This is an interview with Mark Henn, Head of Department, Asset Development, Transport for London and Drew Barritt, Lead Trainer, A2B Excellence. Transport for London won the Public Sector award at the 2014 Employee Engagement Awards.
If you had to pick a reason why you think you won the award, what do you think it was?
Mark Henn: For me, it’s around engaging with the team and aligning engagement with the business objectives of what not only my teams needs to achieve, but also corporately what Transport for London (TfL) needs to achieve.
My team [the Asset Development department] acts as the conduit: the single point of contact for the outside market to engage with the business. We deal with property professionals in regard to building on or next to the railway. It’s about leveraging the outside market to improve not only the commercial aspects for TfL, but the operational benefits as well.
In the last year we have doubled our turnover, and that will grow by 25% this year and by 50% next year. It was quite obvious that we needed to be fit for purpose. The way we engage with the outside market needed to be slick and we all recognised that as this is a relatively fledgling area of the business it needed some work.
We have undertaken change initiatives before but we found that the day job takes over and so this time I wanted to make sure it stuck. I wanted to make sure we had a team that was engaged in doing it because they could see the benefits themselves.
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People find it easier to solve problems if you give them the space and the ownership to solve it.
You often get change done to you. That never feels very engaging because you just have to get on with it. I didn’t want that. I wanted the team to be engaged and to find it personal to them and for the team to be able improve what they do. People find it easier to solve problems if you give them the space and the ownership to solve it. It then becomes embedded.
Drew Barritt: The one thing which sticks in my mind very clearly, and why I think we won the award, was the fact that Mark was taking a clear and committed approach to long-term improvement. Many of these activities can be short-term and designed to deliver results in three to six months. This is about a long-term commitment to improve departments for many years to come, and it was about doing things in the right way, rather than using tricks or cheats or quick patches to get things moving fast.
Mark Henn: The initial programme was a year and we are developing further tranches as we go. I don’t see it as a start and an end. You need to have a continuous cycle; otherwise it will wither and die. One of the exercises we looked at was how to improve the clarity and presentation of our reporting. We’ve made some incredible progress but it’s not done. We will pick it up again and will ask ourselves how we can improve it.
Drew Barritt: That long-term commitment mirrors the business and how it operates. The projects that Mark’s team deal with are long-term. They can last five years. The programme needs to have the long-term staying power to match the nature of the project work they are dealing with. If they are working on one job for five years they need to have staying power to see it through to the end.
You mentioned that in your new tranche of private group meetings of key stakeholders that strive towards continuous improvement, everyone is empowered to contribute, regardless of seniority. How do you ensure people feel like this?
Mark Henn: It’s difficult when you’ve had a number of change initiatives before that people just don’t see it as yet another change which they think will go away in time.
For us, it’s about making sure we are here to help the development. When Drew and others have been running the sessions it’s not about a grade thing or where the person is in the department structure. Everyone has something to contribute, and that’s when people start to realise they can contribute beyond their immediate area.
Nothing is rubbished in front of people. Once they can see that they tend to contribute more. They feel safe to contribute in that environment. I’m sure we’ve all been in situations before where change has been done to you and you come up with what you think is a good idea only for it to get slammed down before it has any chance of getting traction. That makes you feel quite disheartened.
Yes, it’s quite difficult in the early stages because it can be seen as just another change initiative. To enable that momentum you need to go back and ask, “how can we improve this and what’s next?” It’s an incremental improvement all the time.
A lot of the initiatives have come from the teams themselves. For example, the team said, “we’ve looked at five things which might improve things and this is the best one; this is what we’ve done." That’s a really powerful message. They can see their effort in the improvement groups have delivered the solution. I might be head of department but I don’t have all the answers.
Drew Barritt: The whole programme of improvement activities were engineered and designed to engage with people and to get them engaged and solving their own business issues. All of the projects they worked on to improve their day jobs have directly contributed back into their roles. The people on the front line who are actually doing the jobs are the ones who will receive the benefits out of this. The tax payer also gets the benefit from these improvement activities.
The key thing is that everyone was required to contribute. I say required because we said to the teams, “We really respect and want your opinions. Let’s put your ideas on the table and let’s test those ideas and see what works”.
Everybody pitched in and got involved. Yes, it’s quite hard work on top of the day job, but people can see results, which then maintains momentum and engagement with the activity.
Mark Henn: What was important from a line management perspective is that we gave them the freedom to do it. They knew they had the half day on the Friday morning which was dedicated to this.
Drew Barritt: It’s a big step for any organisation to commit time into developing itself. Having that freedom and time to do that has made it a success.
In the initial concept we planned out how long we wanted the activities to work and selected an appropriate group size, which depending on the activity, were between six and 12 people.
Depending on the activity we varied the numbers accordingly. With a ten-week programme in mind that gave us sufficient time to get them focused to deliver the objectives in that window. We were flexible as some groups overran and some delivered a little quicker. You have to be flexible as it never works out 100% in practice.
Mark Henn: The ten-week cycle was important. Sometimes we try to do business change by taking people out of the day job for a week or two, solve that business problem and then close it down. Some of the things we had to deal with were not a quick hit; you had to let some of the ideas percolate through. Putting it down for a week and letting the brain mull it over was beneficial.
You make the point that your engagement programme has been done without technology. What was the thinking behind this?
Mark Henn: I’m a chartered quantity surveyor by background. Whilst I use technology all the time, I think in construction you can draw lots of lovely pictures, particularly in the planning software, but after you interrogate it you find that what’s behind it is flawed and all you have is a pretty picture.
What I didn’t want is for us to use the latest technology just for the sake of it. Delivering something with the teams which was relatively quick and easy to do was by far the easiest way to engage them as otherwise we end up polishing things just for the sake of it.
The work undertaken to improve our reporting system enabled us to have a polished reporting system, but the process of how we got there was around making sure it worked. It wasn’t just a case of saying, “let’s make it look good”. We had to be able to scratch the surface and for it to remain valuable, otherwise it loses its edge.
I think we’ve all found situations in the workplace where you look at something and then think to yourself it doesn’t look quite right. When you then start to pick the corners you see that the facts behind it are wrong and it starts to fall apart. I wanted to make sure it was factually good.
Drew Barritt: We are not debunking technology. TfL purchases quality technology which gets employed by the business every day. The key thing for us was to maximise the human element and the human input which goes into that system. Getting people engaged and using things in the appropriate way was the gap we identified and this was the area we thought we could improve the most.
Mark Henn: For me, the engagement underneath was the most valuable – that’s a people thing. I hold regular team meetings, which are about 80 strong, and it was about sowing the seeds regarding the journey we needed to take.
We were getting more and more work coming in. I showed some graphics to the team around the influx of work and how much the turnover would be increasing, the challenges we would be facing in the next two of three years and what that journey was going to be.
With a slightly critical eye we asked the question: are we perfect? No, clearly not. Is everything we do perfect? No, clearly not.
So yes, there is room for improvement. If we are going to be able to achieve those end results, if we are going to be able to deliver properly, and if we are going to interface with the developer market properly and bring real value to TfL and London, then we have to improve what we do.
The business is growing at a rate of knots and we have to be ready for it. We needed to set the scene and take them on that journey. They had to believe it. It would not be worthwhile doing if they didn’t believe it.
The first tranche of activity we did was very specific to this team: what things in the next six months do we need improve which will make a big business impact for us? We will have three months to do it and then three months to deploy it and ensure it is working properly.
It was surprising the number of people who said, “we’re on the bus with you”. They could see it was going to benefit them. Ultimately there were large areas of TfL and London Underground which probably were struggling as far as workload was concerned. We had a different problem: rather than getting smaller we were getting bigger and we needed to be ready for it.
Drew Barritt: Mark gave quite a lot of detail on the forum activity with the whole of the 80 staff. Once the topic had been initially selected by Mark and the senior management, teams were picked out which either had the appropriate skills or were there for a development opportunity.
They were pulled together into a smaller team and we sat them down and did a briefing session with them to kick off the phase of activity. Once they started that activity themselves they were mostly posed with a question, and they were then allowed to define the scope to a certain extent and to define their own boundaries around what they were going to look at first before they engaged with the senior management team.
That enabled them to really test the question and get to the bottom of their understanding of what the team had. They couldn’t be any more engaged in that activity because it was all from their own doing.
Improving our value metric against what we do as individuals is vitally important.
You mention that engagement must be rigorously tied to commercial objectives. Why do you think this is so key?
Mark Henn: Even though TfL is a not-for-profit organisation we are still a business. I have an operational budget and I have to ensure I get turnover. I have to ensure I am delivering value for money, not only to the internal clients I have, but also for the external clients. We need to make sure everything we do, and every benefit that we can leverage out of the team, not only improves the service we provide but also makes it better value. That value can go back into either an operational benefit or is returned into the business for the customers.
Aside from energy consumption, our biggest bill is staff costs. So improving our value metric against what we do as individuals is vitally important.
Drew Barritt: The value that comes out of this department is all connected to people. We are not physically building a product: we are in the business of managing people and connecting stakeholders together to get things through. That’s what this team is all about. We engaged the team to develop the department, but we’re also developing their individual skills and how they communicate with other people in the wider business. One of the biggest themes throughout the project was asking the question: how do we collaborate with other stakeholders?
Mark Henn: One of the groups specifically looked at the embedded knowledge that we had within the teams. We have a competency matrix across TfL for project management and commercial management to assess technical competencies, but it was other areas that I was interested in.
We have people in the team who use to be local authority councillors, people who are school governors, and people who have worked for the fire brigade. Skills which you might not necessarily associate with project managers or construction managers but we looked to harness those skills.
We found out about their specific London Underground experience: for example, have they worked on projects before at Walthamstow or Victoria because that embedded knowledge is hugely valuable, but beyond that we found out more about their knowledge in other areas.
Having that embedded knowledge has helped us to make deployment decisions. For example, someone previously worked for the local authority doing planning applications so we placed them in the department which deals with the boroughs and getting planning consent. That was a really valuable piece of information. You can be a bit dogmatic and think if someone has a project manager title they must therefore be a project manager, but they often have different skill sets. Moving people around into roles which better fit them has been a real positive outcome.
Anything that saves time and expense can ultimately help projects to deliver on time and on budget.
What steps did you take to ensure engagement was linked to commercial objectives and that, importantly, it remains so?
Drew Barritt: We focused on process efficiencies. A lot of the engagement topics which were assigned to the team were about support functions and processes behind the scenes which were slowing things down or which were potentially inefficient.
We worked with the teams to engage with them to see what could be improved. That links perfectly with commercial objectives in terms of delivering the best value for money that we could. Anything that saves time and expense can ultimately help projects to deliver on time and on budget. That’s what this team is here to do.
You mention wanting to reiterate core values to create a ‘flag’ around which staff can gather. How did this work in practice?
Mark Henn: We have a survey across TfL called Viewpoint, which monitors a range of different indexes across employee engagement, engagement with the brand and engagement with change. That work comes out every year to 18 months.
We called the work we did and the platform we created around next year’s engagement activity and improvement initiatives, ‘Platform for Progress’.
That has really helped as people were able to align the work we have been doing with what the Viewpoint survey was asking them in regard to employee engagement and employee satisfaction. Against the metrics we were 11% up against the TfL average for the overall score and for change management and leadership we were 15% higher than the average across TfL.
That was amazing recognition because it was a step change from the norm. Winning The Public Sector Award at the Employee Engagement Awards in January this year was a real boost; you could see all the hard work they had put in had manifested itself into something tangible.
Drew Barritt: I think Mark did an excellent job of creating a vision for the future of the department. It wasn’t just about what we did, but also why we were doing it. That gave people an opportunity to say, “that’s something I want to be a part of”.
Taking that forward, there are regular communications with the team, either through forum style events or larger team meetings and other communications through the year, which have all linked back to that vision. They can see that consistent message which links to what we are ultimately trying to achieve. It’s an ongoing activity to communicate what we are looking to do.
From the wider perspective, what reaction has there been from TfL to the success of your engagement programme?
Mark Henn: TfL is a huge company and often you can develop a change initiative and develop something which improves your job but no one else other than 15 people out of a workforce of 18,000 will benefit from. After we won the award a number of the questions from the TfL programme board were regarding what we did. I gave them some highlights of things which had benefited our programme.
Yes, there were elements which were very specific to us, but there were other measures which, with a bit of tweaking, could be applied to other departments. This programme isn’t just for me; if it works for others I’m more than happy to share it, which I have done.