As I finished up my call with Rick, the CEO of Walker Ideas, I couldn’t help but feel impressed with his new attitude towards service. Rick and his team recently turned some bad news they had received from their key customer into an opportunity to convey to that customer that Walker Ideas was truly an inside-outsourcing partner. Rick wanted to create a proactive environment where Walker Ideas sat one step ahead of the customer, anticipating its needs. He was feeling frustrated by his inability to get his entire team to see the bigger picture. Rick had recently realised that Walker Ideas was drinking their own Kool-Aid, and it was time for them to act like the partner they’d allowed themselves to believe they are. Rick scheduled a one day workshop with his senior leadership team to address this need, and asked if I would facilitate.
“Good morning,” I said, walking into the conference room at Walker Ideas.
“Good morning, Dean. I’m just sharing with the team our recent conversation, and my desire for us to be able to anticipate our customer’s next move,” Rick said, gesturing for me to grab a seat.
“It’s not on purpose that we’re not proactive. There are actually some things we do where we’re very proactive. I just feel our efforts are fragmented,” Cheryl, the HR director, exclaimed.
“It can be frustrating, Cheryl, and your choice of the word fragmented fits very well into why this happens,” I said, dropping off my bag and heading for the white board with a roll of paper.
“How so?” asked Tyler, the head of operations.
“If you give me a hand to hang this poster, I will attempt to answer your question, Tyler.”
With the help of Tyler, the poster was unrolled, spread across the white board, and secured with magnets.
“That is one extremely large piece of paper,” John, the CFO, stated. “It’s more than a little intimidating.”
“Yes it is big, just like your issue, if you can’t break it down into pieces,” I said.
For the next few minutes, the group surveyed the paper that was now pinned to their white board, covering an area three feet high by six feet long, and broken into three sections: Purpose, Process and People. Inside each of the sections were tables of varying sizes and shapes, all awaiting answers to key questions. Slowly the room’s attention turned from the poster to myself, and with this I began to explain.
“Cheryl’s use of the word ‘fragmented’ is perfect as that’s more often than not the key reason why inside-outsourcing service providers fail to see the big picture of their customers’ needs. Try thinking of the big picture as a mosaic, where many pieces are trimmed and placed together to reveal a picture,” I explained.
“Each one of those tables on the poster represents a piece of the picture?” John asked.
“As we fill in the tables, we trim the pieces and create the big picture?” Rick added.
“Right and right. As we question ourselves and fill in the answers in each of the three areas – Purpose, Process and People – we begin to see the big picture. The reason the poster is so large is to allow us to see all of the pieces on one page, so no key fragment is forgotten,” I said, stretching my hand over the breadth of the poster.
“Underneath each of the three columns, Purpose, Process and People, is a box titled Observations,” John noted.
“Yes, this is a point where we stop to observe and ponder. Once all of the tables are populated in that column, the pieces are trimmed, and we take time to observe what we see,” I explained, adding that it would become much more apparent as we moved through the day.
After a brief well-needed recess, the senior leadership team reconvened to commence trimming each of the pieces of the mosaic, starting with Purpose.
“If everyone is ready, we’ll tackle the first piece of the mosaic: Defining the Need,” I said.
With everyone in agreement, I started to facilitate the group through a series of questions, which resulted in heated debate and healthy dialogue as the leadership team established agreement on the answers to:
- Who are our key customers?
- Why do our key customers outsource?
- What do our key customers need?
- Who are our competitors?
- Why are we uniquely positioned to serve our key customers’ needs versus our competitors?
“Since it is almost noon and we have just finished the first piece, the first table, I suggest we call in for sandwiches and work through lunch?” Rick asked the group.
“Agreed,” said Tyler.
“Absolutely. We have momentum, and I’m starting to see some interesting observations,” John responded.
“It has taken us almost two and a half hours to debate and agree on what should’ve been foundational for all of us,” exclaimed Cheryl.
“It has, but that is not uncommon. The answers to these foundational questions are key, and, as a team, you must be in agreement. How can you hope to be successful if you don’t agree on who your key customers are?” I stated.
“And why we are or are not unique,” responded Tyler. The group nodded in agreement.
“Let’s move on to the next piece, Define the Scope,” I said.
As the team re-focused on the poster, I began asking the questions that populated the next table and trimmed the next piece of the mosaic:
- What are our key services we provide to our key customers?
- Do we flawlessly deliver our key services?
- Why are our key services unique?
Once again the team ended up in debate and passionate discussion, challenging each other on why their services are key, who buys them, if they are valued, and if they are differentiated. Bit by bit the group agreed on their answers, and the table came to life.
“Dean, when you first rolled out the piece of paper, I thought to myself, this is pretty old-fashioned. We could easily do this on a spreadsheet, but after only two pieces and the level of discussion, I think old-fashioned has its place,” John said to the group.
“Technology has its place in your business for sure, but at your level you cannot lose sight of the need to ponder your strategy. If you cannot see it yourselves, no one in your organisation will see it either. On to the the next piece,” I said to the group as I sharpened my pencil, ready for the next table.
The group moved to the next table, the next critical piece in their mosaic: Define the Value. Again the group debated as they answered the questions:
- Do we price our services based on cost or on value?
- Do our key customers buy our key services?
- Do we know the true cost of providing our key services?
As the questions flowed and answers were debated, Rick stood up, walked closer to the mosaic, and said to the group, “It is very interesting to me that one of our stated key customers does not buy our key services.”
“So, does that mean the customer is not key, or the service is not key?” Cheryl asked.
“Excellent observation,” I stated.
The group moved into a twenty-minute debate around Cheryl’s observation and made a few adjustments to the first table, agreeing that one of their customers was probably not in fact key.
Happy with the change, the group started on the next table, Define the Expectations, and began to debate and answer:
- What are the measurable expectations our key customers have of our key services?
- How well do we meet these expectations?
The group moved through this table much more efficiently due to heated debate and dialogue, resulting in full agreement around a few critical areas, mainly who and what was key to them.
“Dean, this is an exhausting process,” John exclaimed.
“Most definitely, but most good discussions are,” I said.
“Especially when a discussion is long overdue, like this one,” Rick added, very matter-of-factly.
“After today’s debates, it’s hard to understand how we made it this far,” Cheryl said.
“Through sheer, tiring perseverance,” John stated, and again the group nodded in agreement with his comment.
“Discussion surrounding re-defining the need of your customers makes more sense to you today than it would have a few years back. Today you are ready for the discussion because you have experienced the cost and frustration of being misaligned with your customer,” I said. I then called for a break to allow everyone a chance to stretch, and to return necessary phone calls and texts.
During the day, the group had diligently taken notes on observations they witnessed and how each piece of the mosaic fit together. The group observed they had not previously defined:
- Who their key customers were
- What were their key services
- Which services were valued by which customers
- Why they were and were not unique to their customers
- Why their services were or were not unique
Most importantly, the group recognised they had not been on the same page for several years, and that the organisation by default was not on the same page.
The group sat quiet, tired, staring at the observations, and feeling very sober by the brutal realities they faced.
“I hate to admit it, but for the first time I feel like we understand our purpose and our customers’ purpose,” Tyler stated, taking in the group.
“Very much so, Tyler. My mind is racing on how we can communicate this to the broader team,” Cheryl said, smiling at the team.
“Let’s get through the rest of the mosaic first. We still have lots more pieces before we see the whole picture,” Rick instructed.
With that, the team agreed to reconvene the following week, to add more pieces to the mosaic, and to add clarity to the picture.
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