The Productivity Platform meeting

Increasing profitability by improving efficiency, effectiveness and employee engagement.

What is the difference in management style between Amazon, Google and Facebook on the one hand, and between companies involved in mining and manufacturing on the other?

The former have developed new ways of working that are much more productive than the old industrial age hierarchical model. Amazon, for example, combined Agile Management (Scrum) with Flow principles and changed the world.

What these companies have realised is that increasing productivity requires more than a focus on efficiency; we also have to deal effectively with employee engagement.

In contrast, most miners are still working from the Industrial Age Management paradigm. They measure efficiency in a way that not only destabilises production flow but also destroys employee engagement. In periods of financial stress, the pressure to achieve the efficiency targets is increased and the destabilisation intensifies. This is why cost cutting in mining is not leading to better productivity

Over the last 15 years, we have combined the best of SCRUM (a part of Agile methods used in Tech companies) and production FLOW (used by the top car manufacturers) to deliver outstanding results in mining. This happens in a very short period at a fraction of the cost charged by the big four consulting companies.

We call the overall intervention the Productivity Platform (PP) and the joint morning meeting the Productivity Platform meeting.

Why would managers use the Productivity Platform meeting?

Managers and employees are overwhelmed by information and continuous pressure on profitability. In this stressful environment it becomes difficult to decide what is happening, how to align the organisation and what to do. In trying to keep up profitability organisations impose more controls and bureaucracy and cut costs. This crushes talent, innovation and teamwork, and so organisations are battling to adjust to change. Cost cutting usually does not eliminate the costs, it just displaces them and reduces employee engagement. What is needed is to restructure the way the business operates and improve efficiency, effectiveness and employee engagement all at the same time.

The reality is that the environment is changing too fast for senior leaders to be able to find trends, plan and align the organisation in response. It is thus necessary to get the input and liberate the energy of those closer to the action. These are the lower level managers and workers. Gary Hamel says ” In most organisations, change is regarded as an episodic interruption of the status quo, something initiated and managed from the top”. He proposes that “..what is needed is a real-time socially constructed approach to change, so that the leader’s job isn’t to design a change program but to build a change platform” The PP intervention meets all of these requirements.

The principles used in the daily stand-up PP meeting are an adaptation of Scrum (from Software project management) and Production Flow (from TOC and Lean). Scrum is a radical departure from the traditional top-down hierarchical way of working.

The traditional hierarchical way assumes a level of certainty and predictability in the work environment, which is simply not there. This imposes the ultimate constraint on managers: having to engage in activities and measurements designed to impart certainty to that which is inherently uncertain. The second constraint follows logically from this: Work demands now exceed the manager’s span of attention. Managers feel overwhelmed and are constantly involved in firefighting. In this environment safety incidents start to increase. A useful analogy is an image of the captain of a ship standing on the stern analysing the wake, instead being on the bridge steering the vessel to his chosen destination

The hierarchical structure forces mid-level managers and workers to pretend that reality corresponds to measurements and long-term plans. To survive in this environment employees hide critical information from colleagues and superiors; blame shifting becomes the survival method of choice. No one has an overview of the system as a whole or of how actions of departments are taking the company towards the goal. Also, employees are blamed and rewarded for events over which they had little control. The engines of disharmony roar into life. Teamwork and trust cannot exist under these circumstances. No wonder employee engagement is poor.

The PP meeting takes into account how the world and people really work and makes every aspect of what is happening visible. The mining process consists of interdependent parts, a problem in one area very quickly causes a knock-on effect in others, and can affect the overall production. Planning is still needed (at a high level), but execution requires quick decisions by those closest to the action. For the first time, it is possible to see the flow holistically, to observe colour patterns of flow over time and to know within seconds where the focus has to be and where not. Visibility on progress towards the system goal increases the ability to support colleagues and teams start to work together synergistically.

Studies in software development have found that the speed of work in individual programmers varies by a factor of 10 from best to worst. In teams, the variation between the slowest and fastest differs by a factor of 2000. Getting teams to work together is much more important than trying to obtain the most skilled workers in every position. This is the reason we are sceptical of some of the claims that miners have difficulty recruiting good staff. The ability to get the team to work together towards the same goal is where Scrum delivers the most value.

PP meetingThe PP meeting is the place where the heads of departments, middle managers and selected employees get up-to-date visual information on what is happening to the business as a whole.

Colour codes identify where attention should be focused and where help from support functions such as HR and maintenance is required. In the PP meeting, HR becomes aware of what the business really needs and becomes empowered to deliver. The PP meeting provides a forward view and highlights patterns of interaction needing more attention. It moves the company out of firefighting by highlighting problems before they occur and putting in shock absorbers (buffers) to handle variation and interdependence. We manage the system holistically by asking departments to support the overall flow through the company. Setting up a PP meeting means that teamwork will occur across layers and functions.

In the PP meeting we move away from the worst aspects of bureaucracy and debate towards dialogue, and allow everyone a say. Given the nature of the problems we face and the limitations of our brains, it is unlikely that managers will ever have a full understanding of the reality they are facing. Since many people have pieces of the answer and important bits of knowledge lie with front line personnel, it is critical that we ensure that these pieces are put together. Effective dialogue is a powerful technique to overcome interpersonal barriers to achieving this goal. We make sure that attendees understand the influence of the system on poor performance and refrain from blaming each other. In fact, the last question each presenter is asked is, “What do you need from the rest of us to perform better tomorrow?”

The PP meeting provides visual feedback on the processes workers are responsible for and shows them how their actions affect the overall system and the outcomes. It highlights problem areas in these processes and allows for dialogue around them. Management and workers simultaneously become aware of problems in the system, and restrictive policies and bottlenecks can be addressed on the spot. The role of management becomes one of enabling subordinates to get their work done better and faster.

It is not possible to hide anymore; those not doing their part are visible to all. Peer pressure ensures that they rise to the challenge and start to support their colleagues. When a department or group needs help, it is clearly seen and colleagues support them. These changes to the status quo come as a great relief to workers and enable them to increase their engagement. As workers start to experience success, sometimes for the first time in their careers, they become accountable and begin to volunteer their energy and talents. This reduces the load on management that can now start to work at the level it was employed for.

Other benefits of the PP meeting

The previous section showed why the PP addresses disharmony in the organisation. It also addresses employee engagement. Gallup uses a questionnaire called the Gallup Q12 meta-analysis to determine employee engagement. A recent study conducted in the US showed that similar companies, grouped in the top and bottom quartile according to employee engagement, showed significant differences in performance. Those in the top quartile outperformed by 12% on customer loyalty, plus 12% in profit and plus 18% in productivity. At the same time, they had 62% fewer safety incidents and 51% lower theft rates.

The Gallup Q-12 asks some crucial questions around issues that are under the control of management. The main questions relate to whether employees know what is expected of them, whether they have the tools to do the job, whether their contribution is visible and recognised, whether they can see how their work contributes to the success of the whole and whether they are working to their strengths in a supportive environment. The PP Meeting has been designed so that management and workers have the same visibility of problems and opportunities and can work together to deal with these. Because of this, the employees can answer the Gallup questions in the affirmative.

What does the PP meeting do?

The PP meeting is where managers get up to date visual information on what is happening to the business. It moves the company out of firefighting mode by highlighting problems before they occur. The PP meeting manages the system holistically with departments asked to support the overall flow through the company. Setting up PP meeting means improving teamwork across layers and functions.

  •  It reverses the tendency of a hierarchical system to introduce balanced capacity into a production system.
  •  It establishes the Optimised Flow principles as the governing mental model or the way to manage the system (constraints identified & buffers in place and PP Meeting is functional)
  • It moves the attendees away from the Mechanistic, Industrial age, Separatist, Command and Control organisational model.
    ⦁ It establishes a Holistic, Systemic, Modern age, Humane and Creative organisational model.
  • It moves away from a fixation on outcomes to managing by means
  • It enables us to align all the functions towards the common, immediate objectives
  • We move the different functions out of their silos
  •  The departmental managers abolish restrictive Policies on the spot.
  • We cultivate the desired culture, every day
  • We bury our differences and serve the bigger purpose as a team
  • Make changes that will take us to higher levels of excellence

Why is the PP meeting so effective?

Over the past 15 years, the PP meeting has been instrumental in numerous successes. The PP meeting is based on the same concepts as the standup Scrum meetings used in Agile project management. It also creates the conditions required for implementing a Learning Organisation as proposed by Peter Senge. Secondly, the activities address most of the criteria affecting Employee Engagement.

Peter Senge and the 5th discipline

In his book “the Fifth Discipline” Peter Senge proposes 5 disciplines which he considers necessary to create a Learning Organisation.

These are:

  • ⦁ “Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.”
  •  ” Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.”
  •  “Building shared vision – a practice of unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment and not compliance.”
  •  ” Team learning starts with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together.”
  •  “Systems thinking – The Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four.”

The PP meeting deals with the first four points while TOC deals with the last (Systems Thinking).

Increased employee engagement

Most PP meeting interventions increase Employee engagement. The Gallup Q12 engagement survey shows the reasons for this. The Gallup questions ask the employee whether he/she knows what is expected of them, whether they have the right tools, whether they have the opportunity to learn and grow, whether they can experience success at work, etc. When we compare the activities in the PP meeting to these questions we find that the meeting positively addresses more than 70% of all the questions.
Engaged workers are full of energy and want to do what is best for the company. We need engaged workers to cope when the business environment starts to change.

Daniel Pink in “Drive” writes that employees do their best work when they have Purpose, are managed with a degree of Autonomy and can achieve Mastery of their field. These three requirements can be met in the PP meeting.