are your teams ready to pick up the baton?

by Alex Graham

Picture your frontline teams and now picture a sports team to compare them to. The chances are that you pictured a football team or similar. For teams working in the same place at the same time, towards a clear single aim, visibly supported on site by their manager this analogy would work. The trouble is the Water sector frontline teams are working in this way less and less. Often teams work in shift patterns in multiple locations, juggling many different expectations, often led by a manager who needs them to largely self manage. The nearest sports team analogy to this is the track and field relay team, covering a distance so vast that the manager can only influence in training and review sessions, not during the event itself. This has profound implications for how the team is set up for success, managed and led. Let’s start by looking at the three forces that are changing the way teams work!

1. a new wave of technological innovation

Technological innovations are fundamentally changing ways of working at the frontline, enabling smaller, more specialised teams to cover a wider geographical area and to manage multiple sites. Slick baton handovers between teams and roles have become a critical success factor in embracing the benefits that new technology brings. Example technologies include: the use of ultrasonic pipeline leak detection techniques and in-situ spectral analysis at night to find previously undetectable leaks; production sites with advanced automation systems and web-based SCADA enabling teams to operate multiple sites simultaneously. With continued investment we expect technological advances to accelerate in AMP 6 and beyond.

2. T​he drive for further efficiencies

Just as frontline teams are spread thinner so too are management spans of control growing ever wider (number of reports) and broader (skill sets of reports). As a result there are less formal leadership ‘touch points’. We have regularly seen examples of managers with 1 to 25 reports covering the full capability set needed to operate, maintain and improve large and complex sites. In the past, frontline colleagues would have regular face-to-face contact with a manager that fully understood their technical challenges. This is becoming increasingly rare with an expectation that teams ‘self-manage’ and to some extent people self-develop.

3. increased regulation and compliance

In a football game, the final whistle is the end. In a relay, it’s not just about the order on the finish line but whether the rules were adhered to along the way. In the Water sector teams are expected to rigorously comply with a growing array of policies and procedures, evaluate work and continually provide accurate information and insight for further analysis. The expectations of Regulators, Customers, and Shareholders (and other influential stakeholders) are growing. Customer and community groups are setting targets for AMP 6 that go further than regulatory standards, (e.g. Ofwat SIM and Defra targets) and for example beyond the economic level of leakage. A football team has it easy in comparison.

Taken together, these innovations represent great progress and will ensure our water resources are safer and more efficiently managed in the future. However at the frontline, they often lead to fewer people, working more shift patterns in specialist teams, spread over bigger areas and more assets, working autonomously.

why is managing ‘relay teams’ more challenging?

As teams become smaller, more specialised and more dispersed, they must work seamlessly together ensuring critical information is passed, without error, within and between teams. Economists call this challenge a ‘Weakest-Link Game,’ because the output is determined by the weakest person’s contribution, making it damaging to carry under-performers. The rules of the game are more precise with a smaller margin of error and more scrutiny around how results are achieved. As a result there are more handoffs within teams and between teams, and every handoff is a potential breakdown/error point. To illustrate, if fixing an asset involves 5 different roles and each role has a 90% chance of passing on their part of the job successfully there is less than a 60% chance the asset will be fixed right first time in full. This is tangibly illustrated in customer call centres where we have found examples where 8% of calls result from breakdowns in internal processes and ‘handoff issues’.

The communication challenge is not just about passing information on accurately. If ‘relay’ teams are to succeed and to continuously improve then they need to be expert at applying learning and embedding change. Getting a consistent message to each team member when they are rarely in the same place at the same time is challenging. Getting timely unbiased feedback about how that message has landed is even more challenging. This issue gets even more intractable as teams change composition (people churn). It becomes irresponsible to rely on custom and practice to communicate how work should be done.

how to ensure your ‘relay teams’ don’t drop the baton

Developing a winning relay team is a different and difficult challenge, but managed in the right way these teams can achieve amazing results. For inspiration just watch the 2004 Athens Olympic Games Men’s 4x100m relay final. Each member of Team GB was more than one second slower (based on personal best times over 100m) than their US team counter-parts. They should never have come close to the US, but they won gold.

Here is a six-step guide to setting up and leading relay teams for success:

  1. Support the transition to becoming a relay team through active change management. Imagine asking a professional footballer to become a track runner - they can’t make that transformation on their own, and the same is true for their manager
  2. Develop End-to-End process improvement dashboards to ensure team learning and holistic decision making. Dashboards should have metrics for handoffs, failure points and input compliance. This ensures measurement of each teams’ contribution to success from the perspective of both parties – it takes two to pass the baton successfully!
  3. Instil standardised management disciplines rigorously with supporting tools and techniques for the frontline. Some of the most beneficial are: codified Standard Operating Procedures, Visual Performance Management with similar working patterns for all similar working areas
  4. Judge leaders of relay teams by their poorest performers and how much they are improving, whilst ensuring they are supported to face into the difficult performance management conversations
  5. Evolve the leadership approach to develop connected leaders who prize consistency, rigour and constructive two-way communication
  6. Use IT tools (e.g. web conferences, Yammer, SharePoint, Trello, Google Hangout etc) to support, but not replace, two-way communication.

Technological innovation, the drive for efficiencies and increasing stakeholder standards are not new trends in the Water sector, but the pace and combination of change has started to accelerate the transformation of how frontline teams work. The leadership challenge of the future will be how to support this transformation and manage these new relay teams, ensuring no one drops the baton.

To find out more, get in touch with Alex Graham: / +44 (0) 20 7298 7878