Would the law of least effort be the key to a successful operational transformation?

By Caroline Ménard and Mikael Cardin

Most of us believe that individuals who exert maximum effort at work are most likely to achieve good results. This commonly accepted perception is further supported by a recent study conducted by Jared B. Celniker and five other researchers from the American Psychological Association, aptly titled The moralization of effort.  We tend to value the energy expended rather than the outcome achieved, a counterintuitive and counterproductive tendency. Who hasn’t witnessed situations where resources and energies were wasted because they were not invested in the right way? Of course, no one really thinks of encouraging proponents of the least effort, but the pursuit of the right effort should be a key element of the strategy for organizations engaging in operational transformation processes.

Not to be confused with change management, operational transformation aims to evolve the practices and behaviors of collectives and individuals so that they expend their energies on the right things and in the right way, finding meaning and pleasure in doing so. In this perspective, the primary goal is to improve performance and productivity by promoting a people-centric and collective approach, while ensuring that the organization’s purpose remains the background for all actions taken.

During their numerous interventions in operational transformation, Brio’s consultants support their clients at the heart of the process. Observations conducted on the field also provide an opportunity to refine their knowledge and evolve their practices. Here, we want to share some of these findings that can contribute to your reflections on this current topic.

Operational transformation: questions to ask for improvement

A company is a constantly moving entity, comprising of women and men who each day dedicate a certain amount of energy and time to fulfill the mission entrusted to them. Thus, the operational transformation process involves all the forces present within the organization, including both members of the leadership team and customer advisors dealing with complaints, as well as recruitment managers.

Within this exercise taking place on both collective and individual levels, the aim is to find avenues for improvement by challenging the status quo:

  • What is the value of the energy expended? Is it spent on the right things and in the right way?
  • In our daily accomplishments, what proportion involves high-value-added activities that have a direct or indirect impact on achieving the organization’s major goals?
  • How much time do we spend on tasks that could have been avoided or would be quickly forgotten if we stopped doing them?
  • How much time do we dedicate to redoing what others have done?
  • What are the losses associated with all these activity reports whose data is not genuinely discussed?
  • How can we create the ideal conditions for teams to engage in these inquiries and find solutions, while ensuring that the resulting initiatives are aligned with the organization’s vision and enhance its overall performance?

The 4 principles guiding operational transformations

Based on the experience gained from our clients, here is an overview of the strategies to prioritize to maximize the impact of your operational transformation efforts. Recognizing that each case is different, we do not claim to offer a universal recipe here, but rather certain rules to follow to maximize the chances of success.

Have a clear vision and specific objectives help teams prioritize and make informed decisions

We are often presented with major goals such as “Being the leader in our industry”, “Being recognized as a key player in our sector,” or “Satisfying our internal customers and supporting their digital transformation”. Bordering on jargon, these could be attributed to any company or management. However, they are of no use in helping teams on the ground make relevant choices. The risk is that everyone interprets them in their own way, leading to conflicting visions where everyone has their own notion of what is important and urgent. This type of situation has the effect of slowing down, or even paralyzing operations.

Here are some options to consider, avoiding the trap of generic directions that no one truly identifies with:

  • Reflect on the organization’s ambition to clarify how it can be defined considering the teams’ lived reality. This involves bringing operational questions to the executive committee. “For us, efficiency is fast and well or well and fast?”, “Should we respond to expectations or the actual needs of customers?”, “Should we address current needs or also future needs to ensure quality service?”. The answers to these questions are important as they will impact the teams’ future behavior.
  • Seek to establish better unity of action in response to customer expectations and the reality experienced by the client. The customer becomes the reference point from which the effectiveness of our internal processes is arbitrated. The goal is to eliminate energy losses from duplications and inconsistencies resulting from interactions between different departments participating in the customer experience. This prevents teams from operating in silos, a potential source of internal friction and customer frustrations. Spending the right effort for the organization then lies in the teams’ ability to work together, to collaborate rather than confine themselves to their own playing field.
  • Foster a common understanding of the vision and objectives to refocus energy on value-added activities. One of the challenges of this approach is to succeed in offering teams an engaging and precise anchor that allows them to deduce ideal practices and ways of operating to orient towards.

Create spaces for expression capable of generating the right discussions

Those who are at the heart of the organization’s actions every day are best positioned to identify what works well and what doesn’t. It is essential to allocate the necessary space for them to discuss their daily reality, priorities, and all their modes of operation. By strengthening the sense of belonging to the collective, we encourage the emergence of sharing and mutual support mechanisms that go hand in hand with energy savings.

Some form of support is often essential in the context of these discussions. Assessing the relevance of performance indicators is an example of a task that may require more intensive guidance, as discussions on this sensitive topic can sometimes turn into anxiety-inducing moments and additional time losses. However, it is essential to avoid the person or people providing support from taking up too much space, as the goal is to free up the speech of those working on the ground. This requires a position focused primarily on listening and receptivity.

Dedicate time to transformation and support collective effort

To ensure the continuity of the transformation process, it is crucial to emphasize the importance of scheduling moments for reflection and discussion. Teams that benefit from dedicated time periods for their own transformation are more able to gradually refocus their daily activities on value-added tasks. Without a structured schedule, these meetings may take place at the wrong time and not yield the expected results, which is counterproductive and a source of frustration.

Hence, the importance of establishing specific rituals. These can take various forms and occur at different frequencies, depending on operational imperatives or the nature of the tasks assumed by the teams involved. All options are possible, and, once again, openness and healthy communication should be prioritized to ensure adequate planning.

Finally, the goal should not be to turn all team members into methodological experts in transformation or black belts in continuous improvement. Trying too hard sometimes kills productivity. A few very simple tools and an appropriate framework allow for unlocking collective intelligence to effectively solve problems, share best practices, and readjust operating methods… all while enjoying the process.

Celebrate the success…and start again

When things go well, they should be acknowledged, but once again, it’s all about how it’s done. It’s not just about praise and positive reinforcement. Celebrating successes and good behaviors encourages teams to perpetuate what they have implemented. The impact will be strengthened if the celebration is based on facts, that is, a measurement of the impact of the actions taken that validates success and makes it visible. Taking the time to understand what led to success helps identify what needs to be replicated and creates a desire to start again… one small step at a time.

Achieving the “right effort” requires a blend of finesse and collective intelligence

To achieve a true transformation of practices and behaviors, the various approaches mentioned here must be accompanied by operational coaching at all levels of the organization. Unlike leadership coaching, which focuses on management posture, operational coaching involves immersion in the daily reality of an organization, in the heart of action. It involves supporting without directing, in order to gradually evolve what teams, do and how they do it.

While always keeping the focus on the overall vision pursued by the organization, efforts are made to provide the necessary keys for the collective to autonomously reach it. In this way, managers assume their leadership role by being somewhat guardians of meaning for their teams. This requires an approach centered on openness and sensitivity. Gradually, in an organic manner, one can achieve the balance that is the right effort, where a maximum of deployed energy is concentrated in value-added actions.

By Caroline Ménard and Mikael Cardin



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