Pass Me The Light Bulb

An old adage has its roots in the military: the people who know what’s really happening have no power to change things, and the people who have the power to change things don’t know what’s really happening.  The conventional business answer in attempting to square this particular circle has been the suggestion scheme, but this rarely adds much value because it doesn’t question the power structure of the organisation, ie ‘you may have ideas but I’ll decide whether they are worthwhile’.  Going back to the shop floor, where the chief executive discovers first hand ‘what is really going on’ at the coalface,  is more telegenic but similarly reinforces the message that nothing changes without the boss’s say so.

Determined to do better, the giant American manufacturing company GE developed in the late 80s an approach called WorkOut.  Its essence was that a team of experienced staff explored together their ideas for improvement and presented them to managers, who then had to say yes or no – the latter with a credible reason – on the spot.  What managers could not do was kick ideas into the long grass. WorkOut continues to generate big improvements in productivity and has been widely adopted elsewhere.

Whether or not labelled WorkOut, a similar approach get results in local government. Years ago in a county council a 17 year old girl trainee whose first language was not English took part in a project to speed up the process of meeting a child’s special educational needs. Surrounded by much more experienced colleagues and naturally shy, she had little to say at first.  At the fourth session she blurted out “Why do we do all the steps in series?  It would be better to do them in parallel.” A stunned silence and then the eventual result that the time was cut in half, giving the child and family what they needed much sooner, and  the cost was slashed.

Interviewing a group of graduate trainees at a city council last month, one message screamed out: they enjoyed their work, thought it was worthwhile, but couldn’t understand why ‘the system’ didn’t get off their back and let them contribute much more.   Sometimes the truthful answer is ‘Because doing so would break the law’ or even ‘That would probably be a good way to kill people’.  But more often the truthful answer is ‘Because that’s the way we do it here so get back in your box’.  After being told that a few times you do, and stay there.

So here’s the challenge to HR professionals, all the more vital in this period of austerity: create the environment in which people have ideas and the organisation snaps them up and runs with them.  Southend, for example, seems to have done that pretty well.

Stephen Taylor

Blakesley Associates

By | 2017-07-30T12:23:24+00:00 July 24th, 2012|Categories: Guest Blogger, Stephen Taylor|5 Comments


  1. Martin Rayson 26th July 2012 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    There is a lot of talk about how we can foster an “innovative” culture in the public sector. This actually sounds quite big and scary. We do have to find some “big” solutions to the challenges we face, but we also need to encourage a culture of continuous improvement where everyone is thinking about how greater efficiency can be achieved and all staff are coming up with ideas and where something is done with those ideas.

  2. Raffaela Goodby 9th August 2012 at 7:03 pm - Reply

    I’ve seen the best ideas where the staff who are actually DOING the job get together and decide how to do it better. I often feel that our role in HR and engagement is making those links with the senior people who have the klout and access to contacts and cash to give permission for people to JDI. This can be through a staff suggestion scheme, a Dragons’ Den typed approach, or by having a structured way of asking. It also gives the responsibility back to employees themselves and hopefully builds a bit of empowerment. Looks easy when written on the page but when we add in cynicism and low levels of trust in our organisations, it’s actually an incredibly hard recipe to get right!

    Have you seen what Google do? They give staff a day or two a month (I think) to work on what makes them happy and passionate – the leadership giving permission and room to innovate. Then also film little videos of themselves and tag them up with key words, and then other Google employees can search on ‘how do i’ across the world, and learn from others at their desk, or ring them up to talk it through. I like the idea of all of us doing that for ‘dealing with a tough disciplinary’ ‘performance management of a tricky sickness case’ ‘getting the senior team on board with your new people management strategy’ ‘conducting a trade union consultation meeting with clear outcomes’ ‘how to set up the tax on a salary sacrifice scheme’. Seeing as we don’t have that, we do have PPMA to give us access to that mentoring knowledge and advice instead.

    ps Hello Stephen! I enjoyed your blog 🙂

  3. Joanna Ruffle 14th August 2012 at 11:29 am - Reply

    Thanks for the Southend mention, Stephen!

  4. Joanna Ruffle 14th August 2012 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Any improvment journey should have employee engagement at its heart if it is to be successful and sustainable.
    In my experience the biggest challenge this presents is to senior managers, and to the top team in particular, who have to completely rethink their leadership role in the organisation.
    Egos have to be set aside,risks have to be taken, mistakes have to be tolerated: in a nutshell leaders have to be brave and lead in a way that, to date, has been alien in the world of Local Government.
    It is futile to talk about the need for innovation and creativity if the prevailing culture is about micro- management and risk- avoidance.
    To quote Jeanette Winterson ‘ there is no safety without risk and what you risk reveals what you value’

    HR needs to blaze the trail. We need to be braver in and around our organisations; and nuture and encourage bravery when we see it elsewhere. Traditionally ( and I belive unfairly) seen as one of the most risk adverse of all professions, we have a challenging road ahead but one that could take us to really exciting places if we have the courage to take the first step!

  5. Martin Rayson 15th August 2012 at 7:49 am - Reply

    I think many people feel that they cannot afford to take risks in the current climate, when this is exactly the time we have to. Senior Leaders have a key role to play, but I also think we have to look at the whole system and see if that is stifling innovation. Decision processes, budget cycles and leadership are all holding us back

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