I was asked recently to give a talk to some of the leadership team at the Department of Work and Pensions. They run a monthly lunchtime session and ask people from industry and academia to come in and share their experiences.
Their Director General for Digital Technology is Mayank Prakash and as I understood it, his brief for these sessions was something like: “Inspire a mixed audience of senior managers to be excited about technology again”.
The following blog isn’t a direct transcript of the talk that I gave. I wrote it during the preparation for that event and thought it might be interesting for my team and some people who couldn’t come along to the session.
So, “to inspire and excite once again”: I don’t think that I’ve ever had a more intimidating brief for a talk!
To me, inspire means driven to action, excited is a pretty elevated state and “again” implies that the tech sparkle has lost it’s charm. For a number of days, the feelings I had were closer to trepidation and fear! I conceived and rejected many, many talks.
They included such subjects as:
- Virtual Reality
- Robotic Process Automation
- Cognitive Process Automation
- Machine Learning and AI
- Chat Bots
- Internet of Things (and all the clever derivatives)
- Geo location
- Cloud and big data (of course)
- And with security, my hot tech bingo list was virtually complete.
However, these topics trouble me sometimes. They can be like the froth on my latte.
Sort of nice but not sustaining.
Of course there’s some genuinely amazing technology there. I’m 50% Geek, 50% Businessman and 50% nerd (trolls take note!). I love it.
But, I do worry. I worry that sexy new technologies are an easy invitation to procrastinate. The magic is always coming “real soon now”, “it’s just around the corner”.
In all my years as a consumer and in business, one thing has been consistent. Wherever I’ve looked, there has been huge opportunity for taking cost out and transforming our client’s experience. Huge gains can be made using rather ordinary digital techniques and technology. We don't have to wait. We can address it now. Today.
Sometimes, we all struggle for ideas of where we can improve.
I've found that when I try to walk a mile in the shoes of my customers. When I look around for the things that hurt them. When I seek out the pain that’s become part of the way we do things round here, it's my experience that there are candidates for improvement everywhere.
We're shaped and limited by our own beliefs. It's my experience that when we search out the problems, boost our creativity and embrace the naive belief that we can do something about them, then we and our teams can make the world a better place.
My starting premise is that the scope for improvement is huge and that we can do something about it without waiting for some miracle of technological to finally make it out of the labs and into our all too real world.
So what to speak about today? To inspire and excite. To make technology seem amazing again.
Gradually, I concluded that I should describe one of the biggest transformations I’ve ever been involved in. The technology was essential but rather mundane. It dramatically improved the experience of my customers and it ended by generating quite a lot of money. In fact enough cash for my employer to purchase one of the most famous global engineering icons in existence. More of that later.
But first, a small digression...
How did I come to be here
Over the last 30 years, I’ve come to believe that exciting transformations are born out of passion, energy and innovation. When these elements are present, extraordinary things can happen.
I was born in 1963 and grew up on a mixed farm on the Northants / Bucks border. When I was a young boy of 9 or 10, my dad came home one day with a battered and beat up Beetle (c1962) for us to drive around the fields. It was amazing fun and I loved it. We didn’t worry about the emissions in those days. The simple lines, the logo and the noisy engine all entranced me. The sense of liberation was amazing. My Dad didn't really love it quite so much when we learned to syphon petrol from his car! It tasted disgusting but it was worth it.
I wrote my first program in 1979 on a PET computer at the North Oxfordshire Technical College. When they wheeled it into the room, I was transported onto the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and I felt a calling. I wrote my first program later that day and I loved it. After graduating as an engineer in 1981, I started my career in local government writing fuel and utility management systems for the city engineers department in Coventry. I convinced the comptometer team to digitise the utility bills for me and created some simple algorithms that highlighted tariff opportunities. I loved it. I ran workshops for neighbouring authorities and I believe they had a jolly time liberating significant amounts of revenue. I’d developed a taste for technology. The feeling of creating value from thin air was delicious and addictive. I wanted more.
I bid farewell to the City Engineer and I converted to be a professional developer for Kays catalogue (part of Great Universal Stores). In the mid 80s, our stack was IBM mainframe assembler and I took to it like a duck to water. Within a couple of years, I led the re-engineering of the main letter producing application. There was a large room with 10 or so IBM printers that spewed out individualised marketing nonsense at a speed of about 150 feet per minute each. In every corner of our country there was a cacophony of rattling letterboxes. Maybe some of you have seen my work and for that I apologise!
Whilst the tech was great fun, I can’t say that I was inspired by or passionate about the Kays / Great Universal business. There was scale and the operation was quite impressive. But fundamentally, it seemed we were trying to persuade people who could least afford it to part with money for things they didn’t need and were of questionable quality.
Then one day, 20 years after bouncing around the fields in our beat up beetle, I was sitting at my desk waiting for a print run to finish and flicking through Computer Weekly. I saw a vision. The Volkswagen logo proud and large atop an advert for a job that I could do. The details were irrelevant as it literally called to me, dragging powerful memories to the fore. I could taste the petrol in my mouth (as I can now!!).
To cut a long story short, I ignored the three rejections they sent me and felt no shame in finally accepting the job they’d originally offered to someone else. I was at last in the place of my dreams. And it was here that I was inspired by a simple management idea (The Theory of Constraints). It was here that I found a massively expensive problem that was hiding in plain view, right in front of our eyes . It was here that I led the search for a solution, iterated it with my colleagues, sold it to our controllers in Germany, created the whole transformation programme, oversaw the IT development. And it was here that I led the team which deployed the solution and delivered the savings (that were measured in hundreds of millions of pounds). If you’re not familiar with the theory of constraints, I urge you to read a book called The Goal by Goldratt and Cox. It was given to me by our Group MD, Richard Ide and it had a profound effect.
The simple ideas have been relevant in every walk of my life.
Intermission to help with our creativity (hopefully)
For the presentation, I’d prepared a short diversion and I asked how can we become more creative and better able to apply ourselves and build a better world? In my own life, I've found that innovation comes more freely when I smash myself into unfamiliar areas and new ideas.
I hoped that it might be the same for the members of the audience and they gamely joined in when I told them that:
We’re going to be car dealers!
We’d made some “Top-Trump-card-licious” props to help the thing along…
And everyone received some stock cars that they had to swap to try and satisfy their customers.
Mayhem and confusion reigned for a few minutes but in the end, I’m pretty sure that everyone had a better understanding of the problem!
- Customers walked into dealers and wanted to buy a car
- Dealers kept their cars in their car parks so they could show them to customers.
- There's a lot of different types of cars, colours, numbers of doors etc. When you compound them together there's many thousands of derivatives
- If the customer insists on having a car that I haven't got (how unreasonable!) bad things can happen:
- I have to do some work
- I have to physically move vehicles about
- They can get damaged
- I might do all the above and still not sell a car
- If I persuade the customer to take a car they don't want, it will cost me money and the customer will still be unhappy!
So what did I do?
When I spoke to senior managers, many of them believed it was a pointless discussion as the problem was impossible to solve. Senior people literally laughed when I raised it with them. Many people had tried to solve it before and none had succeeded. Many didn’t work there any more!
It was the big problem that everyone accepted had a right to exist. It was the cost of being in the motor trade.
I didn't share their view.
Luckily neither did my MD and he gave me some rope.
With naivety, passion and the creativity that can sometimes only come from someone outside of the industry, I threw myself into the problem.
I met many, many dealers. And their sales managers and their salespeople.
I met the production overlords at the factories.
I met finance controllers who advise the main board.
I met main board members
I found supporters along the way, like minded people who thought the problem was worth our time to try and solve.
A thing that surprised me then was that the more junior the people, the more ideas they had about how to solve the problem. They hadn’t yet learned what was possible and impossible. It wasn’t as simple as just doing what they said, because there were many contradictions and feuding parties with different interests. “I like the idea, but that will never work!”
But me no buts!
In 1709, Susanna Centlivre conjured the phrase “but me no buts!” I learned on a course once the destructive impact of the word “but”. They urged us all to remove it from our vocabulary and just replace it with “and”. They argued that by using that “trick”, you can say the same thing and have the impact you want without getting peoples backs up. It was a lot later that I learned something much more subtle (and powerful) about the “trick”. When we use “and”, our own brains are slightly deceived and start to contemplate that both sides can be true / satisfied. A creative process of Synthesis begins in the subconscious (thanks to Frank Buytendijk for helping me understand that better!).
Imagine the scene:
Battle lines are drawn. They think it’s unsolvable. And remarkably, they’re right
Tweak it slightly:
The positions are acknowledged. There’s no impediment to a solution and subconsciously, they start the search.
What about a business case!?!
I took an interest in logistics and distributed stock pools. By talking to dealers I found out that they would travel up to 100 miles with a car to do a swap. Any way I cut it, it looked like we had a very inefficient system to allocate and distribute vehicles.
I documented the problem in all it’s glory. Because we distribute cars like this, this happens.
I calculated the cost. It was huge. Just in the numbers that no one would argue about, there were too many zeroes to hold in a poor farm boys head!
- I formed a working party and we painted a vision of a world that wouldn’t suffer the same issues. It all came from the people at the sharp end who experienced the waste and unhappy customers. Our job was to turn it into a coherent solution that we could deploy. Remove the wilder elements that would never get approval. Remove the over engineering that didn’t actually contribute to the business case. In the end, our list (or backlog) was like so:
- Keep the showrooms full but don’t allow dealers to fill up the car parks with new stock
- Buy more land at the ports and hold the dealers’ cars there instead
- Negotiate a win win agreement in principle with dealers that they’ll allow automatic release of their stock under certain circumstances
- Negotiate a win win agreement in principle that they’ll support a negotiated transfer of stock under other circumstances
- Work out new stocking parameters (2.5 months of sales coverage reduced to 1.8 months)
- Negotiate a win win agreement in principle with the production overlords that they’ll produce fewer cars while we destock
- Agree with finance the impact on our business
- Create the transformation programme across our whole business to ensure the benefit would be delivered for customers, dealers and Volkswagen.
- Build a system that allows the dealers to search and transfer the stock digitally.
As blockers were raised, we regrouped and solved them. We built our solution 1st in our minds and then on paper and then we tried to sell it to our stakeholders. It was an iterative process. And we felt our way forwards.
In the end, the blockers were unblocked, the stakeholder agreements agreed and the systems defined in enough detail to estimate, the business case confirmed and the transformation programme designed. Dates were scheduled for approval at our UK board and then the main board in Germany.
Over the next 24 months, the whole thing was approved, built, deployed and executed.
It was exciting and terrifying! We’d promised a lot and now we had to deliver. About 18 months after deployment, and with a nice promotion under my belt, I got back to my car after visiting a dealer and there was a message from our Group MD, Richard Ide on my phone “with the money we saved on our vehicle logistics programme, we’ve bought Rolls Royce!“.
In the normal sales months, the capital release was huge and measured in hundreds of millions of pounds. In the run up to August where there was a huge peak in volume, the savings were even higher. As our volumes grew, the savings were even higher. It was an amazing feeling. My good friend Ian Ower went on a number of world tours explaining to different groups how it all worked. My career continued from strength to strength. It was happy days!
What can we do now?
But And what’s all that got to do with me? (I hear you ask) Possibly nothing. But And I suspect it’s not the case.
If we step back:
- The problem was inefficient allocation of scarce resources.
- The problem was deeply held beliefs that impeded rational analysis.
- The problem was multiple stakeholders with conflicting requirements that led to a group think belief that it was unsolvable.
- The problem was not giving enough voice to the people at the sharp end who had plenty of ideas how to make it better.
- The problem was too many “buts” and not enough “ands”
If every reader had time to run a 30 minute breakout session and brainstorm a list of scarce resources that might be inefficiently allocated, I suspect that the list would be a fruitful source of ideas.
If we broadened our idea generation looking for areas where we’ve all come to accept that a problem can’t be solved...
If we allocated resources to get more of our senior management spending more time with the people at the sharp end. Experiencing the pain and searching for ideas that could make it better...
If we “butted each other no buts” and tried to synthesise solutions instead...
If we did all those things, and did them well, I think we could massively accelerate our transformational journey.
The end approaches
Over the last 20 minutes or so, we’ve been on a journey together. Back to my childhood, back to my early career. Back into the world of car makers, car dealers and car buyers.
I invited you on that journey because I wanted to demonstrate a few things that have become apparent to me during my career. I wanted to show how I led one of the biggest business transformations of my life. I hoped it might help some of the senior managers reading this today think about some new tactics or strategies for making things better.
If you ask me to boil it down to some specific advice then I’d suggest the following that could help you find more problems that you more care deeply about and will equip you the better to solve them:
- Boost your creativity by smashing yourself into new ideas
- Try to walk a mile in your stakeholders shoes. If you’ve not done it before, you’ll see the world differently
- Read The Goal by Goldratt and Cox and build the metaphor in your world. I have a longer reading list if you’re interested.
- Watch TED Talks. Just go onto the web site and search for innovation or creativity there are many excellent and inspirational journeys to learn from
- Collaborate - Find some friends and kick things around
- Talk to people at the sharpest end. Many, many, many of them will have ideas about how it can be made better
- Be passionate: When you and your colleagues care deeply about something, your chances of reaching a successful conclusion go into a different league. We’re all limited by our beliefs so cling onto the naive thought that you’re going to make the world a better place.
- Embrace Strategy as an emergent process: Don’t feel bad if you can’t “think” your way to a plan. Whilst strategy can be a conscious process as advocated by Michael Porter. It never has been for me and Mintzberg describes an alternate world where strategy is an emergent process. All of my big successes have followed that route. Dive in and start learning!
- Synthesise: More “ands”. Fewer “buts!”
- Remember Darwin: Our role as creative problem solvers is to conceive of many possible futures, work with our colleagues to paint them in sufficient detail so we’re all clear about the impact they can have. Then when we’ve made them as beautiful as we can, step back and go through a critical appraisal. If it’s not good enough, kill it. Don’t be afraid if your ideas die. It’s a natural process and makes us stronger to tackle the next one.
And so to conclude...
If you’ve got to here, thanks very much for reading, I hope you somehow enjoyed it and good luck with your own transformations!
If you’d like to discuss your own unsolvable problems (even the act of sharing can sometimes sow the seed that leads to a new way!), please give me a call!