Five core practices for OpEx

It’s all about the people…

… the problem is, that seems hard…

The joke often goes that managers pick up the Operational Excellence bible and flip through the chapters: hmmm ‘Create Flow’? Sounds confusing… what else we got? ‘Pull at the rate of demand’? Ok, ok, whatever that means…. ‘Remove Waste’! Aha! THAT I like…

There’s also a chapter tucked away in there on Respect For People… but most managers and implementers don’t get that far. But at the recent Operational Excellence Summit in Hamburg, there was a key, consistent theme… It’s All About The People.

Following the pandemic, with war in Europe and the climate crisis making itself felt all around us, with the remote working genie out of the bottle for everyone who isn’t operating a machine or transporting something. How we treat our people, how we listen to them, and how we get the best out of them is the single most important thing determining the success of organisations in the mid 2020s – and I think it’s going to get ever more important.

The five core leadership practices are ways to introduce fundamental organisational development approaches into any organisation. They are proven, doable, and impactful.

Introducing the five core practices

The core practices are five groupings of developmental activities, each comprising sets of short methods, that you can build into your organisation. Value is generated through ongoing, regular practice of them. They are:

  • Honest, productive conversations, intended to work towards a shared understanding and surface both reasoning and emotions, the two ‘undiscussables’. Because without a shared effort to get at the truth, it is hard to know where to start.
  • Clarity practices – intended to give clarity of relationships and boundaries of discretion in strategy, structure, programmes, roles, and tasks. Because only very limited learning is possible, and productivity and psychological safety are unlikely, without this.
  • Learning and reflective practices, to support learning from action. Because without learning, no Operational Excellence is possible.
  • Culture shaping, understanding that leaders and systems, and emotional responses to them. Because, as leaders, we create conditions which generate psychological safety and productivity – or the opposite.
  • Practices for good and clear intent – identifying measures of organisational purpose and customer outcomes as judged by them. Because the alternative is the drift to alternative de facto purposes that pull you ‘off course’.

The first three practices: honest conversations, clarity practices, and learning practices – play the foundations of what we call a learning system. This is a truly powerful start – if you only introduce these three practices, you will go far.

With the fourth, culture shaping, you can develop a truly productive organisation. And with the fifth – good and clear intent – a purposeful organisation.

Culture and good and clear intent are self-correcting practices and measures – if you measure the actual outcomes of your practices; the experience of employees and customers, and learn what works, there’s a certain sense in which you can’t go wrong; if customer needs change, or you are off target, you will know.

Practice, practice makes perfect…

This is about practice in several senses of that word: you have to actually do it, on a daily, built-in basis; you have to make a habit of it. And it has to be a mindful activity with the intent to get better. But it is not in essence goal-directed; you have to practice for its own sake. The outcomes come about because you focus on getting the practice right – and, once you’ve practiced, you have the skills there when you need ‘em.

Perhaps this sounds a bit ‘motherhood and apple pie?’ This is a reasonable challenge, I think. This is organisational development; it’s ‘the soft stuff’, or at least the messy human stuff. It’s not crunchy planning, it’s not definitive, it’s not something you can easily evaluate and say whether it’s fully in place or not, there’s no end point, there’s no definitive outcome. Even the practices are wide open to interpretation, and I offer no definite model for them – though there are a lot of practical tools.

Yet my contention is that these are deeply interrelating developmental practices. And that, without them, there will be some likelihood of serious limitation or problem or weakness in the organisation. If they are all fully functioning, there’s a thriving, dynamic, organic, ecosystemic organisation which can deal with a heck of a lot.

The risk of the ‘double bind’

There’s another reason it’s important to see them as practices. If you claim you ‘have’ these attributes (honest, clear, learning, etc), or even that you fully implement them, you create a real double bind[1]: ‘we’re an honest organisation; I experience dishonesty; I can’t speak of the dishonesty, because that would contradict us being an honest organisation; I’m dishonest; we’re an honest organisation’). That means that you have to practice them on an ongoing basis, that you will get better with practice (and may be rusty/incompetent at first), and that the practice is the point, not the outcome.

They’re also very hard work, challenging, and require an underlying practice of facing the tough stuff (or the boring, nitty-gritty, frustrating, the grind…) and dealing with it – and knowing that shit will come up, and that it won’t necessarily be resolved, but can be handled… the work ‘practice’ is these days of course often associated with meditation or mindfulness, and there are some reasonable parallels.

Enabling the people to deliver

Do the five core practices deliver hard business results? Yes, we have proven this time and time again – but they certainly do not pretend to guarantee quantified results. What they do is form, together, some self-correcting inter-relating mechanisms.

  • Honest conversation practices make the uncertain, the undiscussable, emotions (and more) discussable, so they move to create a norm that blind spots be made explicit, relationships are valid parts of the dialogue, and conflict can be productive (and more).
  • Clarity practices (often the most overlooked); continually working to establish clarity of relationships, roles, tasks, projects, and programmes, including making ‘grey areas’ explicit – as Vroomfondel and Majikthise say, ‘we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!’
  • Learning practices are probably the most often paid lip service to, but honoured more in the breach – and building these in and taking them seriously, at scale, brings real progress.

Each of these really works together in a dynamic loop in that they all depend on each other.

Then the culture shaping practice is about identifying how the triggers of organisational experience can be understood and made more positive – a core ‘self-correcting’ measure, though all the practices share this ‘self-correcting’ character, if stewarded properly, the final two can be self-correcting measures. And ‘intent’ brings in the practice of actively trying to establish and review a ‘good and clear intent’ and measure progress or, more likely, direction of travel.

The practices

So, what do these actually look like, ‘in practice’?

Productive conversations practices

Conversations are the engines of organisational success. However, to encourage productive conversations, leaders must distinguish between productive and unproductive voice and productive and unproductive silence. In many ways, the success of organisations hinges on the quality of the conversations within them. Productive conversations, for instance, can positively impact change management, innovation and even employee motivation and retention. Unproductive conversations, on the other hand, can undermine change, hinder innovation, and alienate and demotivate employees. 

Defensive routines are patterns of interpersonal interactions people create to protect themselves from embarrassment and threat. The conditions of threat and embarrassment arise when our abilities are negatively evaluated by a colleague or authority figure. Certain ways of thinking about and relating to others are reinforced, creating predictable, vicious cycles of behaviour called defensive routines. Defensive routines come about through a combination of human behaviour and the limits of awareness, where we fail to see how our interactions are part of a system of unproductive behaviour.

The book ‘Discussing the Undiscussable’ by Bill Noonan provides a set of practical ‘how to do’ exercises for detecting, surfacing, and discussing organisational defensive routines in a safe and productive way. The simplest of all is the famed ‘left hand column’ exercise – involving one line down a page and reviewing, rehearsing, and preparing ‘difficult conversations’. The combination of text, business fable, and interactive and reflective exercises is versatile in its application to both individuals and groups. By altering organisational defensive routines through leveraging the greatest opportunity for change—the way we think and act—organisations can benefit from increased productivity, a more spirited work force, and a cultural shift towards satisfaction.

So the work here is to build the muscle of having discussions that take more data into account – that skilfully surface the ‘ladder of inference’ – the data selected and  interpretations and assumptions behind arguments – and also what is going on emotionally.

Clarity practices

Clarity practice generally refers to the process of ensuring that tasks, roles, and purposes are clearly defined and understood within an organisation or team. This can involve setting clear expectations, providing detailed instructions, and establishing open lines of communication to ensure that everyone is on the same page. By having clarity in these areas, individuals can better understand their responsibilities and how their work contributes to the overall goals of the organisation. This can lead to increased productivity, improved collaboration, and a more engaged workforce.

We introduce tools for individual task allocation (CPORT), team decision-making (‘Seven Steps to Heaven’), Role Clarity, Strategic Clarity. And the simplest tool of all – the ‘three box model’ for agreeing boundaries and freedom to act – whether it be in a transformation programme or when taking on a simple task.

Outcomes organisations can see from having clarity practices:

  • Enhanced communication
  • Improved decision-making
  • Increased accountability
  • Enhanced efficiency and productivity
  • Reduced conflicts and misinterpretations
  • Improved alignment and focus
  • Boosted employee engagement
  • Enhanced customer experience

Learning practices

We somehow engaged with and then passed the era of the ‘Learning Organisation’, perhaps because the challenges of productive, honest conversations and clarity were not always addressed (and because business fads still pass like ships in the night). Building the practices of learning from experience – review, debrief, journaling, check-in and check-out, action learning, action inquiry – are central to finding ways into continual improvement. But they will fail if the honest conversations are not embedded, and if there wasn’t clarity in the first place, the learning gets very repetitive, very fast. The big key with these practices is if you can develop the habit of triple loop learning.

Triple-loop learning is a concept that builds upon the ideas of single-loop and double-loop learning, which were introduced by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. Single-loop learning involves making changes to actions and behaviours in response to feedback or errors, while double-loop learning involves questioning and changing underlying assumptions and values.

Triple-loop learning takes this process one step further by focusing on transforming the way individuals and organisations learn and know. Bill Torbert describes triple-loop learning as involving changes to our ‘action logics,’ or ways of knowing. This type of learning goes beyond the cognitive dimensions of double-loop learning and can produce transformation in individual and organisational capacity for curiosity, compassion, and courage.

The three learning loops are:

  1. Learning to do the thing, better – whether it’s strategy execution, logistics, or process in service or manufacturing.
  2. Learning to rethink the context – step back and see if we are really trying to do the right thing (or just the wrong thing, righter).
  3. And considering whether we should change our whole identity, our way of seeing ourselves and our role in the system…

Implementing triple-loop learning in your organisation can bring several advantages. By transforming the way individuals and organisations learn and know, triple-loop learning can help to foster a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. This can lead to increased adaptability and resilience in the face of change, as well as improved problem-solving and decision-making capabilities. Additionally, by promoting curiosity, compassion, and courage, triple-loop learning can help to create a more engaged and motivated workforce. This can lead to increased productivity, improved collaboration, and higher levels of job satisfaction.

Overall, implementing triple-loop learning in your organisation can help to create a more dynamic, adaptable, and engaged workforce that is better equipped to navigate the challenges of today’s rapidly changing business environment.

Incorporating true learning is increasingly important to the long-term success of your business because. Here are some potential outcomes that organisations can expect from fostering a culture of learning:

  • Continuous improvement
  • Enhanced employee performance
  • Increased employee engagement and satisfaction
  • Improved adaptability and agility
  • Knowledge sharing and collaboration
  • Enhanced innovation and creativity
  • Attraction and retention of top talent
  • Improved organisational agility and resilience

Culture shaping

Culture shaping refers to the process of intentionally acting as a leader, and shaping the experience of employees, to create the optimal conditions for productivity. This is very different from going into a darkened room and coming up with values, beliefs, behaviours, and norms that you aspire to define your organisation. This is, frankly, unproductive.

Actual culture is shaped by leaders – by their behaviours, by the organisational systems they create or allow to be created (and allow to drift), and by the symbolism that they employ (intentionally or unintentionally). The goal of culture shaping is to create a work environment that supports the achievement of the organisation’s goals and objectives, while also promoting the well-being and engagement of its employees. The only way to do that is by leaders inquiring openly into how these ‘triggers’ for culture shaping are being experienced by employees – creating the core, gut emotional reaction which enables psychological safety, productivity, and full-blooded giving of the whole commitment of the worker… or (more frequently) the opposite.

Culture shaping can bring several advantages to an organisation. If leaders are brave enough to change those triggers, check and learn the impact, and keep monitoring and developing those feedback loops with consistency and persistence, leaders can create a work environment that supports the achievement of the organisation’s goals and objectives. This can lead to increased productivity, improved collaboration, and higher levels of innovation. Additionally, culture shaping can help to promote the well-being and engagement of employees. By creating a positive work environment that aligns with employees’ values and needs, organisations can foster a more motivated and committed workforce. This can lead to lower turnover rates, higher levels of job satisfaction, and improved overall performance.

Overall, culture shaping can help organisations to create a more dynamic, adaptable, and engaged workforce that is better equipped to navigate the challenges of today’s rapidly changing business environment.

Practices for good and clear intent

Most of this good work can be undermined if we measure proxies, partial measures, and the wrong things – and create incentives systems which lead to ‘creep’ in the actual purpose the organisation ends up pursuing. Or simply a de facto purpose which is completely different from what you want to achieve.

The intent or purpose of directly measuring outcomes is to assess the effectiveness of a particular intervention, program, or strategy. By collecting data on the outcomes that matter most to the individuals or groups being served, organisations can determine whether their efforts are achieving the desired results. This information can then be used to make data-driven decisions about how to improve or refine their approach. Directly measuring outcomes can also help organisations to demonstrate their impact and value to stakeholders, such as funders, policymakers, and the public. By providing evidence of their effectiveness, organisations can build support for their work and attract additional resources.

Outcomes can organisations see from practices for good and clear intent:

  • Trust and psychological safety
  • Ethical behaviour and integrity
  • Improved conflict resolution
  • Enhanced decision making
  • Increased employee engagement
  • Positive organisational reputation
  • Enhanced stakeholder relationships

Why bother?

You can get short-term results with carrots, sticks, and smart leaders desperately driving results quarter by quarter. That’s not Operational Excellence, though, it’s the opposite.

If you want sustainability – real long-term continual improvement and focus on worthwhile outcomes that matter to your customers – and if you care about the waste of human misery and misfunction in most organisations – take a step into the Five Core Leadership Practices.

[1] Toward a theory of schizophrenia, Bateson, Jackson, Haley and Weakland, (Behavioral Science, 1956 Vol. 1), and developed in Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, Bateson (University Of Chicago Press, 1972).

About the Author

Benjamin Taylor has worked in service transformation, organisational and operational effectiveness, and leadership and organisational development for over 25 years.

He is a Board Advisor at the Operational Excellence Society and Managing partner at RedQuadrant, a networked consultancy, amongst other roles.

He studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University before becoming coordinator of a youth development charity. He began work in service transformation as a frontline worker in 1998, then worked as Adviser to Mayor, eGovernment Manager, and set up a strategic partnership for one of the London boroughs.

As a consultant at PwC and Capita group, his work included customer strategy for Birmingham City Council, advice to the Government of Armenia, work on optimising people flow with British Airways, and work in the cultural sector on diversity, inclusion, and equalities.

He has led the network consultancy RedQuadrant since co-founding it in 2009, and established the Public Service Transformation Academy in 2016, a not-for-profit registered social enterprise building public service transformation capability. The latter organisation delivers the Cabinet Office Commissioning Academy on behalf of UK government, supporting leadership to deliver better outcomes for communities and citizens. He has also been a Trustee of KEEN London, a charity connecting university students and disabled children and their siblings for exercise sessions. Benjamin talks regularly at conferences and workshops on improving outcomes from service organisations and others, and has regularly presented at and chaired Operational Excellence conferences, directed and chaired two Public Service Transformation Academy conferences

Similar Posts