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DOWNER / IN BLACK & WHITE / 9 FRESH THINKING FROM THE ENGINE ROOM An innovative programme driven by the business and supported by HR is producing breakthroughs for Transportation – and the best ideas are coming from the workers on the front line. MARY JOHNSTON GENERAL MANAGER, HUMAN RESOURCES TRANSPORTATION AND MAJOR PROJECTS Ask Mary Johnston who she thinks has real influence in Downer’s organisation and her answer may surprise you. “The front-line leaders who are working every day with the crews on site. Out in the field is where our real business is done – and those front-line leaders are hugely influential,” she says. As the General Manager HR for Transportation and Major Projects, Johnston is overseeing an inspiring and innovative programme that harnesses the value of what she describes as the “sometimes forgotten leaders”. They have huge expertise that can only come from seeing first-hand what goes on at the proverbial coal face – both the problems and the positives,” she says. Equally, the way they lead their crews can have a real impact on the success of the business. “So we need to ensure that the field leaders understand the big picture of the business; we need to educate them around where we are going, what’s important and what the pressures are.” For any business that’s key but for Downer there is the added impact of the huge cultural shift when it acquired what remained of the New Zealand Government’s public works department in 1996. “A lot of our front-line leaders foremen and supervisors have been with the business in some form or other for many years. Being older, they have the advantage of great wisdom – but some of them have simply never been exposed to the more commercial side of the business,” says Johnston. “Getting the business education, understanding why we need to be leaner and more agile, enables them to lead their crews in a different way.” The programme is run through a structured series of workshops – and this is where it gets really interesting: rather than being an ‘HR-down’ initiative, the content is driven by ideas coming from the field, and is managed by the business. “The businesses created and piloted the workshop format and work closely with their local HR advisor. The role of HR is to support the initiative, not to drive it,” explains Johnston. In the Lower North Island, Quentin McCarthy, the area’s General Manager for Transportation, and Don Wright the area’s Operational Manager have been promoting front-line leaders since 2005, motivated by the desire to hear “one version of the truth from the coal face with no others in the way”, as McCarthy puts it. At the workshops – which normally run over two days – front-line leaders are encouraged to share what is happening on their work sites, ask questions and also get the opportunity to learn from local subject-matter experts. Approximately six months later these front-line leaders meet again to give a 10-minute presentation to their peers and management on the goals they had set in the previous workshop and the outcomes. Alongside businessspecific goals – which could range from raising specific skills in their teams to productivity or improved safety practices – the participants are encouraged to set personal goals. (One set a goal of “listening more” while others have focused on finances or fitness: one participant lost 40 kilos – and has kept it off). McCarthy is passionate about the value of being able to stand and speak in front of an audience. “Many employees have not had the opportunity to stand in front of their peers and say some words. Now these employees wish they’d had these skills previously so that they would have been able to speak at weddings, funerals and other important family events. It’s a shame when a man cannot get up in front of his own son and say goodbye to his Dad”. The workshops have had a galvanising effect on participants’ confidence and self-esteem, bringing tremendous benefits not only to the workplace and the leader’s relationships with their crews, but also to the employees’ families and communities. As front-line leaders have learnt to speak out more, it has encouraged their crews to become more involved and, as a result, the programme has produced some winning ideas that are being adopted as standard practice. Johnston cites the example of the ‘Chub Thumb Attachment’ now used on excavator buckets in the Gisborne area. Previously, when a tree or object needed to be moved it would simply be balanced in the bucket; unsurprisingly there were some mishaps. A participant raised the issue in one of the workshops and then did a presentation, including a business case, setting the cost of accidents and equipment damage against the cost of adding the attachment to the buckets. “When it was presented to senior management the reaction was ‘This is great and you have shown a clear business case’,” says Mary. “The point is that the guys out there know how to do the job – our role is to give them the confidence to raise issues and the resources to look for solutions.” The ‘Downer Diary’ is another outcome. “We always issue a standard A5 diary to many of the front-line leaders,” explains Johnston. “Then one of the guys said ‘Why not have a tailor-made notebook with time slots that actually suit our work, and other relevant information?’ and he cut-and-pasted various bits together to make a mock-up. I brought the raw dummy back to Auckland and got the nod to do more work on it. The team that suggested it owns the project – they need to collaborate with their peers and do some more development – and we will be here with the necessary support so that it gets done.” Encouraged by Lower North Transportation’s success, several more of Downer’s regional divisions have adopted the programme. The workshops run on a continuous loop and, says Johnston, some areas are now on their fourth cycle. In Transportation, where teams tend to stay together for the long term, it will help to build and maintain strong networks – especially important as the older employees start to retire and new generations come in. Senior Management of Major Projects has also been focussing on lifting the capability of its front-line leadership. Here, the dynamic is different, with teams formed specifically for a project and often disbanded upon its completion. Despite the short cycle – a typical project lifespan can be between one and three years – the intense and often complex and high-risk nature of the work makes opportunities for these front-line leaders to get together extremely valuable. To allow Major Projects to harness the full value of their front-line leaders, a forum has been established using a model of half-day workshops on a three-monthly cycle. “FRONT-LINE MANAGERS ARE KEY LEADERS AND WE WANT TO ENSURE A CONSISTENCY OF APPROACH IN THE WAY WE LEAD OUR PEOPLE AND MANAGE OUR SITES,” says Stephen Delaney, General Manager of Major Projects, North Island. “The most exciting thing is that the businesses themselves are driving these initiatives. The programmes in Transportation and Major Projects are a work in progress, adapting to changing needs,” says Johnston with passion. “Strong leadership and excellent delivery in the field are critical. The beauty of these programmes is the way they acknowledge that those front-line leaders are the engine room of our business. They are the powerhouse – they hold the key.” BY SANDRA L ANE DOWNER / IN BLACK & WHITE / 21


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