How ‘little ideas’ can make a BIG difference when times are tough

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Recently I had the good fortune to perform an assessment on a division of a large financial organisation for the Customer Service Institute of Australia (CSIA). As both a Senior Assessor with CSIA and through our our own OTM Service Strategy I have had the opportunity to observe many organisations who are striving to deliver great service to their customers.

More and more organisations have recognised the importance of treating their staff as their Number 1 customers (see the blog Providing Great Service Means That Your Staff Come First, Not Your Customersposted on http://studentsthatmatter.ning.com) and there is a strong link between that approach to employees and the provision of great service. I also observed a number of terrific little practices that have produced significant cost savings and efficiencies for the organisation’s with whom I have been working.

The team from the financial organisation that I assessed last week shared a couple of significant results from implementing ‘little ideas’. Last year the staff in the call centre were required to complete eight weeks of overtime leading up to the end of financial year. With 120 staff in the Call Centre that creates a significant salary overhead. This year only one weekend of overtime was required to complete the same amount of work with the same number of staff.

A serious question is, “How did they create such a remarkable efficiency improvement?”.

There were two ‘little ideas’ that drive the response to this question. The first was that over the past year they have created a work allocation system that more evenly distributes work, including ensuring that the work performed by the more senior staff in ‘coaching’ other staff is recorded as ‘real work’ for the coaches. In the past this work was not recorded as ‘real work’ for the more experienced staff so their system included a dis-incentive for experienced staff to share their knowledge. As part of a continuous improvement program where staff submit suggestions, a simple idea to change the system so that the ‘coaches’ were recognised for their ‘coaching’ significantly changed the behaviour of those people. The resultant behavioural change also meant that less experienced staff started to access knowledge far more quickly than they had previously been able to access existing knowledge. The result was that new staff were more quickly gaining the right knowledge at the right time which enabled them to become more efficient in their work.

The second ‘little idea’ that has caused a major efficiency improvement for the team was as simple as pressing a button. Through the continuous improvement program that the Call Centre has created for its staff, one of the team members noticed that each of the 120 computers in the Call Centre took five minutes to ‘boot up’ at the start of each day. There are a number of security firewalls that cause the slow boot-up time but these are considered necessary by the institution for security purposes. One of the staff who arrived early every morning decided that while her computer was ‘booting up’ she would spend the five minutes walking around and pressing buttons until all the computers were activated, rather than staring blankly at her screen.

This meant that when the other staff arrived all they had to do was log in and they could commence work immediately. If you do the math and multiply 119 computers by 5 minutes, by 5 days by 50 weeks you will discover that it adds up to over 14.3 days of extra productivity over the course of a year. Two little ideas, one big saving.

The key factor in these examples is that the organisation has created a culture where submitting ideas is considered normal. I was also shown a number of ideas that have ‘not grown legs and won’t be implemented’ and management is happy about that. From their perspective if two little ideas each year can produce such a significant benefit, then the system is working above expectations!

Another interesting perspective on this story is the way that a downturn creates innovation, if you let it. While I wasn’t provided a statistic from this organisation to support what I am about to say, my suspicion is that there a number of people still working in the call centre who might not have their jobs if the efficiency improvements had not occured. When you consider the human impact that losing your job in a downturn can create, that is a significant benefit not only for the organisation but the staff as well.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at http://garyryans.com

How to Use Stories to Leverage Employability Skills for Employment Success

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Employability skills are a range of generic skills that, irrespective of your technical expertise are considered by employers to be critical skills for high level performance. Employability skills are also known as ‘transferable skills’, ’employee attributes’ and/or ‘key competencies’. The level of expertise that you are expected to have in relation to these skills is related to the level of the job for which you are applying or striving to achieve. As an example the level of communication skills expected of a prospective CEO are different to those of a part time supermarket check-out operator. Yet both roles require some proficiency with regard to communication.

The ten specific employability skills to which we are referring include:
1) The capacity to work in a team;
2) The capacity to effectively communicate with a wide variety of people;
3) The capacity to solve problems both individually and in the context of a team;
4) The capacity to positively influence and lead other people in the achievement of organisational objectives;
5) The capacity to effectively manage your time and the resources that are available to you;
6) The capacity to demonstrate on the job learning and your approach to life-long learning;
7) Having a personal vision and understanding how your work integrates with the achievement of your vision;
8) The capacity to understand and use numbers for business purposes;
9) The capacity for self-management across a wide variety of life activities; and
10) The capacity to provide high levels of service in the way that you perform your work.

With more and more people throughout the world gaining academic qualifications, the point for differentiation and individual competitive advantage stems from how a person has continued to develop their employability skills. Some people believe that it is important to develop your employability skills so that you can obtain a job. Once you have a job then you no longer have to worry about developing these skills. This thinking is flawed. Jobs are no longer guaranteed for life and employees must continue to develop their employability skills if they wish to remain employable (hence the term, ’employability skills’). Seeking opportunities through on-the-job learning or through training and development experiences are critical to maintaining high employability while you have a job.
The benefit of maintaining a high level of employability while having a job is critical from the perspective of increasing your chances for promotion. Also, a high level of employability correlates with high performance. High performance is one of the most valid job security strategies that an employee can implement. While there are no guarantees in this world, an assumption that I am comfortable making is that if an organisation has an equal choice between letting a poor performer or a high performer go, the poor performer will nearly always be asked to leave first.

Consciously developing employability skills is an important process that many people forget to do. In our work with students we often hear them refer to their part time experiences like this, “I’m just an administration assistant”, or, “I just work at a gas station.” Having performed many menial jobs throughout my youth and undergraduate studies I have formed a view that there is never a situation where what you are doing is ‘just a job’. All jobs create the opportunity in some way, even if only small, to develop employability skills. The same is true for full time employment.

Capturing your employability skill development experiences, in the form of stories then becomes another critical step in the process of being able to demonstrate your experience in an interview. If you haven’t consciously developed your employability skills then you are unlikely to be able to re-tell your stories in an interview that demonstrates how you have used those skills in practice. As over 95% of interview questions are behaviourally based (that is, you are asked to provide evidence of having developed a skill, as opposed to making up an answer for a ‘what if’ style question) it is critical to be able to have a range of stories at your disposal to share in an interview.

For each employability skill we recommend the STAR technique for capturing your stories. The technique works as follows:
S = Situation – what was the high level situation that you were involved in?
T = Task – what was the task that you (usually in a team context) were trying to achieve?
A = Actions – what actions did you personally take to achieve the desired outcomes of the task?
R = Result – what was the result of your efforts?

Once you have captured your stories all you have to do is listen carefully in an interview to the questions being asked, and then tell the most appropriate story for that question. A significant benefit from recording your stories is that many stories contain a range of employability skills. For example, a leadership story may also include aspects of teamwork, communication, problem solving etc. Once you have your leadership story prepared you also have the capacity to tell the same story from the perspective of those other skills. In the context of an interview you may be asked a question about teamwork that, for one reason or another the teamwork story that you have prepared may not be the best story or example for use in response to that specific question. Your leadership story, on the other hand may be a better story to tell, but from a teamwork perspective.

In this way the ten stories that you prepare (one for each of the employability skills listed above) can turn into 40 or 50 stories when you walk into an interview. How confident do you think you would be if you walked into an interview with 40 or 50 genuine stories? Most people say, “I’d be very confident!”. The key is to follow the flow of the interview and to select the most appropriate story for the question that has been asked.

In this context what are your employability stories and how have they helped you in an interview to be successful in being offered the job that you wanted? Alternatively, if you have been involved in employing people, how important are employability skills in the context of your recruitment strategies?

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at http://garyryans.com

What leaders can do to maintain focus on organisational objectives

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For many years I have been leadership development programs for graduate students who have a minimum of five years work experience. The focus of the program is to enhance the capacity of the participants (even if only in a small way) to successfully perform in a mid to senior leadership role. The participants in the programs come from a broad range of cultural and work experience back-grounds, which is one of the many reasons that I enjoy facilitating the program. As part of the program I ask the participants to generate questions, that if answered would help them to better perform their role as a mid to senior leadership role.

A recent question that I was asked was, “What is the most important thing that you have to do as a manager to keep your team focused on organisational objectives?”.

There are many factors that relate to answering this question. In this blog I will provide one approach that a leader can use to enhance the capacity of the team that they lead to stay focused on (and achieve) organisational objectives and goals.

Gary Ryan, Organisations That Matter, leaders, leadership, Yes For success, visionStep 1.
Does your team know the organisational objectives to which it is contributing? This may seem like a silly question but my experience has taught me that it isn’t. Too many managers aren’t able to clearly and quickly articulate the organisational objectives to which the performance of their team is contributing. If you are in this situation then it is your responsibility to find out. The answer can usually be found in the organisation’s Strategic Plan or Annual Plan. These documents will exist but all too often their implementation seems remote from a mid-management perspective because a gap often exists between planning and operational activities.

Step 2.
Once you have identified the objectives outlined in your Strategic Plan, the next challenge for you is to communicate how that plan relates directly to your team members. A simple and effective tool, irrespective of the level of the people who report to you, is to use the One Page Strategy Map invented by Kaplan and Norton. An example of such a map can be found here.

Many organisations use the Balanced Scorecard methodology for their Strategic Planning and even if a different methodology is used, the high level strategies can often be focused and presented on a single page.

Step 3.
Literally sit down with each member of the team that you lead and, with a highlighter in hand, highlight each aspect of the Strategy Map to which their work directly relates. On many levels the act of highlighting different aspects of the content on the Strategy Map is far less important than the conversation that you will be having with each member of the team as you go through this process. These conversations will create a clear and specific level of understanding about what each person does and how that contributes to the achievement of organisational objectives.

Step 4.
At the conclusion of your conversation ask your team member if they have identified any work that they are doing that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere on the map. The answer to this question will not automatically mean that they are doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, but it certainly should indicate that further inquiry into this work should be considered.

Step 5.
Ultimately any work performed by the members of the team that you lead should be able to be explained in the context of how it contributes to the strategies outlined in the Strategy Map. Any other activities may be a waste of time and may indicate a loss of focus from the real work that should be performed. If possible, conduct a whole team conversation to enable each team member to clearly and concisely articulate their contribution (and collectively your team’s contribution) to the achievement of organisational objectives.

If you follow the five steps above and regularly talk about the progress that your team is making toward the achievement of the objectives outlined on your organisation’s One Page Strategy Map you will have an enhanced capacity to help your team members maintain focus on the work that they should be doing.

What is your experience with using Strategy Maps or similar tools to enhance the focus of your team? Or, if this blog has encouraged you to try this approach for the first time, please let us know how you go.

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Gary Ryan enables talented professionals, their teams and organisations to Move Beyond Being Good.
View a TedX Talk by Gary here.

The Importance of Employability Skills Recognised in India

The Press Trust of India in Mumbai has reported in the Business Standard newspaper that Indian students have identified that they have a significant lack in development of key employability skills, with a particular focus upon communication and decision making skills.

The survey was conducted with over 1000 students studying across 20 institutions emanating from Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi. The full report can be read at http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/majoritygrads-lack-key-biz-proficiency-skills/371077/

The significance of the report is not that the students have identified that they lack development in some key employability skills. This finding is common throughout the world, including Australia. What is of significance is that the article is evidence, yet again, of the global nature and importance of developing employability skills. The very nature of employability skills is that they are skills that relate to practical situations. In other words, employability skills cannot be learnt in a classroom alone. This is one of the reasons why we constantly recommend finding and/or creating opportunities to put employability skills into practice.

We also advocate that the conscious and strategic choice to practice these skills will significantly enhance their development, as opposed to unconscious development of the skills. An important issue arises, however, for international students studying in places like Australia. How do these students access opportunities for practice, especially during an economic downturn? Part-time work is still available so that is one option. Volunteering is another.

Recently I was speaking with a friend and colleague who is involved with the Rotary Club of Australia. His view was that Rotary Clubs provide a terrific environment for international students to not only volunteer and serve their community, but also provide an excellent entry point to local Australian networks. Such networks, he argued could also result in part-time work and, in some cases full time work. He also argued that Rotary Clubs also provide an excellent environment for international students to speak English on a day to day communication level, an experience which over time can have a positive effect upon a student’s overall communication skills. Such suggestions seem relatively simple and on one level they are. The hard part is taking action and placing yourself out into the unknown. I’d argue that international students are well experienced in taking action and placing themselves in challenging circumstances – after all, haven’t they taken incredible action to leave home and to come and study abroad, often when English is a second language and the culture is completely different! In this context, if you are an international student and you are concerned about the development of your employability skills, consider participating in organisations such as Rotary as the benefits would seem to far outweigh any disadvantages.

Visit http://studentsthatmatter.ning.com for more information

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at http://garyryans.com