In this first article, Janet, a project support officer with the transformation team, introduces the London council at the start of its lean journey that LMJ will be following from now on, and her experience of learning about and implementing lean techniques.

Cuts are biting, staff are panicking and morale is pretty low.

We’re currently undertaking a technical support review, because it’s virtually impossible to tell exactly who is working where and supporting whom – the organisational charts are out of date and include job titles that often make little sense or bear little relevance to what the job has become since the title was formed.

We’re trying to look at who has an IT function, for example, but we’re unsure of the criteria – if someone spends 50% of their time on IT related tasks, should they sit under IT or within the individual service area with which they are supporting on IT?

We need a new approach. The lack of motivation and levels of disengagement are having a real impact – staff feel totally disempowered and the feeling is very much ‘when is the next restructure?’ We’ve lost sight of our focus, both at service level and as a council.

I’ve just undertaken a training programme on whole council transformation, which made a lot of sense, and struck me as being a step in the right direction. Led by RedQuadrant, it featured simulations of a registrars’ service in ‘Cheeseborough’ and a housing benefits department. I got to try out things, ideas that have been brewing for a while in my day job, and bounce them off the professionals. It was really useful that I’d just started working on a localities project with two RedQuadrant associates, as the simulations presented us with real-life problems like the ones I’d been encountering on the project and our trainers had great examples from other authorities – good to know that we’re not on our own (or the worst!)

Not everyone saw the training as positively as me – an officer from our housing benefits department said ‘it wouldn’t happen like that’, but I think he’s missed the point. Of course the simulation offers a slightly exaggerated situation, but it’s meant to get you thinking. I’m not sure the right people were invited to the course – I found it useful because I had my project to use as food for thought, but maybe to get something out of it, you’d have to be working in a relevant area going through transformation.

I would say the right attitude is also necessary, but everyone is so down-hearted at the moment, and that is a harder goal to attain.

I now feel more able to contribute to the work I’m doing on the locality project. We’ve decided to do a Rapid Improvement Event, which I’m looking forward to, as it sounds quite dynamic and therefore exactly what’s needed! We’re particularly looking at the range of services covered by five teams: Community Safety, the Night-time Environmental Health team, Environments and Communities team, Street Scene.

The teams feel stagnated and nobody is able to make a decision to push them forward and into more integrated working. We’ve already carried out a lot of mapping for each service together with activity analysis and complexity, so we’ve got a fairly good understanding of the services and their commonalities.

For the RIE, we’ve selected people from different levels across the five teams, and this in itself has caused a bit of a stir. This doesn’t happen in our council; nobody looks at what we do on the front line and why we do it, and no matter what anyone says, we have a very top down culture here.

On our first session, we ask the teams to share their impression of the current service and what their visions are by sourcing pictures from magazines, and this goes down badly with some staff who mutter they’ve got better things to do than cut out pictures. Particularly we pinpoint two very vocal opponents to the project who stay on the outskirts for most of the first week and offer quite negative opinions as to the future of the work we’re doing.

Through comments made, we’re very aware that staff feels a RIE is a symptom of them not performing well enough and so they feel resentful, rather than understanding that the push for improvement isn’t necessarily a criticism of all existing practice. I get where they’re coming from – the constant restructuring can feel like an attack on the weakest and we haven’t had much chance (or call) to identify and celebrate the strengths within our service areas.

Undeterred, we press on through stakeholder analysis and onto voice of the customer. As part of this day, the team is told to go and call a real customer and listen to their experience of the council to understand the parts of the service they value. Some of the team don’t feel comfortable about doing this and are shocked that they are expected to do so: the mindset appears to be that they don’t have any customers, so don’t need to do this exercise.

By day five, the common functions between teams are shown through maps and the participants can now easily understand how they could work as one team. This is a good point in the week and the team are rightly proud of what they’ve achieved. They’ve worked together to start bringing together a new process incorporating all of their services and we’ve produced a briefing note as to how to handle issues going forward. The overall number of participants has decreased, as we’ve sent some back to continue business as usual and also to act as a prototype team for our new process.

On day seven, a case comes in that highlights the importance of the teams working together as they all had an input. If they weren’t working together, the case would have been passed around the organisation and taken much more time. This feels like a really positive step forward and we’ve noticed that our two vocal opponents are now as enthusiastic as everyone else.

By the end of the RIE, we have a newly formed Anti-Social Behaviour Improvement Team (ASBIT), with a clear referral process that all individual teams understand and have signed up for. It’s a success, and we’ve got all the participants on board, but the ongoing challenge for us is to really embed this change and make sure that the officers receive the appropriate follow-up support. The RIE has been so popular that it has been embraced wholeheartedly at management level – with a particular preference for the ‘rapid’ aspect – but we have yet to take the next step as an organisation in understanding that simply holding the RIE isn’t a cure-all in and of itself. No new performance indicators are put in as a result of our ASBIT RIE and so progress is slow, and getting frontline staff on board remains difficult, as managers are yet to understand the importance of engaging them in the process.

Another boost to frontline perceptions of an RIE as a spotlight on failure is the fact that some opponents to these lean tools don’t remain in the council for very long – it’s probably not related, but it offers a powerful image of persecution for those that want to see it that way, which doesn’t helpfully progress our culture change agenda.

These are the downsides – but these are the learning points for next time. We’ve completed an RIE and got five individual and very siloed teams on board to the extent they have now formed one team with more efficient and streamlined processes, and this is a HUGE step for our organisation. We always knew it would take time – whilst our ambition is always to be an organisation designed from the bottom up, sometimes cuts necessitate swift top-down restructures. A colleague of mine is taking our learning from the RIE into structuring some targeted RIEs for Planning, and it will be fascinating to observe where this journey takes us and how far we can effect real culture change in our council.