Are we failing? It begins in the little things.

"How did you know something was wrong?" This is what executives and people who care about safety in their workplaces ask me.

They are asking, how could I tell something was wrong with the Grenfell Tower improvement works? I wrote to the Project Manager early on during the works in March of 2015, "The proposed design solutions for Grenfell Tower need reconsideration... At the moment the design solution is taking away from the properties and the building. This needs to be addressed and redressed immediately".

I could tell quality was insufficient, there was not enough concern for people and their safety, and the works were introducing risk to the building. What was it that told me things were not safe?

When I was young my mum used to tell me, "You can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. You can tell how they feel about themselves, and if you had a company you could tell how well someone would do a job for you by their shoes." At the time I hated cleaning and polishing my shoes; but I came to understand what she meant. You can tell a lot about people by how they do the small things.

As I have worked my way through a consultancy career I have found the same is true about groups of people, even whole organisations. You can tell a lot about a company, their failings and where their attention is, by doing three things:

  1. Noticing the small things

  2. Understanding the wider implications of the small things

  3. Tuning in to how these are direct outcomes of the organisation's culture and, ultimately, its management or leadership

Recently, I was invited to a company's boardroom to talk about running a program with and for their 800 or so employees. I had never met the people before. It's probably a little too much information, but I visited the toilet next to the boardroom beforehand. What was of interest to me was the toilet roll holder in my cubicle was 'half-broken', the bar which holds the toilet roll was broken at one end. The whole thing worked, but not properly: sub-optimally you could say. The toilet roll holder in the loo next to the Boardroom no less! This sparked a number of questions, including, what does this tell me about the organisation? Before I left the toilet a theory had developed in my mind, I had bet myself the firm was struggling with efficiency and its ability to get things done, and this would be linked to things not working properly, and people failing to fix them.

During the meeting I found the Board to be a team of genuine people who prided themselves on the family feel that existed across their organisation. This made sense, they displayed that very attitude during our conversations. Towards the end of the meeting they divulged the organisation, across all areas, was struggling to get things right. It was costing them in delays, unhappy customers, and had become a threat to the continuation of their major contract. I didn't say it, but of course they were. The evidence was right there in the toilet next door. 

What the team did not have was the awareness and understanding of how they were leading the attitude and behaviour which was leading to problems across the business. It is quite simple, but not necessarily easy, for executives to change performance across their organisation simply by taking responsibility for what can be seen in the small things. Often success or failure hangs on leaders having the awareness and tenacity to get to the heart of how they are personally responsible for things that aren't working in their organisations. Many miss the small things, and this leads to more serious or major problems down the line.

At Grenfell for instance, I saw the workmen playing ‘dodge the bricks’ in a skip outside the tower. A group were throwing construction rubble up in the air and in to the skip, whilst the job of four of their mates in the skip was to dodge the falling rubble. None had a hard hat on. Then I saw two holes drilled through the lobby floor on the 21st floor. About as wide as a man’s head is tall, I could disconcertingly see through the concrete slab and the other floors of the tower. A baby or a pet could have fallen through, and not one hole had a bund, or a protective barrier or sign. Next, I heard their plans for the first piece of work they wanted to do in my home, which was clearly not fit for purpose and a potential fire and safety hazard.

These three events (and there were others) told me that personal safety, care and concern for the residents of the tower, and fit for purpose (and safe) design solutions were not concerns for those carrying out the work. From what I know of culture, this attitude could only come from those further up in the management hierarchy. You can tell a lot about an organisation by the little things.

There were many other pieces of the picture which were to come, for me to realise that the root cause of the failure at Grenfell went far beyond the leadership of the project - some of those are matters for future blogs.

In fact, I am going to write a series of articles to do a few things:

  • Part 1 will lay out the other ways to diagnose where an organisation is failing, hopefully before it reaches crisis, or a safety incident or disaster (generally those leading an organisation do not see it coming).

  • Part 2 will explain how all of these conditions, and other organisational nightmares, are symptoms of an outdated and failing model of organisation, which almost all businesses use: a crisis of authority and control.

  • Part 3 will cover why this model of organisation is failing. We will explore the process of human development and learning, as well as the realities of how people work best.

  • Part 4 lays out a new model of organisation, designed for elevated performance. A model consistent with human learning, one which solves many of the problems faced by organisations today, including their attractiveness to Gen Y & Z employees. A model better suited to the health, safety and development of people.

In additional blogs I will share resources and ideas to support leaders who wish to move their organisations from old to new.