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How to achieve excellence

By Sanjeev Sadavarti
November 25, 2005 08:50 IST
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Delegation is a process beyond mere manuals. It needs to be practiced for perfection. Effective delegation creates speed for the organisation, self development for superiors and high motivation for subordinates.

At Birla Cellulosic, we drew up an ambitious plan for achieving excellence. It involved transforming all the business processes into the best in the world, winning all the national quality awards and winning the coveted Deming Prize within a time period of three years. In addition we wanted to accomplish this without any external consultant.

The first step towards this goal involved putting together a core team of exceptional achievers from various departments. I was part of this team. My co-team members included individuals from different parts of the organisation.

This team was expected to facilitate the achievement of excellence in all business processes cutting across the organisation and even beyond. As the team leader I had some initial discussions with various organisations that had implemented the process.

This made me realise that such a transformation was never done without an external consultant. Hence the task became tougher and we began with a lot of anxiety and misgivings.

This article is an account of how the challenges faced by us were shared, analyzed and developed into a methodology of delegation. Today many of the team members are heading different departments at various companies.

I myself have shifted to Jubilant Organosys Limited, Noida. Sameer Desai is now with Acrylic Fibre Division in Egypt. Sanjeev Kullu works in the technical MIS and Ashok Kakadia has now moved to Reliance Industries, Hazira. And Mitul Desai currently heads the quality division at Birla Cellousic. Ravi Sharma, Charulata Joshi, Deepak Pandey and Mahesh Agrwal were the other members of the team. We also had two associate members, Ravi Yadav and Sanjay Pandhre.

Each member of the team contributed significantly and was critical in the creation and execution of the methodology. We realised its benefits and therefore, while heading departments at various places across the globe today, we still practice it.

The climb uphill

The first big challenge was in the genesis of the team itself. I had to lead a team of exceptional achievers of which some members had worked in positions senior to me. So a soft issue of ego clash existed and had to be managed carefully.

Other direct challenges for the team were to design a working model of excellence, help various process owners to align their working towards it and ensure improvement in performance.

Indirect challenges came in the form of all types of technical, cultural and political resistances. These challenges and their changing forms required quick and mid term adjustment in the road map.

To summarise the situation, unclear mid-term targets resulting in a hazy strategy demanded extraordinary flexibility and speed. I realised that I was the bottleneck by virtue of my position as well as expertise.

The team members were experts in their work areas, but expectations from them on the excellence model were different and were known only to me. Hence on a typical day, team members would complete their assignments and wait to meet me to discuss issues. I wished to apply the queuing theory in this situation and also considered opening another discussion forum simultaneously. This required another leader. This thought of creating more of me led to the development of the delegation methodology.

Analysing these challenges I realised that there were three distinct factors that were critical for the success of the project:

  • need to accomplish more activities per day
  • space and time for the team leader to think and strategize for the long term and ensure development of individuals
  • high motivational levels for all the team members

In search of effective delegation

Having identified the challenges and success factors I discussed them with the team. It was then decided to resolve these problems first and only then proceed with the actual project.

The issue was discussed with key people in the organisation and interestingly most of them identified it as a 'delegation' issue. Everyone was clear that it could be resolved through effective delegation.

But when it came to the actual implementation all of them had a certain level of discomfort. So our next step was to refer to the company's delegation manual. But we found that this manual focused on financial independence and resources such as people, assets and procedures were considered irrelevant for execution of responsibilities.

Hence the purpose of these manuals or policies did not match the challenges and critical success factors of the team.

At the same time, the team agreed more independence at various jobs should address these challenges. Accordingly, a survey was conducted and fifty employees across various levels were inter-viewed.

The survey revealed that the independence felt by them varied drastically. Although financial independence was followed strictly, control over actual performance of activities was different across the organisation.

Managers who had perceptions of less independence typically focused their discussions on excessive controls exercised by their superiors on their day-to-day activities. When actions were dependent on instructions, managers were unable to use authority.

They felt that their bosses were able to delegate responsibilities easily, but assigning equivalent authority was a rarity. Further, some employees felt that their bosses lacked understanding on equating responsibilities with authority.

Interestingly, almost 90 per cent of subordinates were not happy with the situation although they felt that the delegation manual was adequately drafted.

On the other hand, the department heads felt that exercising controls ensured effective monitoring. Ultimately, performance of activities was directly related to meeting targets. A subordinate who did not perform well could directly affect the actual performance of the department head. Some department heads also felt that sometimes delegated authority was misused.

This created bigger problems for them and therefore they felt that doing anything beyond the present delegation manual could be fatal. At the same time, the same individual who advocated control over his subordinate was frustrated by the intervention of his boss.

This led us to conclude that the viewpoints of both the superior and the subordinate were valid. The confusion was genuine and it became necessary for us to understand what would be the 'ideal state of delegation' in the organisation.

What is effective delegation?

The analysis of the survey and the subsequent discussion among team members clearly revealed the stages of delegation. Delegation was intended when actions were monitored as a part of training. In this case there was a clear communication that if the employee learned to perform the task efficiently he would then be empowered to implement it in the absence of his boss.

When actions were not monitored and results were the focus, then delegation was good. When parameters were not considered and only deviations were monitored, delegation was most effective. To our surprise we found that this was beyond the scope of the delegation manual and was a skill that needed continuous honing.

The cycle of delegating effectively

The team understood that delegation was necessary but at the same time if it was not done effectively it would hamper the performance of the whole team. Hence it was essential to establish a process of continuous delegation, issue by issue. This would not only make the transition smooth but also help in delegation of new responsibilities that would get added on subsequently.

We also felt that an element of standardisation to reduce time as well as individual dependence was necessary. After many experiments and iterations we developed the following eight-step cycle that proved to be highly effective.

Step 1: Identify the strengths of your subordinates

Each individual has a distinct characteristic, which is effective in a particular situation. So apply the strength of a person to the right situation. There are various methods of identifying strengths in subordinates:

  • Visible performance: when a person joins the department, he starts working in his areas of interest. His initial performance in these areas of interest directly indicates his inherent strengths.
  • Past experience: past experience with an individual can be used to identify areas of performance and assess strengths.
  • Discussion with a reference: with a new employee, discussions with an earlier supervisor or references is an effective method of identifying his strengths.
  • Assigning sample jobs: a variety of small jobs requiring different skills can be given to an individual to identify his strength.
  • Victory parade: this unique practice in many organisations has a high potential to improve delegation. Although this exercise was intended to improve team working, it helped significantly in identifying the perceived strengths of all team members. In this exercise each member, based on his experiences, identifies and lists the strengths of other team members including the leader. A forum is then organised to reveal the strengths of each member. A list of strengths is displayed in the working area of the team after every such exercise

Step 2: Assign jobs as per strengths

This step requires a change in the mindset as the focus of the team leader has to shift from 'identifying the gaps' to 'assigning jobs based on possible achievements'. Feedback has to change from 'you need to improve' to 'well done' or 'I know you are the best and will continue to be'.

But how do you know whether you have identified the strength correctly? If the team member shows willingness to do the task, is not tired after completing the task, shows improvement every time, uses creative methods to make things better and performs at a level higher than his boss on the specific job, it means that you have identified his strength correctly.

Interestingly, in around 80 per cent of activities, effective delegation resulted in subordinates achieving skill levels that were higher than the team leader's own skills.

Step 3: Insist on documenting plans and activities

A vital feature of this step is to develop a checklist for tasks that will be used in the future. If the task was performed earlier the old checklist should be given and the team member should be asked to further enhance its contents. This not only ensures continuous improvement, it also minimises efforts every time.

While assigning the job, insist on developing an activity schedule. The most critical input of the team leader at this stage is to help members identify their activities.

Step 4: Standardise checklists and shift activities horizontally

Each checklist, developed in step 03, should be controlled with proper coding (may require a separate document control system if the company is not ISO certified). Whenever a task is repeated, a clear insistence on observing the checklist should be made. If the checklist needs improvement, activities should be added or removed with consent from the team leader and members. This process of firming checklists, controlled changes to the checklists and removal of obsolete checklists is called standardisation.

The weakest link of effective delegation is standardisation. Mostly supervisors get trapped in daily fire fighting due to their inability to standardise. Japanese companies have become world leaders primarily by standardisation. Standardisation ensures consistency as well as effective delegation and therefore needs extensive focus.

Step 5: Encourage teamwork through the 'project leader' concept

Unfortunately, due to hierarchical working system, team members expect a lot of support from the leader. Usually sub-ordinates do not believe that they are more proficient than their leaders in certain areas.

This in fact is the basic requirement for team working and effective delegation. Hence members should be given control of projects to further sharpen their skills and develop leadership qualities. Obviously, authority should be given based on their individual strengths.

The biggest benefit of this process is identification of new areas of interest and potential strengths' of individuals. It also gives a sense of accomplishment to the project leader and hence energizes him to perform better.

Step 6: Create measures of performance

This step involves identifying measures of performance at each stage. Deviations from norms (control limits) indicate the need for intervention of a superior. This step also requires a keen interest from the team leader in identifying what to measure.

Changing from activity monitoring to granting independence is difficult, as it requires identification of some parameters, which can indicate that performance is yielding results.

This step is the most critical step and team leaders may need specific training inputs and practice to develop this.

As delegation improves, the team leader's involvement in various activities reduces. But given today's volatile environment performances vary with speed. This may result in fluctuating performance levels over a period of time in various areas.

To avoid this fluctuation, it is essential for the team leader and other experts to provide inputs, whenever there is the possibility of a drop in performance.

For example, if a maintenance supervisor is able to answer the question 'what if I do not do this', for each checkpoint of planned maintenance checklist, the various measurables will be revealed. This needs to be done exhaustively before the supervisor completely delegates the maintenance activities.

The measurable will be effective if it is able to indicate the performance of a delegated activity. Since there is some lag in conversion of strengths into a skill, initial monitoring will be required. As the skill level improves, monitoring levels should reduce by design. An important factor that has to be taken into account is the fact that establishing monitoring systems requires a lot of effort. But changing them later requires even greater effort.

Step 7: Develop hierarchical measures of performance

It is the duty of the superior to delegate as well as encourage his team members to further delegate. This effective delegation will result in development of measures of performance at all levels, which are interlinked.

Step 8: Go back to step 01

In this step the process of identifying strengths continues and the delegation cycle becomes continuous. This is therefore not only a delegation cycle but an improvement cycle also. Each cycle means one more activity standardised and delegated.

Performance feedback and effective delegation

It is important to provide continuous feedback to team members on their progress and guide them towards higher performance. But, the area where most team leaders fail is in consolidating these inputs on a periodic basis. This results in an inability of the team member to perform at high levels in the leaders absence.

So, it is absolutely necessary for the team leader to spend time with each team member to take stock of performance. He should discuss the member's achievement, distinct strengths displayed, areas of interest and performance against agreed result areas (along with feedback for deviations).

Preferably, this should be recorded and the company's expectations from the employee should be clearly communicated to him.

Ultimately, at the end of the year, the leader should rate his team members based on the strengths they have acquired and the results that they have delivered.

Plan your substitutes and tell them

The thought of losing authority with delegation in managers is strong. This welds them to their position and limits progress. To avoid falling into this trap, a leader should plan for succession.

He should ideally communicate to one of his team member the skills required to substitute his job. The leader should sit with his boss and an expert from the HR department and discuss his job profile.

He should combine their inputs into a skill set and document it. This document should be given to the possible successor and the leader should support, encourage and motivate him to achieve the skill set.

To conclude, you can grow only if you ensure both the growth of your subordinates and the sustainability of processes in the organisation. This method of delegation does both.

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