Last week I was invited to take a session on ‘Marketing and Finance Implications in Urban Development’ for the top brass of the pivotal State organisation, the Urban Development Authority (UDA).
When preparing for the program the day before, I discovered that some of the key initiatives in the city post-war have been the creative work of this institution. The Dutch Hospital, The Arcade at Independence Square, The Race Course, The Floating Market, Diyatha Uyana at Waters Edge and Independence Square, Nawala and Kotte walkways are a few. To make the program more relevant, I did a deep dive into the organisation. Let me capture the essence.
Begins from the top
Apparently, every weekend for almost six hours the head of the institution travels around to understand the issues that the general public is faced with at the ground-end and then as a team what creative measures that can be taken to solve the problem to make the city more user friendly and towards a ‘Green City’ is been actioned.
I guess if not, we could not have seen the creative walkways that we have seen in the recent past, be it the walkways at Independence Square, Kotte and Nawala, The Arcade, Race Course or for that matter the Waters Edge Diyatha Uyana, which to my mind is reflective of the performance-based internal culture that exists at the UDA. It must be also mentioned that it demonstrates the strong and purposeful leadership that the organisation is being driven with lately, not forgetting the talent that exists at the institution – be it the town planners, architects, quantity surveyors or the construction engineers.
My mind went back to the time I was Chairman of a pivotal export board in Sri Lanka and my pick-up. The most talented people in this country work for the public sector given that one has to be a top university graduate to enter a State organisation. All that is required is strong leadership. We see this in reality at the UDA even though we work in a political economy just like any other country in the world.
Latest research reveals that for such a performance-based culture to exist, a very careful nurturing process should be prevalent from selective responsibilities, clear tasking of duties, empowering more motivation and then to managing and leading them. I guess the UDA has become a case in point in the public sector today due to this fact.
Empirical research reveals that for a dynamic organisation culture to exist, it must also possess a lean organisational structure that is based on the market needs than what a traditional structure must possess. It is also proven that a lean organisational structure means that a lean process is in place in the company that enables a company to be dynamic.
It is said that a typical ‘lean process’ helps create a performance-based culture within an organisation due to the clear responsibilities and accountability that one carries in the organisation, which to my mind the UDA has carefully orchestrated. This proves that a ‘lean procedure’ formulated based on consumer requirements delivers value to the consumer, like for instance Diyatha Uyana. This constitutes a system that requires that all processes are reconsidered and carefully integrated to ensure customer service, which I believe is the essence of a performance-based culture. I can see the same emerging for the proposed hotel at the Gaffoor building taking form.
A point to note is that whilst accepting that a market-oriented processes structure must exist in an organisation, a concurrent system must be there with a carefully structured appraisal system together with a strong rewards strategy for the behaviour to be repeated. If we see the continuous urban development projects that the UDA is churning out to Sri Lanka, it can be said that the menu is right for a performance culture in the years to come.
Another case in point of a performance culture existing is how the organisation structure can be defined in the processes on the basis of their ability to deliver customer value and exiting those that do not. The development of The Arcade model was a classic case in point. From the initial advertisement to the expression of interest to finally the allocation of the outlets and the aesthetic aspects related to the overall architecture of the offering, all have been very well managed, which is sometimes referred to as the organisational culture.
The question that many ask is, ‘what is an organisational culture?’ In a very simplified way, organisational culture is expressed as “the way we do things here,” which is a nice way of defining this complex term. I would add that this is more than that. It is perhaps, above all else, an expression of the values that drive all activities within an organisation and the norms or rules that ensure that those values are implemented in practice.
For instance, I worked in a retail store in the US called Wal-Mart where I saw how the value of the company receives more than lip service from the senior management and employees alike that has made this brand one of the most admired brands in the retail end league globally. The managers of the outlets are hands-on meeting customers on the shop floor, talking to the customers to understand how better customer requirements can be met.
Let me cite one case in point. A store manager found out that most housewives equate ‘fresh fish’ as when having to purchase a whole fish taken out of an ice bath and not when it is packed in trays and available for purchase on a shelf. So he made the outlet have fish in baths of ice in line with customer perceptions of what fresh means in their minds. This outlet attracted the highest clientele in that town. This to me is
organisational culture at its best. Hence we see how culture drives behaviour and it lies at the heart of performance.
I also see that work becomes enriched through customer-centric processes, leading to the performance culture becoming deep-rooted like what I saw at the UDA last week, which is a big win for the public sector in Sri Lanka. Hence it is not a surprise for us to see creative urban development like what we see today in the city.
W. Edward Demming once said: “What cannot be measured cannot be managed.” In order to ensure this, lean processes delivery must be measured. Strategic objectives need to be broken down to tactical measures of performance so that all are involved. Apparently at the director meeting weekly this is being done very effectively, which proves that this statement comes to light.
When such a culture takes form, each member understands and accepts them so that achievement becomes voluntary. In this light, the concept of a green city in the years to come is an objective that the UDA has set for Sri Lanka and the key initiatives that are been rolled out periodically are part of this bigger objective that is in play. Research has revealed that if people are given the responsibility to set their own targets than their performance, they always exceed their own set targets. Involvement increases commitment.
Experiences has also shown that when everyone helps solve the key challenges that one is confronted with, if the planning was done cohesively, even if the performance falls, if there is a cohesive team based on a culture of performance the turnaround is faster and stronger.
No rose garden
Nobody should assume that identifying and developing a true performance culture is necessarily easy. There may be significant cultural barriers to be overcome, especially in Government departments in particular where the view is usually “the way we have always done things must be right”.
The good news is that experience has shown that once a person in an organisation begins to enjoy the benefits of ‘working lean,’ new attitudes become ingrained and then influence behaviour. This to my mind has come to play in the UDA and it’s a big win for Sri Lanka.
My experience from the public sector where I sit on many boards as a director for the last six years was that if the leadership is seen as credible and financially disciplined, change can happen with least resistance. If this kind of change is achieved in the private sector, it will lead to higher profits whilst in the Government sector, it will be a higher productivity and stronger economic growth, like what I actually experienced.
Hence we see that effective leadership is a prerequisite for success. Unless the top management is prepared to lead by example by addressing where the problems exists, there is limited hope that even the most committed employees will be prepared to support change.
Li Kuan Yu was the best example of where a visionary leader led a country to achieve heights by addressing the key issues of corporate Singapore. This same ethos exists in the UDA, in my view. Lean organisations demands that leaders have the courage to identify and resolve deep-seated organisational problems. It is not a quick fix. It is a strategic and tactical tool that must be applied consistently throughout the organisation.
All have a role
Be it politicians, business leaders, senior public servants, academics or a small/medium enterprise, all have a role in clarifying the benefits of lean processes. The public both in the role of customers and employees need to be convinced that the approach offers them advantages now and in the future. All stakeholders need to understand that early benefits are not the end of the story.
Organisations that have invested to have a performance culture have enjoyed the benefits along the way, but we must understand that it is a long journey. Every journey begins with a single step. With lower costs, higher quality and greater customer satisfaction, should we not take the first step today to make our company culture performance driven?
(The author is a respected marketing professional and business leader who serves many organisations in the public and private sector on the board of directors. The above thoughts are strictly his own and do not reflect the positions he holds in Sri Lanka or globally.)