As a consultant who sells services to the Housing sector I was honoured by an invitation to speak at a recent (and excellent) Housemark Performance Improvement Club.  At these events those within the Housing Sector are able to meet and listen to colleagues engaged in, or contemplating, some form of performance improvement activity (often referred to  as performing a ‘review’).   On this occasion, I and Alan Penrhyn-Lowe,  Director of Financial Services at the Network Housing Group (NHG), jointly presented outcomes from reviews underway at NHG.

Towards the end of the day a number of questions were raised by delegates for the panel of speakers to consider.  Three questions resonated.  They popped up several times in one form or another so were clearly at the forefront of peoples’ minds.  From my own experience I know them to be key points for debate in the planning of any review.  They are:

Should you seek external support for reviews?

If you include the cost of doing a review, are the outcomes still worth implementing?

Money is tight so how do you resource a review?

Within this article I would like to touch upon each and hopefully provide a little clarity for the many people in Housing Associations and Councils grappling with reviews in order to drive up value for money from services.

Should you seek external support?

As a provider of external support I am tempted to say ‘always’.  However, I would be guilty of giving poor advice.   I will, instead, say ‘it depends’.

A review should lead to a change in the actions and behaviours of people, such that a service can be delivered perhaps more quickly, is able to do more for the customer, will cost less.   But to encourage people to change what they do it helps to make two things absolutely clear – that the change makes sense, and that the answer for them to the question ‘what is in it for me if I go along with the change’ is both clear and positive.

The latter point implies that self-interest is the prime motivator for engaging in the outcomes from a review.  But this suggestion must be seen in the widest possible context.  For some, the correct answer to the question ‘what’s in it for me’ might indeed be, perhaps, an increase in pay.  For many however, it is often that they can do more of what matters e.g. spend more time with vulnerable clients.

Putting aside all the theory about change leadership and management, from my own experience effective reviews depend upon good information.  Information is needed about how the organisation works, what is driving the use of resource, what the customer is experiencing , where the opportunities are to influence the use of time and money.

Information collected through self-discovery is a more powerful change agent than any provided by a third party.  Staff who leave their desks and ‘follow the work’ i.e. collect information for themselves about how a service operates, where the waste occurs, how it undermines what people are trying to do for the customer, will understand much better where the problems lie and be more motivated to do something about them.

But the approach must be designed with care so that the effort remains in proportion to the outcomes sought.  This is where external support can add greatest value.  Initial direction based upon prior experience and the use of tried and tested methods can save significant amounts of time and give a better outcome.

However, and this is the reason for saying ‘it depends’, the approach must not be rocket science otherwise people will not engage with it.  Because things need to be kept simple staff with strong prior experience of reviews may well be able to design and manage an approach that is a good fit for the organisation and its culture.

But, take care.  Reviews that have avoided the use of external help entirely have not, unfortunately, a good record of success.  Those that go well often feature a little bit of help up front from outsiders who then step out the way and let those involved get on with it.

If you include the cost of doing a review, are the outcomes still worth implementing?

The subtext to this question is that the cost of just getting to the findings from a review (staff time, back-fill costs, costs of outside help etc) can be high and should be included when evaluating any proposal for change to emerge as a result.

I agree, however one of the crucial points about the way in which a review is conducted is that it must put you in a better place – permanently.

A review should be about how work is performed, with a focus upon improving the speed and quality of services, not by adding more resource but by finding out what is limiting performance with the resources that you have now.  A proposal that changes the way people work and reduces the effect of limiters should put you in a better place – permanently.

There may be a high cost upfront (from the review and subsequent implementation)  but, because the shift in performance is permanent, you should get your money back.

If the better place is also associated with happier customers as well as a more efficient service, your people will be in a better place.  Over time levels of frustration and stress should ease along with levels of staff absence and turnover.  And because those people could see that the review that they were involved in worked they may be encouraged to do more, something that would never be the case had the first not happened.

Cost benefit analyses are necessary, but I know from experience that CEOs who see happier customers and hear staff say that they are able to do a better job because of what has taken place rarely look back and rue the cost.

Money is tight so how do you resource a review?

The easy answer, and one that you might expect me to say, is buy the resource in.  The advantages are that all the key people who make the place run stay put in their day jobs and high standards of service are maintained.  And you gain immediate access to people who are well trained and should know what they are doing.  The problem is that the wrong people will be doing the review.

The best outcomes happen when a review is driven from within.  In other words, those key members of staff working at the heart of the business have their roles back-filled so that they become free to engage in the review.  You need them to be influencers within the review process committed to delivering high value outcomes.  But backfilling key roles will put standards of service at risk.  The key question is therefore, should service quality be allowed to suffer because of a review?

Every CEO I have met has been clear and unequivocal on the matter, absolutely not!  But reviews are about testing new ways of working, experimentation and trial and error.  To be more efficient Housing Officers might, for example, experiment by adopting multiple roles when visiting a resident (e.g. advise about rent, organise a repair).  If service levels drop as a result should this be condemned as a failure?  Not if those involved learn from the experience and come up with a better idea.

I believe lapses in service levels can be an acceptable risk if it means that we get the right people undertaking a review, that they are allowed to take risks and experiment with alternative ways of working, and thus become committed to driving through improvements in service quality and cost.

One final point.  Reviews that just focus upon cost rarely have lasting results.  Spend can always be delayed, negotiated down, consolidated so that every pound goes further.  But if the way in which the system works is left unchanged the reasons for the spend being fragmented in the first place will still be there.  The costs will creep back.

Reviews that successfully drive costs down permanently tend to be about improving services.   The best way to speed up a service and reduce its cost is by finding out what’s causing the service to be slow in the first place.  Every blockage that you find triggers additional cost, of people waiting, struggling with work-arounds, having to placate unhappy customers.  If you focus upon changing the system to remove the blockages, the service will improve and the costs will fall.  And because the system is changed permanently, the reduction in cost should be permanent.

Author:  Paul Clarke, Director at Develin Consulting Ltd