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Change Management, Viewpoint!

Can the public sector improve itself?

You won’t do it!

A few years ago a group of UK managers was being shown round various Japanese companies to see how they had made such impressive steps in quality improvement.  One of the UK managers asked why the Japanese were being so open and sharing their “secrets”.  The response was “It will take you ten years to get where we are now and by then we’ll be further ahead.  And, we know you won’t do it”.  The Japanese believed it just wasn’t in the culture of western organisations to implement and sustain continuous performance improvement.

I was reminded of that quote by several conversations about the new financial climate in which the UK public sector is going to have to operate and the need to cut costs dramatically.  The obvious question is “can the public sector improve itself quickly enough?”.

I’ve written before about the “4-box” change model that describes what needs to be in place for successful, transformational change.  You need:

–          Pressure for change (why we have to change)

–          A clear vision for what change will achieve (what the end-point looks like)

–          Capacity for change (time and skills to make the change)

–          Actionable first steps (a practical, implementable plan)

There’s a fifth element that is worth including:

–          Reinforcement and recognition (to encourage success and deal with resistance)

These can provide a useful diagnostic checklist for any organisation (public or private sector) facing the need to change.   How might that apply to the public sector today?

Pressure for change: As the new incumbent at the Treasury discovered when he read his predecessor’s note “there is no money left”.  While public sector organisations have been able to get away with “smoke and mirrors” efficiency savings of 2-5% previously, the new reality is that budgets will be cut; radically in many cases.   One senior manager said recently “either we do this ourselves and take the initiative now, or we’ll have it done to us later and it will be much more painful”.

Vision for change: Most public sector organisations have reviewed, self-assessed and diagnosed themselves to death over the past ten years.  So, they know how good or bad their performance is and they’ve been given a pretty clear picture of what “good” looks like.  Endless Best Value Reviews, Lean Diagnostics and Best Practice Benchmarking make it clear how the best organisations achieve outstanding performance and deliver value for money.

Capacity for change: This is the hurdle where I think many public sector organisations will fall down.  Those organisations that have successfully embraced continuous improvement recognised early on that they had to develop an in-house capability to make performance improvement happen.  They trained and coached their leadership teams to behave in a way that engaged staff in continuous improvement.  Senior people recognised and addressed issues of poor performance.  Another key factor in success was training 1-2% of staff to be internal improvement facilitators.  It’s simply nonsense to have teams of consultants camped out “doing improvement” to or for the organisation.  You need enough motivated, capable staff to be around day-in and day-out to support their peers in driving and sustaining improvement.

I believe that too many public sector organisations have failed to invest in improvement capability and they are now wondering why their performance hasn’t changed to any great extent over the past x years.

Actionable first steps: The emphasis must be on “actionable”.  Timescales for implementing improvement need to be shortened drastically.  Adopting PRINCE2 project methods and taking 2 months to draft a Project Initiation Document simply won’t work (and hasn’t worked in the past).  Action plans need to identify what will happen in the next 1, 2 and 3 months.  Agile project thinking, visual management and stand-up daily meetings can all be adopted or adapted to establish some momentum.  When things happen more quickly, people begin to believe change is possible.  They may or may not like it (!) but they will at least acknowledge it can be done and things really can be improved.

Reinforcement and recognition: This is all about measuring progress, being positive about communicating successes and dealing with “resistance”.   This might be another challenge for some in the public sector; dealing with resistance usually means “hold more consultations” or “water things down” to make them more palatable. 

Will you do it?

It seems pretty clear that the public sector will have to change.  The five elements of well-managed change suggest that those organisations that have invested in “improvement capability” are most likely to succeed.  Those that haven’t, will have painful change forced upon them and may end up less fit for purpose than when they started.

I’ll end with a quote from management guru Peter Drucker: “If you think training is expensive, try ignorance”.  I’d update that for the public sector today and say “If you think investing in the capability to improve is expensive, try ignorance – survival isn’t compulsory”.

More articles on Change:

Why you don’t need a Culture Change Programme

Are you ready for Continuous Improvement?

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