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Innovation management and improving process efficiency are very different endeavors. Here are some lessons learned on getting the most from a team in both situations. Innovation management and improving process efficiency are very different endeavors. Here are some lessons learned on getting the most from a team in both situations.
I was born and bred here in Perth and started my career as an electrical and electronics engineer at the big mining sites out here in Western Australia. During the height of the mining boom, I designed and built transportable switch rooms, flying in and out of very distant operations.
After a while I got a bit sick of that lifestyle, so 11 years ago I joined Western Power – Western Australia’s electric power utility. We transmit and distribute electricity to a community of 1.1 million people over an area of 158,400 square miles. Half of our overhead distribution network supplies less than 3% of customers, and the sparseness of the network poses unique challenges as we replace aging infrastructure with new technology.
My first position at Western Power was a customer account manager, and my job was to help our large customers connect their power generation plants to the electricity network. One of the many things I learned at this job was that I didn’t like things that didn’t work efficiently.
I wanted to get in there and fix them, to make life easier not just for myself or the team, but also for our customers. And that’s when I began my journey in process improvement. I’d do my day job, and then work on process improvements for my boss. I started to get under the hood and ask people, “Why are you doing it this way? Can we think of a better way to do it?”.
Getting involved in these process improvement activities gave me exposure to the rest of the organization and started to get me noticed. At some point, my executive manager suggested I go to work in economic regulation because they needed someone to educate the company about our new regulated status and what it all meant. I had no background in training or in economic regulation, but I picked it up pretty quickly, and I learned something else about myself: I was good at being a bridge between people who spoke technical languages and business.
I stayed in economic regulation for five years. It was a fascinating area, because it helps you understand how the business works. You can connect the big picture with the business drivers, right down to the ground-level operational processes.
Leading a transformation program
In mid-2015, I was appointed head of our business transformation initiative, whose aim was to improve efficiency. We went through a six-month diagnostic phase to understand Western Power’s business potential compared to its peers, as well as to other industries, and to set our own targets. In early 2016 we kicked off the program, comprising more than 300 projects, 55 of them technology projects – and it was a fantastic initiative to be part of. I hand-selected the leads for the team and brought on board the implementation partner. My core team was pretty small – about 25 at Western Power, and 50 from our implementation partner – but then we had 300 people engaged from the businesses at any one time and another 200 from IT and technology partners.
Despite all those moving parts, the program was a success, delivered on budget and on time. We cut our costs by close to 30 percent in two years and reduced IT staff by 40 percent, while improving safety and maintaining or improving reliability to our customers and our community.
From transformation to innovation
Innovating for growth requires a different mindset from the one needed for chasing efficiency, and we’ve had to be increasingly open to partnering to achieve our goals. But although transformation to increase efficiency and innovation to generate new ideas are different, they are both difficult undertakings. I have worked out a few tactics that I think have helped speed up our progress in both those realms:
Mix up the teams. My people hated this at first, but it’s a good way to get the implementation team to put themselves in the shoes of those who are going through a major change. Every four to six months we would have an internal restructuring and say, “OK, that delivery model worked for a period of time, but let’s make sure that we’re not getting too stagnant; why don’t we flip roles around?” Or, “Why don’t you now lead this team instead of that team?” By continually changing their footing, I pushed the team to learn what it’s like to have a stable foundation taken away and find a new role for ourselves.
Change the tempo. As a program starts its merry journey, everyone goes through a very intense learning and discovery phase, so you need a lot of short daily standup meetings within your team and weekly standups with your more senior leadership teams. Later, you can slow down that rhythm. Maybe a fortnight leadership meeting would be good enough. Then at some point, if things go off the rails, you might want to go back to that intense operating rhythm and change your cadence to a two- or a three-hour problem-solving workshop twice a week.
Pick the right measures of success. Since completing the business transformation program, I’ve pivoted my team into innovation. We’re building for growth now instead of cost-cutting, and we’ve got to measure ourselves in quite different ways. After all, how do you measure learning? What metrics support behavioral change? If a project didn’t go as well as expected but people can articulate lessons learned about what went wrong and share them with others, we can still view the experiment as a success. That’s quite different from saying, “What were the dollars saved from this project?”
Fight your instincts. As a technical business with a high proportion of engineers, we often need to come up with solutions that are not perfect but good enough to carry through to the next shut-down period. But for real breakthrough innovation, you need more than “good enough.” Instead of letting team members jump to the obvious answer, we try to stay in the “discomfort zone,” to make sure we’re getting the best answer to the best question. I want to make them talk about customers until they beg to leave the room, because that’s when you’ll be in the right headspace to think outside the box, rather than jumping to the same conclusion that the energy industry has jumped to for the last 30 or 50 years.
Make new friends. I like to have a range of people that I talk to. I try and maintain a strong external ecosystem and stay very connected to what’s happening in the outside world, not just inside the business. For example, I sponsor the Perth Machine Learning Group on Meetup. It’s got about 800 members who are teaching each other machine learning and has become a fabulous networking connection for our organization. We can tap into them for almost any challenges and ask for their help.
Though transformational programs to improve efficiency and generative programs to foster innovation are different in nature, the lessons I’ve distilled from my experiences will hopefully prove helpful to others working in either – or both – of those arenas.
Where are all the women?
In my very first job as a junior engineer, there was one other woman in the office, and she was a secretary. I didn’t think much about it at the time; when it’s your first role, gender doesn’t stand out as an issue. It’s only later, when you’re more experienced, that you start to look around and say, “This is funny, where are all the women?”
In my own career, I’ve been fortunate enough to have some great women mentors. The first time I worked for a female boss was when I moved into economic regulation. Sally McMahon was one of those career-changing bosses who constantly push you to be better – she had very high standards of quality and an absolute conviction that you could meet them. She lived by a radical candor philosophy, which was challenging at first, but I’ve since tried to follow that approach myself.
There are more opportunities for women now than there were. Ten years ago, if you were looking for senior female role models in Western Australia, there were just a handful of women – in mining and in banking. Now that’s starting to change.
I think the critical bits moving forward are the more invisible points of diversity, such as diversity of thought and technical background, because that will help us adapt as our industries are disrupted. If our senior leadership teams are populated by people who’ve always been in the industry, they’re going to think about it in that same way. They need an outsider to come along and say, “Hey, what about this?”
As far as women in tech are concerned, there’s a simple answer to how you increase the number of women in senior leadership roles: hire more women. Recruiters still think that tech leaders need to have a technology background to lead IT teams, but it’s not true anymore. Most people have the intellectual capacity to understand the concepts. Leadership is its own skill set. As a leader, my role is to break down road blocks so the team can be as effective as they can be. Their job is to be the technical experts.
I know it can work because we now have 40 percent women in our senior leadership, 50 percent on our board, and our performance metrics are better than ever.
Don’t let your teams become complacent -- keep changing assignments and individuals’ roles.
Choose the right metrics for the task at hand.
To come up with real innovation, focus hard on the customer.