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Michael Harpham

Managing Director

Article which appeared in Best Practice Management magazine in December 1997, written by Michael Harpham after auditing the CTDC TQM initiative.

VIRUS MANAGEMENT - BREAKING THE PAIN BARRIER

Bryan Anderson, Managing Director of China Thread Development Company (CTDC), a subsidiary of Coats China, is experimenting with ways to translate ambitious strategies into action. He shares here his experience of transforming his managerial role into that of a facilitator and how people are responding to this challenge to break through old strictures to new structures.

“What we’re doing here is nothing special or extraordinary”, were Bryan Anderson’s opening words, as we installed ourselves in the shade of the incongruous pagoda surrounded by shrubs, traffic and sunshine in the heart of industrial Kwun Tong. We had decided that meeting outdoors was less restricting than staying indoors. What he then proceeded to expound upon seemed very special indeed.

Bryan has been leading a major Total Quality change programme in China Thread Development Company (CTDC) for the last two years. I am meeting him at a time when the impetus of many change programmes falters – the time after exciting launch and commitment-seeking steps and initial implementation successes, when management and staff energies not surprisingly start to flag, as reviews of progress are undertaken and areas for improvement seek attention. CTDC has encountered this limbo period, but the experimentation is breaking through with unexpected vigour. This article explores why.

But before coming to Bryan’s experience, please allow me a quick diversion. Some months before this meeting, in discussions Bryan’s management team, I noticed his Production Director reading an article in Fortune magazine. The title, “Killer Strategies That Make Shareholders Rich”, forced me to read it. The author was Dr Gary Hamel of the London Business School. Though Bryan would be surprised to hear it, much of what he is experimenting with is summarised in this very article.

KILLER STRATEGISING

Dr Hamel indicates that strategising is neither a once-a-year raindance nor a once-a-decade consulting project, but a skill “as deeply embedded as Total Quality, cycle-time reduction or customer service. Just as business processes can be reinvented … so too can business models.” Dr Hamel describes five ways in which organisations can radically rethink themselves. Since Bryan Anderson seems to be rethinking his organisation in all five, I wanted to summarise them:

 

New Voices: companies miss the future because they fail to

introduce the diversity of voices needed to seed new ideas

 

New conversations strategy depends on the ways those voices are connected -

new conversations cross boundaries of function, technology,

          hierarchy and geography – and creatively combined; new conversations  

          cannot be hurried or scripted; they must be deep enough to create a

          common context, to “invade each other’s worlds” and to explore

          corporate destiny

 

          New Perspectives: great strategy needs new ways of seeing - whether by

          adopting new lenses or a new vantage point

 

          New Passions: we too often ignore the emotional side of strategy, 

the part about collective purpose and shared destiny; how can we

accelerate the time to get commitment to a new strategy? By getting

“deep involvement” – the tendency to chaos is redressed by people’s

need for order

 

Experimentation: passion and foresight will only move you so far;

strategy is more about experimentation – which most organisations

drive out in the quest for efficiency; the more experimentation, the

faster we can know which strategies will work

 

 “What we’re doing here is nothing special or extraordinary. We’ve done all the ‘normal’ things – define and promulgate core values and mission,” continues Bryan Anderson from where we left off earlier.  “We are engaged in a huge experiment. It’s a fascinating learning process. We have to live through it. Maybe it cannot be replicated because, for the process to work, it has to be lived through, worked through ‘live’. There are no right answers; only incremental implementation and learning.”

Getting it right is therefore impossible. ‘It’ keeps changing. “It’s simply common sense, textbook stuff. But making it come to life, making it happen, making it real is the challenge.” Vision into Reality. The Chief Executive’s biggest challenge.

Change programmes usually start at the top, with the chief “having a vision”. “Here we have done it differently. We are just one link in the supply chain. We decided to start this programme on our own, not because we were driven to by London.“

He explains that CTDC belongs to the large, London-based multinational Coats Viyella Group, selling to an internal supply chain. However, Coats is a  decentralised group which allows great latitude to its operational units within a strongly-held set of core values. As a result, although CTDC is a subsidiary, it is ‘on its own’ and has complete freedom to experiment

CORE VALUES

The Coats Group is held closely together by its core values. “We have taken these core values and we have carefully fused them around our own needs. We have brought them to life.” The core values are simple and easy to remember. Key to CTDC’s change successes have been these clear, centrifugal, certain and unchanging core values (See Fig 1).

(Fig 1 – not included here - The Vision/Core Values - yarn being held up by hands)

Anderson is absolutely clear about this. Fig. 2 is an attempt to express his clarity:

(Fig 2 – not included here)

Fig 2 seeks to communicate the four elements behind Anderson’s vision of the CTDC change process:

 

            -      the clear, all-containing framework of the set, corporate, belief

                 structure – the mission, vision, core values, strategic goals

            -      the traditional hierarchical organisation structure of the Coats Group

                 and of CTDC before the changes

            -      the dynamic, chaotic, flexible, ‘painful’ new CTDC environment, as it

                 breaks through the ‘impediment’ of hierarchy and seeks a new,

                 bespoke way to meet the challenges of the future, and

            -      the fact that all is a process in which experimentation has as great a

                 worth as efficiency and answers are right only until the next answer

                 appears

All three elements contain a key word with different shades of meaning: structure.

STRUCTURES

“We have spent the last six months structuring ourselves to carry forward our vision into reality. Except that there is no right structure. It is up to the people in the organisation to create the structure that works best,” elaborates Bryan. “Structures have to be tailored to the organisation’s and its people’s needs. And the whole story becomes qualitatively different if all are involved in the process and all have put into the melting pot their different views and differences. I strongly believe ALL (no exceptions) must be involved and ALL are different. I believe that change programmes fail when they only pay lip service to these basic truths. People always, not surprisingly, resist big ‘feel-good’ programmes because they come down from the top. And anyway, what happens when the top man leaves…?” 

Getting ‘it’ right is impossible, as mentioned above, the ‘it’ keeps changing. The reason why it keeps changing in CTDC is because “we keep talking about it, debating it, inter-group and inter-department. The ways we communicate have progressed dramatically. We communicate much more now than before. But, more important is the direction of the communication: it has become 360 degree; it is done on people’s own initiative; it is not ‘set up’ and formalised.”

SELF-DIRECTED TEAMWORK

A totally unexpected structural change has occurred recently in CTDC, following an intensive weekend workshop which had to confront a number of really key issues facing the senior and middle management teams.

The workshop seating arrangement was designed to encourage this two-level interaction, with the senior team grouped around a circular table on one side of the conference room and the junior team around another circular table on the other – the two separated by the projector table. Both teams agreed, with Anderson’s support, to turn themselves into ‘self-directed teams’. While this impacted on the roles of the management team, it impacted enormously on Anderson’s too; he was to transform himself  from boss into facilitator.

As it happened, the junior team – as often happens in similar situations – took the initiative. Following the workshop, the junior team, communicating via a variety of internal channels, crafted a new operational structure. As a result, from now on the senior team is responsible for ‘Vision’ (setting strategies, policy, direction, priorities), and the junior team for ‘Reality’ (deciding operational strategies, coordinating change and Total Quality efforts). The senior team champions organisational programmes and one of its more experienced members acts as consultant and facilitator to the junior team. After widespread debate and much soul-searching, this new structure was agreed by all parties.

One of the surprises for Anderson: “It’s amazing how, when left to its own devices, a team both uses its strengths and picks out its weaknesses – and takes responsibility for making improvements. And I used to agonise about how I could improve communication and motivation!”

BREAKING THE PAIN BARRIER

“If you cannot persevere and get through the ‘pain barrier’, stop! You have to be willing and strong enough to get through. And it is extremely painful! We are now just getting through. People are now coming to terms with themselves and their colleagues.”

What is this ‘pain barrier’? Bryan explains that it is to do with trusting enough to confront major organisational and interpersonal issues and then dealing with the ensuing pain. This is not so much a one-off moment, but a series of increasingly deep forays into the problems and possible solutions, facing them squarely and realistically – and which can be followed by moments of extreme elation and satisfaction.

“For our Chinese members, who are more used to the ‘boss culture’, the pain can be greater, but they also come through the barrier strengthened and more committed.”

Getting through necessitates high levels of informal communication. “And there are no rules except those we create to make the process work for us. The key is to get people talkling – really talking – to and with each other. It takes time to thrash things through. It can be frustratingly tortuous. Much of the talking has to be 1-1. Both the team members and leader have to act as catalysts. During our weekend breakthrough, the prime catalyst turned out to be the youngest and least experienced member of the team.”

GALVANISING FORCE

“The galvanising force behind our progress is of course our people. They have become galvanised by being less restricted, by being freed up, by having fun. We are trying to make work enjoyable and challenging,” says Anderson.

Freed people seem to take more pride in their work. In CTDC, Anderson is  encouraged by the fact that people have much more pride in the company’s achievements, mainly through the recognition that they have been responsible for delivering them. Indeed 1997 has been a year of record profits and dividends for CTDC.

While Anderson is modestly talking about his galvanising people, he omits to refer to the galvanising effect of his own role. After all, he initiated this complex, frustrating yet enthralling process and has surely had to exert considerable influence on it to keep it on course. What has he got to say about this role, and more specifically, about advice for Chief Executives embarking on such ambitious programmes?

CHIEF FACILITATOR

First and foremost, Anderson emphasises “having the confidence to experiment and to allow things to happen, while recognising whether what is happening is going to lead to a favourable outcome.” Also, he believes firmly in allowing the company to cope with and come to terms with cultural and personal diversity.

"In attempting to ease myself out of the more traditional command and control role expected of me, I find I have not only freed my people up but also freed myself up.” He asks: “What have I surrendered?”

“Nothing! I am now free to focus on the vision and not the detail. I am now free to be more creative. I am free from rushing to the next meeting. I am much freer from agendas. And deadlines feature less ominously on my much expanded horizon. I am very happy because I realise I can now truly lead. Leadership is about facilitation not control.” Bryan has discovered a vitally significant secret: leaders should focus less on developing people, more on letting them go.

Anderson is no less ‘active’ than before. But now he acts as a facilitator. He helps his management team confront issues they may still be reluctant to address and encourages them to make the risky decisions. He tries to nudge them from behind rather than pulling them forward. He also tries to provide encouragement, feedback, enlightenment and support in a more effective way than was possible when he also tightly held the reins, for as a facilitator, he needs to adopt a non-judgmental role which sits uneasily on the shoulders of most senior managers.

PROCESS NOT DETAIL

And what exactly does he facilitate? Like all professional facilitators he attempts above all else to facilitate the process. He frees himself from the detail of meetings and decisions, thus enabling him to watch over the ‘invisible’ process of meeting and decision-making effectiveness. So, for instance, Anderson can now more easily identify and assess peoples’ talents and potential. “From my new, more objective, vantage-point I can see who is naturally high-performing, who is ‘coming into their own’. I can see those I used to think were the weaker members of the team starting to blossom. As I observe them during a facilitated discussion, I am better able to give them valuable feedback to bring them on further. Everyone benefits.” 

And Anderson has found a particularly valuable result of moving responsibility to the team. “The team far better solves under-performance issues than I would have imagined, or could do myself. In the end, people leave the company not because they do not perform their job well, but because they do not perform their team job well, because they find they do not fit into the culture of the organisation.” Bryan adds however that one of his important facilitator tasks is to ensure that the team supports weaker team members.

EDUCATE OUTSIDERS

If from the inside, the CTDC process is chaotic and challenging, at least involvement ensures overall understanding and support. From the outside, the picture may be perceived through less favourable lenses. “It will be very difficult for me to fit us into the wider company context. I’ve only just told London of our experiment. For a start, our developing self-directed team structures do not fit in with the rest of the company hierarchy. What do we do about appraisals? To whom should outsiders speak with in the absence of the expected functional manager or MD? Increasingly my role will be to ‘work on’ people outside the boundary as I have spent so much time ‘working with’ people within it. Also I need to manage the interface in such a way that those within the boundary have the right support during the time they run in the new structures.” He adds cryptically: “This will depend on whether those outside the boundary view the virus as an illness or a cure!”

Anderson is under no illusions about the difficulties of overcoming resistance to changes in the hierarchy and the ‘power mentality’ upon which managers rely. Nor is he under any illusions about the danger that gradually the new structures could become as rigid as the old ones they replaced. Again, he stresses that this is a huge learning process. All must keep up the learning momentum. As the facilitator ‘guardian’ of this core process, he fully appreciates the influence he must continue to exert.

Finally, Anderson returns to the central topic: structures. “It is critical that structures be fluid and that junior people be freed up to build and rebuild the structures within which they have to perform the feats demanded by increasing standards of excellence. I believe we are well on the way to creating such an organisation, impregnated with spontaneity, a vital, living organism. Very soon, I intend to share the learning we have amassed with other parts of the Coats Group. And I look forward in turn to learning from their experience.”

 

 

© 2004 SYMFONYS Group     Updated 22 July 2005