David Puttick, Vanguard Consulting

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it

At our first meeting, the Chief Executive of Fareham Borough Council, in south-east Hampshire, told me: ‘I want to change the entire organisation to become much more customer focused. This is not about cost cutting. I want to change the culture of the whole organisation. Our customer surveys are showing 92% customer satisfaction, but I don’t believe them. The surveys have made us complacent’. Bold.

He knew he wanted to transform the organisation but wasn’t sure how. He was considering the Vanguard Method, but some of the senior management team, pointing to the high satisfaction score, were unconvinced.  At a three-day introductory Vanguard programme, which the entire 23-strong senior management team attended, they learned more. A major commitment. Bold.

The team gained a glimpse of what the customer experienced. For the first time, they saw what the front line was required to do and the hoops customers had to jump through. For the first time, they had genuine knowledge rather than information, always indirect and incomplete, fed through the hierarchy. There might be, they began to think, a better way.

Some of them got curious. Some got excited. Some went to the Chief Executive and said: ‘Please let me do this in my service’.

We knew that this would be a multi-year partnership and that because of the sums involved it would have to go through a procurement process. Ordinarily, this would take an inordinate amount of time and effort for both council and supplier; often the outcome would be the appointment of a supplier other than the one the organisation wanted. Fortunately, following research, Fareham was able to appoint Vanguard, in compliance with EU procurement rules, on grounds of the acknowledged uniqueness of the method. Bold, again.

When I started visiting the organisation in 2012 I was struck by the feeling that Fareham seemed a genuinely happy workplace. People were welcoming, open and positive. As I got to know the organisation I learned that people tended to stick around. Staff turnover was low.

We wanted to help a good organisation become even better.

What are we here for?

At the outset the Chief Executive decided that he wanted every senior manager involved in the change programme. Every intervention would be led by a head of service supported by a Vanguard guide. In general, intervention teams of managers and front-line staff worked full-time, with the heads co-leading at least three days a week.

A vital part of the role of heads was ensuring that those conducting ‘business as usual’ felt that they were part of the intervention – after all, they were making it possible, by taking on the load of intervention team members. It is not unusual for an ‘us and them’ mentality to create divisions if those taking care of business get the impression they are left out.

The initial task of the intervention teams was to make the current system visible and clear – to themselves first, and then to the rest of the organisation. The principle is: understand – before any thought of what and how to improve. They would find answers to a number of questions, including:

  • What are we here to do?
  • What does ‘good’ look like?
  • What do we actually do?
  • What are the consequences?
  • What are the causes?

In most organisations, both public and private, the question, ‘what are we here to do?’, is remarkably rarely asked – and if it is, it is invariably expressed in a narrow job context rather than from an end-to-end customer point of view. Without clarity on what the organisation exists to do, from the customer’s perspective – its purpose – work can easily drift away into wasteful, valueless activity resulting in poor customer service and unnecessary cost to the organisation.

Fareham was no exception. Take ‘statutory nuisance’, which is about dealing with people who cause problems for others – through noisy parties, loud music and barking dogs, for example.

In statutory nuisance, ‘best practice’, which Fareham dutifully followed, is to send out forms which complainants fill in and return as evidence. Follow-up would be diligently recorded in the IT system. The team quickly saw that the de facto purpose the department was working to was ‘gather information necessary to take people to court’. But how often did offenders get to court? Almost never. Meanwhile up to 70% of an officer’s time was taken up with feeding the IT.

The team quickly worked out that a better purpose for statutory nuisance was ‘helping neighbours to live together peacefully’. This was transformative. Instead of following a legalistic and prescriptive process that rarely helped and often antagonised the parties, officers now spend their time talking with both sides and encouraging them to have respectful conversations with each other. In one case, a neighbour offered to walk next door’s dog so that it could be kept inside rather than in the garden barking when the owner was at work.

In housing and council tax benefits, the team’s eyes were opened when they realised that the value steps (what good looks like) required to achieve the purpose of ‘paying claims that we’re entitled to’ were:

  • Understand the customer’s situation
  • Help the customer understand the information we need to process a claim
  • Get ‘clean’ information
  • Assess the claim
  • Notify and pay

In housing benefits, when the team made visible ‘what we do’, they could see that the work was fragmented – a world away from the value steps. Many different officers would work on one claim, with no one owning it end-to-end. Add to this the front-office/back-office split and the default of writing to customers if the claim was incomplete or incorrect and it was easy to see why the process took so long and customers were so frustrated.

The fragmentation of work and the associated activity backlogs meant that much management effort went into managing and prioritising activity rather than doing the value work. In the redesigned system, management and prioritisation of work virtually disappeared. Through experimentation, teams learned that assessors should take end-to-end charge of a customer claim on the principle that ‘if you start it, you finish it.’

Meeting face-to-face

In redesign experiments, teams get to see that the first value step in any flow is ‘understand’. Unfortunately, in many organisations the default mode of communicating with customers (and even internally), ie standard letter and email, has the opposite effect, creating confusion that leads to calls and letters saying on the contrary, ‘I don’t understand’. As team members discover, the best way to reach understanding is through face-to-face contact between the customer and an officer with the expertise and authority to resolve the issue. Failing face-to-face, the next best method is a telephone conversation.

At Fareham, the ‘understand’ work in each service started with a brief scoping exercise by the service head, after which a team of front-line staff and managers would come together to take the understanding to a more detailed level.

Sometimes, scoping alone created the understanding to enable direct action to take place.

In parking enforcement, it was instantly clear that a major issue for the service was the high proportion of challenges to parking charges. Of the 30% of parking tickets challenged, almost 60% were upheld, with the remainder flowing through to formal challenge and eventually tribunal.

Discussion with enforcement officers uncovered the implicit assumption that their purpose was to maximise the number of tickets issued. When this was understood, the head decided to make explicit the principles he wanted officers to work to:

  • You are best placed to decide what is reasonable
  • Use your best judgement

When this was put to the enforcement officers in a workshop, challenges to parking tickets fell by half. And they report that their job has now become much more about engaging and helping people rather than imposing fines.

I am reminded of a quote by Dee Hock, the founder of Visa:

‘Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behaviour. Complex rules and procedures give rise to simple and stupid behaviour.’

Reaping the rewards

The transformation in customer service in every intervention at Fareham is clear for all to see. Front-line staff and managers know it viscerally. Customers are happy and appreciative, and staff delighted to know that they are providing a good service. Senior managers are happy because they see staff who are engaged and enthusiastic, and because capacity is released, which opens up choices about saving money or making further investment in customer service.

As an example in just one service, consider the improvements recorded in housing benefits:

  • Average end-to-end times for new claims reduced from 17.3 to 9.9 days (43%)
  • Average change-of-circumstance end-to-end times reduced from 9.8 to 3.6 days (63%)
  • Redetermination requests reduced from 6.9 / month to 1.5 / month (78%)
  • Appeals reduced from 0.7 / month to zero for the past 8 months (100%)
  • Average customer satisfaction score: 9.6 / 10

Capacity has been released in management and administrative areas as well as at the front line, the organisation moving from five directors and 17 heads to three directors and 12 heads.

As a result of this work, in March 2016 Fareham Borough Council received a national award from iESE, the Improvement and Efficiency Social Enterprise, for ‘Remodelling Local Services’. In iESE’s words:

‘As a part of the relentless drive to make efficiencies in local services we are all looking for new ways to deliver services. The winners of this category demonstrate this drive to redesign how we deliver services to meet the needs of our residents and businesses’.

Fareham’s ‘Putting the Customer First’ submission was one of three selected for an award from a field of more than 200.|

A final thought

The committed approach shown at Fareham left no one in doubt about the Chief Executive’s determination to change the organisation from top to bottom, creating an inevitability in the minds of everyone involved. The consistent support of senior members (councillors) was vital to the success of the programme too. When we began work in a new service area, we were greeted by people who were enthusiastic and open at all levels of the service. Not everyone, not every time – but with great regularity.

A year into the programme, when the cost savings began to feed through, the Chief Executive and Executive Leader of the council decided to invest the annual savings achieved – about £370,000 at that stage – in the staff. So everyone, except the Chief Executive, received a 6% pay rise from January 2015. Bold indeed! And different.

David Puttick

Read similar articles in Edition Two of The Vanguard Periodical: The Vanguard Method in People Centred Services. Ask for your FREE hard copy or PDF.