Daring to succeed
From banking and healthcare to hotels and taxis, today’s industries face major disruption. Meanwhile, global food production, clean water access, epidemics, education, energy, biodiversity, and climate change present even starker challenges. What can be done?
Innovations in all these spheres will be better served by ‘innovations in productivity’. That is, finding better ways to manage the ‘work behind the work’ that can lead to profound transformation. Such innovations require imagination and fresh thinking—above all, new ways of seeing.
At the turn of the millennium, David Hodes founded the management consultancy that would become Ensemble with the aim of spreading better ways of working. Since every business or government agency is an organisation—and every organisation is a system—we believe that ‘systems thinking’ is the way to tackle the challenges ahead.
The heart of our process is the Theory of Constraints (TOC), the methodology developed by the late physicist-turned-consultant Eliyahu Goldratt. David first came across it in the 1990s when we was Managing Director of Africa’s largest commercial refrigeration company. He knew there had to be a way to meet market demands and deadlines, without continually subjecting his workforce to the intensive work pressure (and accompanying burnout) that had become the norm in their industry.
It was a productivity issue, so he approached the National Productivity Institute (NPI) and they suggested the TOC approach. It made instinctive sense to David, but the CEO opposed it. How could a bunch of outsiders (the NPI) tell them how to run a business they’d been running ‘successfully’ for 30 years?
But David was sold. Putting his money where his mouth was, he persuaded the CEO to agree to pilot-test the TOC approach, on two conditions. If the project failed, David would not only lose his job, he would also personally foot the NPI’s (hefty) bill!
The pilot project was to completely refurbish all the industrial cold rooms, freezers and refrigerators in an extremely large supermarket. To run the project, David and the NPI used Critical Chain, Goldratt’s approach to project management. The results were spectacular. Expected to take 70 days, the project was brought in 26 days early.
“You need to be ambitious enough to reach deep into yourself.”
David was so impressed, he promptly resigned and immersed himself in the Theory of Constraints. He began working as an independent productivity consultant before moving to Sydney to found the TOC Centre of Australia (TOCCA) in January 2000.
The inescapable influence of culture
Having trained as an engineer, David was impressed by the scientific rigour of Goldratt’s theory. But it was clear that, unlike physics, organisations couldn’t be separated from the people who power them. Free will and cultural expectations play an unavoidable role in any collective endeavour.
David again looked for answers, this time to academia and MIT. He studied the work of Edgar Schein, who spent decades observing organisations and reported his findings in works such as Culture and Leadership, and Peter Senge, whose classic The Fifth Discipline suggested new ways of developing ‘learning organisations’. He also found much sense in the often awkward truths uncovered by Elliott Jaques in his exploration of organisational design through his Stratified Systems Theory.
Combining these insights with Goldratt’s logical method, David developed his own system for the planning and performance of work, integrating five linked domains that open up pathways to the goal of winning remarkable results. We call this The Ensemble Way.
Ensemble is founded on core principles of trust, goodwill, respect and courage. As David puts it, ‘We’re not everyone’s cup of tea. But those who get what we’re trying to do, really get us. You need to be ambitious enough to reach deep into yourself.’
One such person is Stephen Casey, who was a client of David’s at BHP Billiton. ‘I was a young up-and-comer given a huge opportunity as a project director of an entire 1SAP Program,’ he says. The implementation project covered every release, every business and every functional process area—and was expected to run for about six years.
Hitting some obstacles in the early months, Stephen started seeking methods that would achieve his goal. He had the budget to go after anyone in the world who could help him. He tried some big-name management consultancies but it wasn’t really their thing. ‘They wanted to go back and review the strategy. But we had our strategy,’ Stephen says. ‘We knew where we were going. We just needed specific skills around how to execute that strategy.’
“I believe we are all at our best when we have purpose and meaningful goals that are attainable.”
BHP Billiton had a global project team. When one of the guys recommended TOC’s Critical Chain method, Stephen read the key books and loved it but wondered, ‘What next? Do I just do it myself?’ Although the project was based in Singapore, Stephen was referred to TOCCA (as Ensemble was then called) since David had already been working with BHP Billiton in Perth. As Stephen tells it, ‘David’s approach was like music to my ears. We hit it off personally as well, which is really important.’ Meeting David’s whole team in Sydney on a later trip, he was impressed by how the ideas flowed in the group. ‘It was like seeing the innovation process in practice.’
Marching to the same drummer
Stephen started his own pilot program using TOC on a smaller piece of the project running alongside the major job. But after two weeks he felt he’d found what he needed. As a former Special Forces officer with tours in Afghanistan and Timor behind him, he wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. ‘If you trust your gut, just go for it, I thought. So that’s what we did.’
The work progressed well, with Ensemble members embedded in Stephen’s team in Singapore. Over time, capability was transferred so that BHP Billiton could continue to develop the program for themselves. ‘We really had some awesome solutions to some very complex problems,’ recalls Stephen. ‘We got 3,000 people around the world all performing in sync to one conductor’s baton.’
Stephen knew he’d found a special organisation and left his senior executive role with the world’s largest mining company to join the Ensemble. ‘A lot of what we do today was based on the lessons learned on that project.’ Today, Stephen is passionate about removing complexity from systems, and building focus and clarity to improve the performance of operational businesses and projects.
Spend any time around David and you’ll soon hear key phrases, or ‘mantras’ as he calls them. Stephen has coined a few of his own. ‘I believe we shouldn’t arrive to work,’ he says, ‘but work to arrive. Each member of our outfit has their own story about why they joined the Ensemble.’
Capability building on a grand scale
In today’s digital age, technology is a key driver for growth and we’ve developed our own platform and tools to implement better ways of working. It’s important to remember that the same challenges apply, whatever the sector. ‘While “resource and scheduling management” may sound very prosaic,’ says David, ‘it’s at the heart of all business and organisations. It’s all just work.’
That said, each sector experiences specific challenges and it’s very helpful to know where we can use our leverage to make the greatest impact. ‘We’ve been around long enough now to have had major successes in industries including aviation, banking, construction, engineering, manufacturing and retail.
Getting to the heart of things, in the jargon our clients use, helps key stakeholders realise that we mean business.’
“We got 3,000 people around the world all performing in sync to one conductor’s baton.”
David sees business itself as having the potential to transform both the customers served by the organisation, and the people it employs. ‘I do what I do,’ he says, ‘because I believe that people have the right to be well managed, and that we are all at our best when we have purpose and meaningful goals that are attainable.’
Those goals may be lofty, but it only makes sense to aim high. ‘My vision is to make a contribution for all this good earth by materially lifting the productivity of Australia.’
Although we are a specialist consultancy, Ensemble packs an outsized punch. We’re introducing our ‘innovations in productivity’ one client at a time, helping them redefine what’s possible. If you haven’t already experienced the difference of working with us, perhaps you and your organisation could be next.