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Management: Special Project Teams Print E-mail
Friday, 12 August 2011
In his second article, Ross van Horn looks at how modified versions of the GE Workout can bring positive change and learning to organisations, even now, more than twenty years after it was first developed. It can solve cost and revenue-related challenges and build a learning culture along the way.


All companies, no matter how successful, have times when cost or revenue related activities fall through the cracks, often for years without remedy. Typically these problems are not the responsibility of just one business function within the company, so they are easy to ignore, especially in organisations that have significant communication challenges amongst the functions. One of the first, and certainly one of the most famous, efforts to tackle these challenges was made by GE under Jack Welch. The process that was implemented then was known as the GE Workout, and has since been used in numerous companies under various formats and through various means.

Whatever means are used to successfully solve these types of business challenges, it is important to look at them first and foremost as an opportunity to link cross-functional learning with the company’s success. One of the most effective methods to do this is to create special project teams designed and staffed specifically to solve each individual business challenge. The key benefit of this approach, in addition to the positive business result, is that your staff members learn and grow with each other, building trust and mutual respect along the way. The value of this benefit cannot be over-emphasised. Who wouldn’t want a culture of trust and respect in their company, regardless of other benefits?

West Africa Example
In my consulting work over the years, I have seen cases where remarkable new and efficient practices were discovered and implemented in businesses in Africa.

In a mobile telecommunications service provider in West Africa, the organisation was faced with major down time for base stations because technicians in the field did not always have the tools they needed to repair the stations. The business impact was that revenues were negatively affected because callers near that base station could not make calls until the station was repaired.

We brought together a special project team consisting of representatives from all of the business functions involved in the challenge: procurement, finance, IT, administration, and technicians. Over the course of three days the challenge was clearly analysed, and an action plan was developed. Within three months, many of the procurement and distribution blockages had been remedied, and base station up-time was better, resulting in higher revenues.

In another case in the same company, the executive team identified major redundancies in the various internal reporting processes, resulting in hundreds of hours of staff time dedicated to non-essential and even duplicative work. In this case, the special project team was convened in the same way, and composed of team members from various business functions: HR, finance, administration, IT, etc.

Astoundingly, through a rigorous process of problem definition and analysis, followed by thorough implementation of the solution, internal reports were reduced by nearly 80%. Obviously this meant that some staff members found themselves without much to do in their current positions, but the special project team, along with company leadership and HR, also identified new areas where those staff members could be more effective. The end result was that staff members were now working on tasks that had a direct business focus, and redundant reports became a thing of the past. This had a positive effect on revenues, and an even more positive effect on company costs.

In another less dramatic case in an international governmental organisation, we identified communication challenges amongst the individuals and units within a sub-section of the organisation. A small self-selected team took on the challenge, and over the course of a day, re-mapped the communication flows so that they would be more efficient. An implementation plan was also developed, and the team members committed to their own individual actions to ensure better communication flows. The result was greater transparency of information, allowing faster and more relevant work to take place on a daily basis.

An Effective Approach to Building and Managing Special Project Teams

  • Special project teams can be formed and managed in various ways depending on your needs. This method listed below is one efficient way to do it.
  • Allow staff who do the actual work throughout the company to identify efficiency and effectiveness challenges in their own words. This can be done through focus groups and surveys.
  • Provide space for the executive team to look at what is most important for the company in the quarters and years ahead, and match those goals with some of the challenges identified by staff.
  • Create focused “challenge titles” for each problem to be solved. This important step ensures that the scope of the challenge is well defined.
  • Develop small special project teams comprised of approximately 6-12 staff members who are involved directly with each aspect of the challenge. So, for example, if it is a billing and collection challenge, at a minimum the team should include staff from IT, finance and sales. When possible, the team should be comprised of high potential staff who are eager for opportunities to innovate and demonstrate their skills.
  • Give the team time and space to completely analyse the challenge, followed by space to develop a workable plan for a solution. This can often take several days of working together in a focused setting.
  • Put a time limit on implementation of the solution. Sometimes a 90-day limit with check-in at 30-day intervals can work.
  • Each team member should have a specific and accountable role on the team, including a team leader. These roles should be developed and agreed by the team itself, instead of imposed by company leadership.
  • Remember that these business challenges are usually not “quick-fix” problems, and that the staff on the teams will require some freedom and that rare commodity, time, to be successful. Assume that each team member will need 20-30% of their usual work time to devote to the project team until they reach completion.
  • When the team has completed the challenge successfully, it is essential to appreciate their successes publicly within the company, and to show how the completion of the project has positively affected the business. When possible, financial and other tangible incentives should be provided.
  • As the process becomes familiar, make it a standard activity in the company by running the programme once or twice a year.

More on the learning organisation by Ross van Horn:
Management: Does Your Organisation Maximise its Learning Opportunities?


C. Ross van Horn is a management consultant, coach and trainer based in Nairobi, Kenya. He has led and contributed to consulting and training interventions throughout Africa, the Middle East, and the USA. In this series of articles on learning in business organisations, he draws mainly from personal consulting experience to illustrate how learning activities can be linked directly to business effectiveness.

Find Ross here:
www.rossvanhorn.com
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Twitter: @RVHrossvanhorn




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