When we stop telling our people what we think they ought to do and instead, start listening to what they want, their performance becomes amazing. The Book "Breaking the Mould" by Peter A Hunter tells the stories of what happened when ordinary people were allowed to become amazing.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

So What Is Ownership?

Peter A Hunter, author of Breaking the Mould looks at the concept of ownership and argues his case for why change the British Airways way doesn’t always fly.

In order to create a performance improvement we have to do something different. If we don't how can we possibly expect to make a change?

So our problem is finding out what it is that needs changing.

Many management models have been tried all with varying levels of success, from Kaizen to Six Sigma, TQM and a host of others.

These models are not wrong, but they all suffer from the same failing.

Somewhere in each instruction book there is a phrase that equates to the following: “The key to the successful implementation of this model is ownership.”

Then we turn the page and begin the new chapter without ever coming across the instruction that tells us how to create that ‘ownership’.

Ownership is a concept that has been used and abused for years but very few people are able to give it any meaningful definition.

Without understanding what it is, how is it possible to create the conditions to allow it to happen?
I prefer to think of ownership as the way that we feel about something.

If it is mine, I own it, I will take care of it.

If it is not mine I won’t take care of it, why should I? I don’t own it!

The problem we have just created is that we have just defined ownership as the ability to care about something.
That concept may be very well in a soft, pink, cuddly way but it hardly has a place in a business conversation.
We want to talk about percentage points, hard savings, value add and other assorted sexy business type words.

Businessmen don’t want to talk about caring.

But wait a minute! How many people ever wash a hire car?
Not many.
Why should they?
If the hire car doesn’t belong to me, why should I care?

And yet most of us take care of our own cars.
They don’t come with washing instructions and nobody tells us to wash them, but we do and lovingly maintain and care for them because they are ours.

After two years the hire car that we did not wash has a residual value of practically zero because nobody will buy a car that has been driven for two years by people who did not care for it.

The hire car company has no option, the hire car is scrapped.

Meanwhile and in the same time period your car has attained its own residual value.
It is worth ten or twelve thousand pounds.

You can realise that value by selling the car or you can continue to use it reliably for another ten years.

Suddenly the care that we gave the car has paid off.
We can now say that the value of that care is the cars residual value of ten or twelve thousand pounds.

A residual value that the car we did not care for does not have.

Now we have a solid measurable effect on the bottom line that is directly attributed to our ability to care.

The suggestion at the beginning of this article is that we have to first understand what we have to change before we can figure out how to change it.

I suggest that what we have to change is the way that people feel about their work.
We have to allow them to start to care about what they do.

The first reaction to the suggestion that we can change the way people feel about their work is that it is nonsense.

How on earth can we change the way people feel and where is the profit in it?

We have already seen where the profit is, and changing the way that people feel about their work is something that happens every day and is as often as not reported on the news, except that we don’t recognise it for what it is.

Several years ago I watched an interview with Rod Eddington, the then Chairman of British Airways(BA).

He was understandably complaining about the market share that he had lost to Ryanair, Easyjet and the other budget airlines.

But he was also being quite bullish about it. He explained that in the previous three years he had reduced British Airways operating costs by five per cent.

What he didn’t admit to was in those same three years he had also made sixteen thousand of his staff redundant.

So how did the remaining British Airways staff feel when they found out that 16,000 of their colleagues had been made redundant?

Did they feel good about it? Did it make them feel secure? Did it increase their trust in BA? I don’t think so.

But think back a few years to the time before the redundancies.

What sort of person used to work for a company like BA?

Well they were the types that had dreamt about being a pilot since a young age or the stewardess whose flippant answer to the question: “Where are you going for the weekend?” was truthfully and smugly, “Barbados”.

British Airways staff were people who competed for their jobs and having won, were living their dreams and getting paid for it.
They were proud, motivated, and they cared about what they did.

Three years later and the redundancies had changed the way they felt about their ‘dream’ jobs.

This is the sort of change that occurs with monotonous regularity in industry.

A caring and productive workforce is changed by what is done to them by their managers into one that turns up for the pay check and has no other interest in being there.

British Airways changed the way their staff felt about their jobs.

But they changed in the wrong direction.

They are not the only organisation to have done so.

To create a sustained performance improvement we need to change the way people feel, but we have to do it in the right direction.

We have to allow staff to start to care about what they do.

If this sounds difficult, consider, most people want to do a good job, they want to care about what they do.

The only thing that stops them from caring is what is done to them in the work place.

To make the change all we have to do is to find out what is stopping the workforce from caring, then stop doing it to them.


Blogger Jillaine Smith said...


Continue to admire your work. A colleague and I were recently discussing "ownership" vs. "alignment" -- wondering what you have to say on this distinction (if there is one).

-- Jillaine Smith
metro DC area, USA

7:05 AM

Blogger Peter A Hunter said...

It is great to hear from you.
I think that the difference between the two almost captures the essence of my philosophy in that alignment is normally a word that is used to describe the process or the fact of making someone else do or act the way that we think they ought to be doing or acting.
Essentially a process of making people fit into an image that someone else has created for them.

Ownership on the other hand is something that comes from within. It is not possible to give anyone ownership or make them own something, in the same way that we cannot give people love or happiness.
What we can do is to create the conditions that will allow someone to love or be happy.
By creating the conditions that allow people to take ownership they decide when to take it and what they are going to do with it.
nobody is telling them what to do, how to behave, or how to feel.

It is possible for a natural alignment to occur and this is a wonderful thing but mostly I see the word used as a verb by managers who want others to do ecatly what they want and alignment is the word used to describe this hugely destructive process.

Peter A Hunter

1:21 PM

Anonymous Richard Watson said...

Jillaine & Peter,

I totally agree on the value and advantage of "Ownership". I do not, however, see "Alignment" as being in any conflict with this, as the individual is equally aware of the overall focus of an operation, or project.

Indeed, it is this self-aligning capability, and a freedom to discuss that alignement, that aids teams to perform. "Alignment" operates by reducing the risk-causing ambiguity in activity, so reducing a source of non-performance.

It is rather the identified misappliction of the "Alignment" concept that we should be tackling, for example the demanded support for an 'office politics' solution, or for a deceit within a business or commercial relationship. To define such activity, as is so often the case, as the vitue of being unified or aligned is, I believe, the specific problem that needs to be tackled.

Richard Watson
Brittany, France

6:52 AM


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