This is the third post in the Brave New World series, which explores ten patterns I see underpinning new ways of working and learning for complex work contexts. The patterns are themes that recur as times and contexts change, and are linked to creating conditions for satisfying work and effective, customer-focused performance.
I’m summarising the posts from an eBook I wrote earlier this year, Calling All Instigators! Do something new or different at work and learn from the experience. Please either send me a message on LinkedIn or a Direct Message on Twitter (@smartco) if you’d like a link to a free copy.
All the patterns were evident to some extent in the past. Some, like the importance of our informal social relationships to how we experience work, go as far back as the Hawthorne studies in the 1920s and 1930s. Others like customer focus, the theme of this post, began to emerge strongly in the shift to participative, process control and innovation philosophies of work design that began to appear in western manufacturing roughly thirty years ago.
These evolved to include inter-related philosophies like Just-in-time, Total Quality Management, Lean, Mass Customisation and Agile Manufacturing. Here isn’t the place to go into debates about what each of these is or is not, but it is safe to say that customer focus is core to each.
The crucial thing to appreciate is that customer focus applied to both end customers who pay for a product or service, and the people who provided them with what they want through their knowledge and interactions.
As each person or team completed their bit of the process, they were expected to integrate with people and teams across different stages of the production (or service generating) process. People were expected to treat each other as internal customers. This applied both within a particular factory and with others in different companies, everyone collaborating to supply components to go into the final product.
The customer is dead, long live the customer!
That was then, what about now? So much that ought to be known about organising with customers at the forefront of our minds appears to have been lost in the mists of time – or that’s how it feels to me.
If the hype is to be believed, end point customers are once more becoming more powerful and demanding. I’m not convinced (especially for near monopolistic service providers like banks and telecoms) although I do think the potential is there. Customers are now connecting online, making recommendations and collectively denting reputations when businesses get things wrong. Plus customers are no longer satisfied with just accepting what they are given – they increasingly expect to be included in designing products and services.
Businesses began figuring out years ago how to organise and manage workforce and supplier relationships for agile customisation. It is not possible without mobilising the relationships, skills, commitment, creativity and problem-solving capabilities of everyone in the business and beyond into the extended supply network. It’s time to remind ourselves of some of this insight.
What does organising actually entail? It’s about organising people and resources to give customers what they want, which means creating the initial conditions (systems influenced by values and beliefs about workforce capabilities) from which dynamic structures, processes and shifting boundaries emerge.
Despite all the hoo-ha and hoop-la about ‘holocracy’ being the new way to structure for a connected, networked age, following the well-publicised Zappos adoption, there are a myriad of different ways businesses can decide who does what, how, when and with whom.
Thinking of two businesses I’ve had experience of in the past, one was highly adaptive, customer-focused, inclusive and traditionally organised – functional and hierarchical. The other was organised in a holocractic way – highly autonomous, cellular, and a deeply unhappy workplace.
The difference? The employment relationship in the traditionally structured business was excellent. People were respected and trusted. In the other, redundancies had been mishandled and the culture was typified by the HR Director saying that he used to go out to the factory floor occasionally “to shoot a few people.”
Although Pettigrew and Fenton’s research is now fifteen years old, I think what they said back then remains valid – that “half-revealed and understood trends are conveniently and crudely captured as ideal types” and that “all contemporary scholars of new forms of organising share the same problem of trying to make sense of a moving target.” Tell me about it!
A final observation from them is that “organisations may be resting uneasily on a cusp between order and disorder.” So far so confusing.
Organising for customer focus
This is about configuring the value network – who is involved in delivering to increasingly demanding end-point customers, and what’s their contribution? What do they need to act together effectively? The remaining nine patterns are all about this but here are a few thoughts as starters.
So much depends on context. What matters to customers – speed, quality, cost, design, co-design, sensory experience, customisation, safety, combinations of these things, what else? Is the work new or familiar? Complex or routine? We need to understand these constraints and parameters, and then we can think about what organisational, operational and learning resources people need.
But what if you are not the Chief Executive or another clout-wielding senior executive? What can you practically do to contribute towards organising for customer focus?
Who are your customers?
I think reviving and promoting the idea of each other as internal customers is a good place to start. Being able to be of service to someone can be deeply satisfying. David D’Souza blogged about this a few days ago, and here’s one of my posts about people get meaning from their work by giving service.
Another way is to design work so that people have to work and talk together, with the result that they see things from each other’s perspectives and take joint responsibility for meeting end customer requirements.
There are a few examples of this in the eBook. One is the story of a team designing a product with new features, to tight time-scales and for a customer who wouldn’t accept late delivery. The normal design process, which was to distribute responsibility for different design components to globally-distributed teams. That was all very well but problems typically arose at the joins.
They decided to turn things inside out and began by putting teams together around interfaces so that problems were worked out as the project progressed. Time-to-market of the technically advanced product was comfortably achieved. An unexpected outcome of the tight time-scales and strict customer demands, coupled with multi-specialist teams jointly responsible for outcomes, was that there was no time for politics and in-fighting.
Another example was a well-known automotive manufacturer seeking to improve quality. Management in this company understood that what they wanted to achieve needed more than technology: relationships within the main factory and with suppliers had to improve.
One of the things they did was to send people from the main factory to work in supplier factories for a period and vice versa. In this way, each could experience for themselves first-hand the practical problems that each other faced. Innovation through collaborative learning began to build long-term trust.
Exchanging personnel temporarily like this might still be beneficial but of course we now have social technologies that connect across organisational boundaries – creating learning opportunities for sharing experiences that let us better understand each other’s problems and perspectives.
You can do it
Whether or not you have any say in how your workplace is formally structured – hierarchy, flat, cellular, etc. – you can act in a customer-focused way in the part of the organisation where you work.
You might already be serving end customers, if you are a nurse or a teacher for example. If not, you can start by treating your colleagues as internal customers, and start a chain reaction by encouraging them to do the same to other people. You can also make people from different bits of the organisation and beyond into the supply network jointly responsible for project outcomes.
Go on – you can do it!