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Action Learning

Case Study --Telecom Operations 

The Background

"ConCom" was a telecommunications company that operated in a number of cities and regions scattered throughout the United States. Although a mid-level firm in the telecom industry, ConCom would be considered a large organization by most standards. They employed well over 10,000 people. Some parts of the firm dated to the early 1900's and the general culture was bureaucratic,  functionally organized and centralized.

 This example comes from Strategos' consulting experience. The client's identity is disguised for competitive reasons but the essential facts and events are real.

Top management recognized that radical change was necessary for long term survival. They decided to experiment with a Kaizen Event aimed at improving a major process. However, they had larger goals than those for the usual Kaizen Event. They wanted to deal with large-scale, company-wide processes and they also wanted to begin a major cultural change that would make the firm more responsive to the changing environment and changing technologies.

A rather long list of problem areas that were critical to competitiveness had been developed. From this list, a small Steering Committee selected one particular problem for the initial event.

The Problem

ConCom had developed a networking product that used very expensive existing infrastructure to network customer organizations having scattered locations. For many business and technical reasons, this product offered significant advantages for both ConCom and their customers.

The problem was that ConCom required an average of three months to install the system. Competitors were installing functionally equivalent systems in weeks.

A small headquarters group had investigated this problem. This group had not clearly identified the root causes or developed viable solutions due to the complexity and internal politics of the situation. Nevertheless, their work was valuable in developing the project scope and in planning for what became a sort of Super-Kaizen Event. One thing that was clear from the headquarters investigation was that the problem was highly complex and involved many functional groups. These groups often did not communicate well.

The Action Learning Team

Because of the scope and complexity of the problem, a rather large team of about 35 people was assembled for a three-day event. The team had representation from every region, from every functional group and from all levels of the organization. It included line installers, clerical workers, supervisors, managers and senior managers. It represented sales, engineering, Operations, Scheduling and other functions. Some of these people knew each other from telephone conversations but most had never met.

The Steering Committee recognized that a broad, company-wide consensus was a necessary part of any solution. They publicized the event widely within the firm and requested nominations for team members. It was important to ensure that not only was the solution a good one, but that it would be acceptable to the various constituencies.

Top management gave absolute support to the team. It was made clear to all concerned that the team's recommendations WOULD be implemented. they ensured that the best people were sent. They provided travel and accommodation for the team and rented a first-class meeting facility with luncheon accommodations and breakout rooms.

Ultimately, the team resembled (at least in some respects) the constitutional convention of 1788. From the intensity of debate, the rhetoric, the negotiation of provincial interests and the seriousness of attitudes one would think they were founding a nation.

The Results

Within the three-days of sessions the team identified root causes and three viable solutions. The root cause was a cumbersome and little-understood process for planning and implementing an installation. This process was centrally controlled at corporate headquarters but the control was illusory. Moreover, the process did not allow for wide variation in the nature of individual installations. Thus, every installation was planned and executed as though it were the most complex and difficult installation.

Solution #1

This solution made minor changes to the existing process. It was least disruptive to the organization and power structure, acceptable by most constituencies but offered only minor improvements in installation time.

Solution #2

This solution made major revisions to the process but retained corporate control. It would reduce installation time by 50%.

Solution #3

This solution radically changed the nature of the process. It delegated management of each installation to local project managers and provided for installation teams that would absorb the activities of several functional groups. It offered much greater reductions of installation time but required a major disturbance of the organization and power structure.


What They Did

Because of the members' inexperience with team activities and the time constraints. facilitators played an important but not dominant role. Strategos provided two facilitators. The client assigned several facilitators from one of their groups with prior team experience. The facilitators developed an outline schedule, conducted initial training in teamwork and introduced several analysis techniques.

Strong facilitation proved necessary in the beginning as some team members had considerable trouble staying on topic, presenting views concisely and refraining from interrupting others. However, by the third day most participants had adapted to group norms and the team had coalesced and matured considerably. 

Aside from the scope and complexity, the team approached the project in a typical process improvement way. They used the problem solving procedure of figure 3, examined the present state by analyzing existing data, identified root causes with fishbone diagrams and developed solutions through brainstorming.

The most important sessions involved the construction of a Present State Process Chart. The chart was extremely complex and covered a large wall. It was evident from early on that no one person understood the process. Individuals knew that they received information or documents, acted on that information and sent information out. Other than that, almost nobody knew what had happened before, where information originated and what others used it for.

There developed some curious circumstances surrounding installation milestone dates. These dates were important to installation personnel. Missed milestones were dealt with harshly. they showed up in performance reviews, salary reviews and, occasionally, letters of reprimand. However, it came to light that when milestones where accomplished early, this early accomplishment was totally ignored.

The question was asked, "who sets milestone dates?" Nobody seemed to know the answer. It finally developed that milestone dates were set by a clerical employee at corporate headquarters. Moreover, the time allowed was arbitrary and set without any knowledge of the complexity of the installation. Every installation, whether simple or complex, had the same allocated time and this time was sufficient for the most complex installation. There were many other such revelations as the sessions continued.

After the present state analysis, the group broke into sub-teams to work on various aspects of the problems. These sub-teams would convene, report back and then re-convene with different members for the next stage of the problem solving.

One important aspect of the session was the use of daily newsletters. A scribe was appointed who summarized each day's activities. Each delegate emailed this newsletter to their constituencies and asked for comments and inputs. In this way, news of the team's progress spread through the organization and feedback was received. This generated a great deal of interest and conversation throughout the organization as many others followed the team's activities and deliberations.

At the end of each day, time was allowed for reflection and discussion of the team process and learning experience. Surveys were done to help evaluate the effects and encourage participants to think about their experience. 

While the team recommended solution #2, they also setup an online survey to solicit comments and opinions from others in the organization. This promoted even broader participation and support.

The team made a presentation to top management and then individual delegates made similar presentations in their various regions. The organization was enthusiastic about the results and the process. As a result, additional such events were scheduled.

Strategic Issues

Another strategic issue was revealed during the project, although few appreciated it at the time. This was the integration of Marketing and Operations strategy.

The ability of ConCom's infrastructure to support this new product varied greatly between their various service areas and it also varied within the service area. Some locations could install the product quickly and easily; others could not. Much depended on the history of the infrastructure and what point in time it had been installed.

It appears that when marketing rolled out the product, they ignored these differences. the product was promoted equally in all regions. This had several effects. First, it required a major marketing effort in all regions rather than concentrating resources. In some regions, the product could be offered quickly and inexpensively. In other regions the product required major efforts and cost that was passed on to the customer.

This also affected cash flow. ConCom might have done better to concentrate marketing in areas where the infrastructure supported the product best. They might have quickly achieved a dominant market share in those areas. The improved cash flow might then have been used to upgrade infrastructure in other areas.

From the operations side, it appeared that there was little in the way of master planning that would allow an orderly upgrade of the infrastructure to support this and similar products. The result was a hodge-podge of infrastructure technologies and considerable unnecessary cost.

This Action Learning project was, hopefully, the beginning of a transformation of ConCom to a true learning organization. However, it will be several years before it is known whether the transformation is successful or not.Next Page

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