vaguely what we mean by a knowledge worker – someone who does something that we don’t quite understand. Knowledge workers are a difficult group to manage, as their output is often long term, difficult to measure and not totally understood by whoever is “managing” them. I say “managing” them, because so much has to be done on trust and on outcomes, some of which will be influenced by a myriad of different factors.

However, employee engagement and job satisfaction has been shown to rise when people clearly understand the organisation’s mission, and are actively involved in improving performance: whatever level in the organisation, and whatever the work.

So the key is to ensure that appropriate and visual performance indicators are displayed for people to see, challenge, discuss and use in their work. Without that engagement it is too easy to allow people to slip into thinking that no-one cares, no-one is watching and no-one is interested, which is mostly very far from the truth.

Of course, creating good visual performance indicators requires careful thinking, but it can and is done very successfully by many companies who understand how important it is to keep everyone engaged.

Friday 11 December 2009

Be a great team player

Peter Drucker (1909-2005) once said:
“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.”
I have been outspoken on occasions about Peter Drucker but this quote is right on the money. I don’t believe any of us do it on purpose, but the result is often that people are frustrated in their work because of what they do themselves, and what others do to them.

So if, as Drucker implies, “management” makes it harder for people to work, how can we create an environment where people do brilliant work? How can we facilitate great team work?

  1. Understand what makes people tick. Everyone is different and they work in different ways. Detail people, big picture people, technical people and wordsmiths all have a valuable role to play in teams. If you can create an environment where people are valued for the talents that they bring to the team, you are a long way down the road to bringing out the best in them.
  2. Leave your ego at the door. Work suffers when egos collide and no-one wins. Good team work needs people to understand first, and agree or disagree afterwards. Easy to write but difficult to do. Most work is improved by having a number of heads look at it, and most work is harmed by divas who won’t have their judgement questioned.
  3. Understand the team’s mission. A team is formed in order to produce something or to perform better. If the thing or the level of performance could be achieved by a number of disparate individuals, there is no need to form a team. Make the purpose of the team’s mission crystal clear so everyone knows what the group is aiming at.
  4. Make individuals accountable for their contribution. A team is not an excuse for everyone and no one to be responsible for problems. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities are important within teams as elsewhere.
The amount that has been written about high performance teams is a testament to both the importance of teams, and the difficulties of getting people to work well together. When people are stressed, or things aren’t going well, it is too easy to blame rather than to understand. But when all has been shouted and accused, only understanding and clarity will improve performance.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

John Wayne and Einstein remind us to do things differently if we want better results

There’s an old and very bad joke about two friends watching a John Wayne movie. One friend turns to the other and says “I bet you £1 the cowboy gets shot when he reaches the top of the hill.”,

“OK”, says his pal.

Sure enough as the cowboy gets to the top of the hill John Wayne shoots him. “Nah” says the first friend, “I can’t take £1 from you; I’ve seen the film before.”

“So have I”, says his pal “but I didn’t think he would make the same mistake twice.”

The joke's gentle dig at the idea that the cowboy might learn from his mistake isn’t so funny when we consider how often we expect different results from doing the same things.

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying:

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Measuring and evaluating performance is only of value if we use the information to find new ways of doing things to improve results. Only by trying different things can we hope to get different results. If this sounds obvious it may be that it is obvious. The difficulty is that it is too easy to get caught up with trying harder to think about trying something new.

Company culture, stubborn personalities and just not thinking all contribute to the idea that somehow the cowboy might survive through sheer willpower alone. He won’t. And results won’t suddenly change unless something makes them.

Changes can be large or small, revolutionary or evolutionary. They should be tested alongside the way you’ve always done things and measured. Improvements in any process or business come from new ideas and new ways of doing things. Which is why new CEO’s brought in to revitalise companies are so fond of flashy change programmes that shake up the status quo.

So if you want to improve your performance, what are you going to change?

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Measuring performance of local Councillors

Public sector performance indicators are something of a minefield as the National Indicator Set proves. They are costly and difficult to collect (sometimes not adequately available at all), not always representative of a job well done, and can get manipulated in horrific ways.

So why does anyone bother?

Well, performance indicators are exactly what they say on the tin – indicators. They are not a perfect measure of performance, but an indicator. And they are a lot better than nothing.

In measuring performance of local Councillors there may be differences, for example, in the type of enquiries that Councillors are asked to deal with (large, small, difficult and easy enquiries), but on average they will even out and provide an indication of workload. They cannot show how diligently a Councillor attends to an enquiry, or the quality of the outcome, but they will give an idea. Ditto meeting attendance, voting, etc.

In my area a computerized system is now used for Councillors to log enquiries, and details from the system are available on request under the Freedom of Information Act. However, it is optional to use the system and now that some of the information has been published several Councillors say that they do not use the system at all. They are effectively bypassing accountability. If this particular Performance Indicator was published as a national (or even local) league table then you might find they suddenly started to use it with more gusto; otherwise they look like shirkers.

Politics and all its power is an ideal hot-house for cheating the statistics in various ways. If I am prepared to cheat my caffeine challenge by eating chocolate, imagine what an elected politician is prepared to do to make themselves look better in the eyes of voters. Lambeth and their ghost libraries was a deliciously embarrassing example.

But my opinion, and that of many leading organisations, is that working hard to get performance indicators as indicative as possible of true performance, and to have good systems to track and publicize the results, does improve performance. If information relating to Councillors’ work were available on web sites more easily, instead of having to be requested and posted piecemeal in blogs, it would have a great deal more power. Voters would have better information to base their decisions on.

It is important to remember that performance indicators are a management tool, not an end in themselves. By that I mean they are one tool in the tool bag, to be used with care and backed up with other information as necessary. The weaknesses of performance indicators are often used as an argument not to use them (mostly by those who come off worst in the performance stats). Providing they are used sensibly they are extremely valuable and work as well in politics as they do in the private sector.

Monday 7 December 2009

40 years of Northern Ballet Theatre

The evening of the 5th December 2009 will not be easily forgotten by Northern Ballet Theatre. Current and past dancers performed together in a one-off performance of A Christmas Carol with many more ex-Northern Ballet Theatre dancers in the audience. It was as emotional as it was spectacular, and celebrated 40 years of Northern Ballet Theatre.

Stars past and present were greeted by rapturous applause by those who knew and love their dancing. The joie de vivre which naturally emanates from this talented and fun company was overflowing. Jeremy Kerridge in the title role brought home the very essence of Dickens’ important little tale.

As a northerner myself I was quite overcome by the brilliance of what they pulled off on Saturday. They are polished and professional, but also humorous and original; this is a company that never fails to bring a smile to everyone’s face.

Northern Ballet Theatre has gained a loyal and admiring audience by understanding their strengths and weaknesses. They play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses to great effect. Their repertoire does not try to emulate the big ballet companies – The Nutracker is replaced by A Christmas Carol and Peter Pan. Swan Lake is somewhat different from the classic version. Sleeping Beauty is absent, making room for the less obvious Dracula or Wuthering Heights. Instead of going head to head with the competition, they change the rules. They have fun with their strategy as well as their ballet.

Understanding strengths and weaknesses is a foundation stone for success, whoever you are. It is wonderful to see the dry SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) put to use in such an entertaining way. It reminded me that whatever our talents, everyone has a role to play.

It is up to all of us to figure out our own individual strengths and weaknesses, as well the teams we work in and the organisations we represent. That clarity will help lift our individual and team performance, and build better organisations. Even if we didn’t get to be a ballet dancer when we grew up.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Do your objectives have a competitive element?

Having a clear objective is absolutely the first step in achieving excellence. The first Immutable Law of Improving Performance is to know what excellence is, ie to have a SMART goal.

Whilst I am a big fan of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Timed) goals, they leave out one important element: competition. Whether at an individual or team level, competitive goals are highly effective.

I’ve recently re-joined the gym after far too long without vigorous exercise. The exercise bike now needs to be tamed and my motivation kept high so that I don’t slink back to bad habits. Racing against my personal best (being competitive with myself) is effective and very tiring. I often see people with little notebooks or cards, noting down times and distances. Clearly, I’m not the only person who is pushed to exercise a little longer by matching or exceeding yesterday’s time.

Racing against myself, however, is nothing like as effective as racing against someone of a similar, or slightly higher, fitness level. Whether is an overt or covert race it is surprising how deep I can dig into my reserves. This is also very tiring.

League tables are great examples of motivating individuals in teams to do better. Whatever is being measured does have to be within their control and so is well suited to areas such as sales. Software systems that only closest team members to be viewed as a subset of the whole enable people to compete against each other at all levels.

League tables originated in sports and work well to keep everyone motivated and interested to improve. The same principle works in an organisational setting.

So have a look at your objectives. Is there something of a competitive nature in them? Could they be improved by adding a competitive element?

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Wednesday 2 December 2009

Set ambitious goals and strive for excellence. Anyone can do average

Anyone can do average; few strive for excellence

Focusing on what you do well, and indeed what you can be excellent at, was one of the key messages in Jim Collins’ phenomenal book “Good to Great.” Yet being excellent, either in business or individually is the exception rather than the rule. But anyone can do average. Indeed most do average, with some doing exceptionally awful from time to time.

But why? Is it too much effort? Does it not occur that we can do better? Indeed, striving to be the best at something can often be an uncomfortable thought – what if we fail or look stupid in the attempt?

Setting ambitious goals does nothing but good. When I set a goal to get a distinction in my MBA I got more out of the course as a result. I didn’t achieve my goal (I got a merit on account of one assignment) but I still achieved more than if I hadn’t set that goal. I’d have loved the kudos of a distinction, but the really important bit was the learning – which my goal helped me improve.

“Good to Great” has had an impact far and wide. I see it listed as a favourite business book in many places. I’ve even see organisations state their BHAG (big hairy audacious goal), which is wonderful. By definition very few can or will be excellent, but that’s not really the point. Aiming for average is a travesty. Aiming for excellence at least has the chance of achieving excellence, providing it goes hand in hand with good planning and unfailing determination.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Zero Tolerance for Excellent Habits

My 100-day caffeine-free challenge hasn’t exactly been plain sailing.

I’ve failed twice and bent the rules along the way. Rule bending is not unusual when cornered into absolute succeed/fail situations. In my case I made it “OK” to eat chocolate and didn’t worry about painkillers that contained caffeine. In fact, those painkillers contained a whopping 180mg of caffeine; the equivalent to two strong freshly brewed coffees.

Not surprisingly I didn’t sleep well and still had a racing heart the following morning. I am fast concluding that habits need to be all or nothing - at least until they really are habits.

I think there is a great deal of guff talked about habits. Creating a habit in 15 days, for example, in my experience is unlikely to be successful. I’ve heard it takes 6 weeks to break a bad habit and my own experience of giving up alcohol for lent (48 long days) wasn’t long enough to make it permanent.

Researchers suggest that 66 days is more realistic to form a new habit, and longer for challenging habits.

Attitude of mind also plays a big part. If you don’t really believe the habit is worthwhile it will be very difficult to make it part of your life. Whereas if you are convinced it will be life-enhancing and beneficial, the journey becomes much easier. I found that taking the time to do some research paid back big dividends for me.

So whilst I’m still not through my own caffeine-free challenge I’m twice as sure that zero tolerance is needed for success.