thinking like water

transforming capability, morale and performance in water utilities

Our water utility client was struggling to meet regulatory targets. The new management team wanted an improvement programme that would deliver process efficiency and cultural transformation. They needed a different way of thinking about their problems, and a different way of working to solve them. In short, they wanted an organisation better equipped to absorb the wave of technological and regulatory change expected in the next five to ten years.

our approach

Our work started with a pilot, to test our approach and to prove the business case for change. The brief was to deliver a capability-led change approach, mobilising local teams to deliver measurable performance improvement and behavioural change. Combining the principles of lean process improvement with change management and systems thinking, it was designed and delivered in three stages: discovery, solution design and solution delivery.

In the discovery phase, we ran lean process mapping sessions and route cause analysis workshops. We held surveys and focus interviews and collated all the data and anecdotes into an overall story of the strengths and challenges of the current ways of working. This identified the waste and inefficiencies in the system, and how work gets done and what gets in the way. We then reframed this into a systems map showing what good looks like, and worked with the teams to identify what needed to change to achieve the desired outcome.

During the solution design phase, we trained team members from operators to managers in core change skills and set up small mobilisation teams to work on the improvement areas identified in the diagnostics, supported by on-the-job coaching. This was reinforced by the introduction of balanced scorecards as visual management tools, around which the teams could organise, plan and prioritise, and continuously improve their work.

The success of the pilot led us to roll out the same approach across the organisation, starting in water and waste service delivery to maximise returns quickly, and finishing in the support functions. We implemented strategy maps and balanced scorecards throughout the organisation to connect a continuous improvement approach on the frontline directly to the strategic vision set by the board.

our insights

Our diagnostics uncovered data and stories of low morale, confused priorities, unclear accountabilities, lack of ownership, a leadership mindset of reacting to issues rather than anticipating and resolving problems, and a performance management system that didn’t filter down through the organisation in a tangible and practical way.

By combining rigorous analysis and systems thinking to tell a coherent and visual story for change, we were able to engage head office and the field to take action. Leadership was key to this. When they were actively communicating and acting on the ‘problem we had to solve’, they accelerated the pace of change. Compliant acceptance on the other hand acted as a brake.

Lean tools alone did not create a climate of consistent and continuous improvement: the tools required the support of behavioural change techniques and coaching and an adaptation to the needs of local teams. It was then essential that the HR system aligned and reinforced the transformed way of managing and leading the business, ie, through recruitment, training, promotions etc.

the results

Having been used to a ‘top-down’ change approach, our client told us that our approach to engaging everyone from the frontline upwards was both very different and very effective, generating ideas and ownership to create more meaningful and sustainable change.

The overall result was enhanced customer experience, more engaged team members (3,000 of whom were trained in new skills) and significant financial benefits, all of which enabled a move up the regulatory league table. Breakeven point on the project was achieved within 18 months.

Success stories include implementing new working patterns in the water service delivery teams, laying the foundations for the implementation of SAP, and developing a new organisation in asset creation.