Features: April 27th, 2007

Creating Sustained Performance Improvement

By Peter A Hunter

In order to create a performance improvement we have to do something different from what we do now. If we don’t do something different how can we possibly expect to make a change? The first problem we have is finding out what the thing is that we need to change. Many management models have been tried all with varying levels of success, from Kaizen to Six Sigma, TQM and a host of others. These models are not wrong, but they all suffer from the same failing. Somewhere in each instruction book there is a phrase that says something similar to, “The key to the successful implementation of this model is ownership” Then we turn the page and begin the new chapter without ever coming across the instruction that tells us how to create “Ownership” Ownership is a word that has been used and abused for years but very few people are able to give it a meaningful definition. Without understanding what it is, how is it possible to create the conditions to allow it to happen?


I prefer to think of ownership as the way that we feel about something. If it is mine, I own it, I will take care of it. If it is not mine I won’t take care of it, why should I? I don’t own it! The problem we have created is that we have just defined ownership as the ability to care about something.

That concept may be very well in a soft pink cuddly way but it hardly has a place in a Business conversation. We want to talk about percentage points, hard savings, value added and other assorted sexy business type words. Businessmen don’t want to talk about caring.

But wait a minute! How many people ever wash a hire car? Not many. Why should we? If the hire car doesn’t belong to me, why should I care? And yet most of us take care of our own cars. They don’t come with washing instructions but we do wash them. We take care of them because they are ours. After two years the hire car that we did not wash is scrapped. After two years a hire car has zero residual value. Nobody will buy a car that has been driven for two years by people who do not care for it. The hire car company has no option, the hire car is scrapped.

But your own car has a residual value after two years. After two years your own car is worth ten or twelve thousand pounds. You can realise that value by selling the car or you can continue to use it reliably for another ten years. Suddenly the care that we gave the car that we owned has a financial value. We can now say that the value of our care is the cars residual value of ten or twelve thousand pounds. A residual value that the car we did not care for does not have. Now we have a solid measurable effect on the bottom line that is directly attributed to our ability to care.

Changing the way people feel

The suggestion at the beginning of this article is that we have to first understand what we have to change before we can figure out how to change it.

I suggest that what we have to change is the way that people feel about their work. We have to allow them to start to care about what they do. Once we understand the effect of this change we can begin to understand how that change can be made. The first reaction to the suggestion that we can change the way people feel about their work is that it is nonsense. How on earth can we change the way people feel and where is the profit in it? We have already seen where the profit is, and changing the way that people feel about their work is something that happens every day and is as often as not reported on the news, except that we don’t recognise it for what it is.

Change at British Airways

A few years ago I was watching TV and I saw an interview with Rod Eddington, the then Chairman of British Airways. He was understandably complaining about the market share that he had lost to Ryanair, Easijet and the other budget airlines. But he was also being quite bullish about it. He said that in the previous 3 years he had reduced British Airways operating costs by five percent. What he didn’t say was that in those same three years he had made Sixteen Thousand of his staff redundant.

The question that I have to ask is, How did the people who remained working at British Airways feel when they found out that 16,000 of their colleagues had been made redundant? Did they feel good about it? Did it make them feel Secure? Did it increase their trust in BA? I don’t think so.

But think back a few years to the time before the redundancies. Think about the sort of person who used to work for British Airways. Their staff was made up of people who had dreamed at school of being the pilot in the Raybans relaxing in the big seat at the front between Tokyo and Paris, or the stewardess whose flip answer to the question “Where are you going for the weekend” was truthfully and smugly, “Barbados”. British Airways staff were people who competed for their jobs and having won, were living their dreams and getting paid for it. They were proud, motivated, and they cared about what they did. Three years later and the redundancies had changed the way they felt about their jobs.

This is the sort of change that occurs with monotonous regularity in industry. A caring and productive workforce is changed into one that turns up for the pay check and has no other interest in being there. British Airways changed the way their staff felt about their jobs. But they changed their feelings in the wrong direction. They are not the only organisation to have done so.

In order to create a sustained performance improvement we first have to understand the changes that have to occur to allow that performance improvement to happen. When we understand the changes that have to occur we can start to see how what we do as individuals can have affect the ability of other people in our sphere of influence to perform.

From there it is a small step to understanding how what we do can have a positive or a negative effect on the ability of others to perform. It is our choice. It is up to us to decide, do we want to create the conditions that will allow others in our sphere of influence to excel? Or do we want to be responsible for their continued unexceptional performance?

Peter Hunter is the author of Breaking the Mould.