Systems Thinking: Establishing Purpose by Andy Lipok
I once came across a statement of purpose for an organisation and it read as follows: “We exist to professionally build long-term high-impact sources so that we may endeavour to synergistically leverage existing effective deliverables to stay competitive in tomorrow’s world.” So there you have the purpose! Everyone now clear on what they need to do, how to measure progress and how to do it? Not a chance!
True purpose can only be established by studying the WHAT and WHY of current performance. A statement of purpose must be expressed from the customer’s point of view and in their terms, i.e. from the outside-in not top-down. This outside-in perspective is one of the key features of a new way of thinking about organisations and management method.
Purpose is all about what customers want and how they want it, and we can only understand this from first studying demand (more on this in the next blog). The people best placed to do this are not the leaders or managers, but the people who actually do the work. They are the people who take the phone calls everyday, receive the internet enquiries, the emails and see the customer face-to-face. They can quickly articulate from their direct experiences what it is the customer is asking from our services, and how they want it i.e. what really matters.
Unlike in manufacturing where the customer is restricted perhaps to model, colour and accessories, in service organisations the customer is integrally involved in establishing what successful service is. It’s important to recognise that these interactions are what our customers’ judge us on, the single good or bad phone call that makes or breaks our customers’ day and give service organisations a positive or negative reputation.
Although traditional market research and customer and staff surveys offer a number of ways to get to the bottom of what customers want they are only of particular use in the product development process to refine designs. For new products and services there is a strong argument that customers don’t know what they want – pick almost any new product or proposition, I doubt if customers were demanding it before it arrived and became successful. As for service improvement, in asking customers questions about how to improve we loose the opportunity to truly understand what is actually happening within the real life context it is happening in and therefore, the best way to improve. The problem is that most companies have spent so long trying to sell more and more products at customers they’ve lost, forgotten or never had a true understanding of the purpose of those products and services from the customer’s perspective.
However, there is a much simpler, not to mention free alternative. Everyday we have thousands of interactions with customers offering us a rich array of information on exactly what service they want and how they want it delivered. We don’t need to permanently capture this data in reams of reporting, to establish purpose we only need small temporary groups of staff who do the work simply to listen to what customers are asking from us to find out what really matters.
For the role of establishing purpose should not be difficult or complex, it is merely helps us begin learning by providing context for seeing and hearing first hand what matters to our customers. And so admittedly we end up with a rather short, sharp & perhaps seemingly meaningless statement of purpose, for example “Do X, first time, and at the date and time I want”. However, armed with this new true purpose from the customer perspective, we might see how structuring an organisation using this purpose as our sole focus might free us from the constraints of conflicting priorities and barriers that currently stop us from meeting customer needs.
Establishing purpose is the first tentative step (albeit it can be completed very quickly) to an alternative approach to understanding our organisations. The next steps begin to make the changes that improve service, reduce costs and improve morale. In the meantime, if you’re still sceptical on the concept of purpose, ask yourselves these questions:
Does my organisation/team have a clear purpose from the customer’s perspective?
Is it stated in customer terms?
Does everyone understand the purpose?
As a leader/manager do I constantly re-enforce the purpose?
What do we measure to prove success?
Do we have measures related to the purpose from the customer perspective?
What are the barriers or default purpose(s) that detract from achieving the true purpose?