"How I used a coaching approach at work to build on and add value to how the system works" by Simon Dennis


Coaching culture is about having the whole organization operate in a way which is much more people aware, much more perceptive and doesn't just get stuck in the aftermath involved in reporting on the numbers. It’s about creating the right conditions to get some real conversations going with the other person, about where they're coming from and what their interests and expectations are. Reporting is one of those areas that I began to experiment with.

We were going through a time where everybody wanted reports and data - data was king. I was due to attend a customer service review meeting and expected my reports to be challenged. I had the service report in my hand. It was about 20 pages long, and it basically showed the customer how we had delivered service over the last month with some year-to-date tracking and trends. I looked around the room and I thought, ‘But actually, this reporting doesn't, in any way, reflect what they actually felt - the quality of the service. It is just a set of numbers and data. It's almost like your bank balance, you know, the statement shows you are in the black but, for whatever reason, you don’t feel particularly rich or in control’.

It was not quite an epiphany moment, but when they asked for copies of the report to begin the discussion I said, "I'm actually going to hang on to them for now. Let's just talk about how things are going for you. What went well last month? What didn't work? What’s your overall perception of the service we’ve provided?” I then started to make some notes, particularly around the service areas that they weren't happy with, but also some of their suggestions for improvement and their future challenges. What followed was essentially a ‘coaching’ conversation. Lots of open questions, challenging of expectations, “Where could we do better?”, “What was the best element of the service?” “How might we work better together?” – genuinely useful and constructive dialogue.

At the end of the meeting, as I was leaving, "I put them [the reports] in the bin." And they said, "Can we see the service report now?" , I simply replied, "What’s it going to tell you that you don’t already know? Those reports are factually correct. Overall last month, we have delivered within the contract boundaries to the levels that we've agreed. But clearly, for whatever reason, that's not the service that you wanted or expected."

Experimenting with expectations about reporting

There was an expectation on my part that rather than simply presenting the data, we could have a much more open conversation about the perception of the service. I've seen it work really well because it is not so much just about what happened last month, it's about what are we going to be doing in the future that's going to be better and improved. The customer’s perception is their reality so your report should reflect that as well as the facts!

This motivated me to write a paper on getting people to think about this approach and talk about what they would really be saying in those reports, and how much we focus on factual data to hide behind versus perception, which may be very different.

Let me share another example, someone I know was working on a contract in which he was the customer. He received a phone call from the service department who told him that there was an issue, but that everything was back up and running within the service levels in the agreement. They also mentioned that "We're planning to do an update - a fix or whatever - with the system at 10:00 PM, UK time”, essentially out of office hours. And the customer just said to them, "I know it was still within the service level but you still took down five of our largest systems which still caused a lot of trouble. And you can't do the changes at 10 o'clock tonight because that's when America will be online and that's one of our biggest markets.”

This got me thinking again, ‘Well, the service report will be accurate, the service department haven't broken any rules. Everything was hunky-dory. They’ve done the right thing, the fix will be applied out of office hours etc. But actually, at no point would the report reflect the reality that the customer is facing.

Comparing expectations across different industries

It's completely different if you looked at something like the radio industry, where I started my working life. We talked about ‘Blackbox’ radio - the fact that you can put together a sequence of music that will deliver an audience because you can just program it. It might not have been a big audience but you can deliver it. Essentially creating a radio program to a formula, using standard ingredients (defined mix of music, news, sport etc.), a process if you like.

My boss used to say that the presenter’s job was to put the “sizzle” on the “sausage”. It’s the producer that creates the sausage; I could plan and write a decent breakfast show but if you give me a great presenter to present it, it'd be better than if I presented it.

The challenging bit is ensuring that the talent – the presenter - doesn’t break the process but enhances it. In radio you’re dealing with egos where if you’re not careful they think they are ‘bigger’ than the process and then you get anarchy. As a producer you work with the presenter to help them understand that, "If you use a process as your baseline, your professionalism will then improve the performance."

In the services industry particularly, that's hugely relevant because there are hundreds of people. Let's take the mobile phone industry. There's lots of mobile phone providers. So the only thing that sets them apart is actually the service they provide, and so the quality of the service is based on the people that you interact with. And when you're delivering people-based services, it's a hugely important thing. It's also interesting when you work in an outsourcing organization because you can think about companies who outsource. They actually move the same staff from provider to provider. So the assumption is you're just going to get the same service because you have the same people. This is where the other organization has to say, "Our underlying core…our basic process, is at a level where the same people are going to make it even more enhanced. So you've got to get that bit – the basic process – right."

For a long time I think we were talking about empowerment. I used to say to our presenters when I was working in radio that, "We want to choose our own music. We want to choose everything we're going to play and put into the show and basically, we all want to produce our own program. But it's a different skill. Actually, the presenter’s skill is in adding to the basic layers created by the producer."

Applying the 80-20 rule

It's about working with the system, rather than breaking the system, or something like that. Working within the bounds of it and saying, "We are empowering you but we're empowering you to add value on top of it rather than change the underlying structure," because once you get underlying structure change, that's anarchy and you can't control that. And then you lose.

I used to say on a simple scale when I was delivering laptops as part of my role, "If you follow a process, you get a laptop from A to B within, let's say, seven days." And I said, "So that's the basic minimum." They said, "That's what we work towards. You all do it. We deliver it. Job done. So we have to have something like 75%-80% of business operating at that level because if everything becomes an exception and you need every laptop in less than seven days, actually that's a different service. The clients may then say, "I need to scale up and I need to have a three-day service, not a seven-day service." It might take a little while to get to understand it but what we did in the end was recognise, "Well, OK. So we know that most of the business just operates on a seven-day turnaround, no problem." That gave us the capacity that when you do need to create a different level of service, you do need something in three days, we've got the capacity to do a one-off or a five-off exception.

Back to the radio analogy, we would be playing a fairly normal set of music across seven days a week and then the Rolling Stones will be in town on Monday, so we'd start every hour with a Rolling Stones record. "That's great. The Rolling Stones are in town. So we're just going to go Rolling Stones mad." And you can do that but you couldn't do it every single day of the year. You wouldn't sustain your audience. So you have to have the basic platform working to an 80-20 rule so that you've got the ability to flex and be outstanding or exponential at certain times.

I think that's when people get concerned that the process is taking away their empowerment by making them follow a set pattern.

Whereas, if everything was ‘emergency’ or an exception, we couldn't do it because everyone would be running about like headless chickens. So, for me, that's the message I've captured and I wanted to get to, "If you get the basics right, you can then coach the individuals to look at how could they make that even better? How could they improve their performance each step of the way?"

And I thought that would make an interesting theme because empowerment can be very strongly informed by the kind of coaching approach.

What this means for me

What I do is I look for those bits of business that are exceptional and I say, "What makes them exceptional?"

Sometimes, it is just the individual and then you say, "That's not replicable." You can try and capture some of those skills and knowledge but it's not repeatable in that sense. But there are some places where you see better performance and you think, "Right, what they've done is they've enhanced that process and they've added an additional template, a specific element or they have an additional meeting or step." And then you say, "Well, actually, if it's receiving a benefit, let's cut it into a system for everybody and we all get the benefits."

Where it is possible to replicate, we have process workshops where we look at a process and we ask, "How can we do this faster, smarter, better?" What we're doing is we're raising that baseline and you're using people's capability to raise the baseline. They might then notice that somebody else had a better outcome than they did following that same process, and so the coaching can explore how that came about. What did they do differently? What made it work well for them?

It's knowing the difference between what is a truly one-off exceptional performance that can't be repeated by just any individual, and then grasping those ones where you can.

Question: How have you found ways to bring a coaching approach to add value to how the system works?


To connect with Simon:

Simon has over 20 years’ experience of service delivery and continuous improvement in a variety of roles and industry sectors. He trained as a coach and coach supervisor and as Head of Coaching at Fujitsu UK & Ireland he established a Coaching Community utilising internal and external coaches to meet the business need for performance improvement and provided a basis for establishing a coaching competency for the organisation.

He has continued as a coaching ambassador for Fujitsu, presenting at conferences and contributing to publications and professional bodies in order to promote the use of coaching for performance and particularly internal coaching as a valid and valued approach.

He is married with 2 daughters and lives in Manchester, North-West England.