The Bottom Line.
Have you ever considered whether transparency could make your organization more performant? In this Asia-Pacific Insight, Lean Transformation Expert Clotilde Chaussade argues that higher transparency within an organization is not a six-month project and cannot be summed up with just more KPIs. What matters when it comes to being efficient and organizationally performant is time and investment in people.
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Does Transparency Make More Performant Organizations?
[By Clotilde Chaussade]
A few weeks ago, just after the IDAHOT 2019 worldwide day, a minor event struck me. A person had published the names of the football players who didn’t wear the rainbow armband during the games. It made me feel uncomfortable, so I asked myself what kind of transparency that was?
The anecdote meant a great deal to me because I am a big fan of transparency everywhere – at home and in the workplace. And it gave me the distinct feeling that all types of “transparency” are not equally good and do not produce equally good results. Thus, I started to dig in this subject with a special focus for the organizations, and this article is the resulting summary of my current thoughts.
In the following paragraphs, after a short introduction of what we generally understand by transparency, I will first recall why transparency is key to performance in an organization. I will then share my viewpoint of what it means to have “good” transparency, why it is difficult to build and maintain, and which role is responsible for creating a transparent culture. Eventually, I will propose a summary of the key points to address when organizations want to build/improve transparency.
Transparency is not such a simple concept.
Before explaining what transparency means, let’s have a look at a similar word: transparent.
Transparent is qualifier applied to things and by extension to people and concepts. A window is transparent if we can distinctly see what is behind it without distortion – provided that it is clean, of course.
Applied to people, this qualifier is rather negatively connoted. A transparent person is somebody you do not notice in a group, or hardly remember. Applied to an organization, however, transparent is always understood as being positive. When we hear about a transparent organization, most of the time, we implicitly perceive a group of people where:
- everybody knows what others are responsible for, where information flow smoothly keeping its integrity,
- when you have a question, you know who to ask,
- when something is achieved, everybody knows about it,
- where the synchronization of information is smooth and efficient
and so on ……
Transparency is knowledge.
By extension, transparency in an organization is also understood as the capability to efficiently provide knowledge of what is going on and where. And since information needs to be synthesized to be easy to understand, transparency is often considered to be achieved with quantitative information based on KPIs – Key Performance Indicators.
Nowadays, the concept of transparency in organizations is often promoted as an important characteristic to develop/improve performance. Consequently, transformation programs pop up in all kind of organizations with this objective as a target goal.
What is interesting to notice is that it demonstrates that transparency is not measured with a Boolean on/off. If an organization intends to improve its transparency, the underlying assumption is that there is a measure/score of transparency and the organization wants to improve it.
So, how to start doing it?
Transparency is the foundation pillar to build performance.
Only one Framework mentions explicitly transparency as a pillar of successful work practices: the scrum guide by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland. According to it, “Three pillars uphold every implementation of empirical process control: transparency, inspection, and adaptation” (extract of The Scrum Guide™, by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland).
Even if not explicitly mentioned, transparency is also present in other famous frameworks. For instance, if an organization is willing to put in place DMAIC/V (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control/Verify) or PDCA (Plan Do Check Act), it will need to build transparency to obtain successful results. Indeed, transparency is key for each of the steps of these frameworks.
DMAIC as an example.
Let’s take the example of DMAIC (again, Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control/Verify).
- the problem/business case will be correctly identified in the Define step,
- then, accurate and relevant data/information will be gathered during the Measure step,
- most importantly, a comprehensive list of potential root causes/hypotheses will be shared in the Analyse Step,
- ideas for implementations will be selected to maximize chances of success in Improve Step,
- last but not least, actual results will be assessed against targets and lead to adjustment/decisions: stop/continue/pivot.
Shared intent and expected benefits.
Since transparency is key for performance, it is usually believed in organizations that more transparency will create better performance and more value. But is that really so? Does more transparency ALWAYS create a BETTER performance? in reality, the results of actions implemented to improve transparency usually depend heavily on the shared intent and expected benefits.
When I started Agile coaching, I do remember how puzzled I was when team members seemed to have difficulties to share their work items during daily stand-up. Later on, I observed the same difficulties in leadership teams when defining or sharing KPIs with others during weekly/monthly performance meeting.
Sometimes, it was just the uneasiness of being out of their comfort zone. Sometimes the issue was rather to question a newly imposed framework. Most of the time, however, the point could be summarized in those terms: from now on, everybody has to share everything with his tribe, even if they don’t get to choose the tribe they belong to. And that gets difficult to manage.
This simplified summary “everybody has to share everything with his tribe” is not oversimplified.
For instance, today, we read a lot about “happiness at work” to improve performance and this results in teams having a “happiness indicator” to benchmark on, whether it is a sunny day, a cloudy day or a rainy day. but that creates problems because in such cases teams – whether operational or leadership – may see the initiative as:
- an invasion of their privacy / a risk of being evaluated / a worthless exercises OR
- a great way to share their emotions, let the pressure out and build a stronger team
In the first case, although transparency seems to be present since the indicator will be updated daily/weekly thanks to top-manager/ScrumMaster, there is nonetheless a great chance that it will be homogeneously cloudy and that it will be more and more difficult to get team members to update it.
In the second case, the indicator will be updated daily/weekly thanks to the top-manager/ScrumMaster and there is a great chance that there will be rains, clouds, and sun for everybody – including the top-manager/ScrumMaster – and most importantly there will be emotions shared resulting in laughs, upsetting moments, applause, jokes, sadness, relief, complicity, etc.
The issue of forced transparency.
Taking a broader perspective, requesting teams to be more transparent is equivalent to forcing them to share more personal information with other people.
In their personal life, people have the freedom to choose which information they want to share with whom and they can stop/limit their sharing when they decide to.
At work, when a framework is deployed top-down with new work-practices requesting more transparency, whether it is Agile, Lean Management System, or else, the teams are rarely in a position to choose if they want this new framework. And that creates another problem.
What’s interesting, however, is that each individual keeps the freedom to choose the quality of the information they are ready to feed-in. Said differently, nothing guarantees that 100% of the information will be of good quality upfront. Moreover, nothing guarantees that the framework alone will compensate for bad quality, which there inevitably will be.
How to achieve qualitative transparency?
So the question is, how to achieve a good quality of information shared and thus improve transparency?
As usual, the answer is trivial to understand and hard to put in place. Teams will willingly share more information and adjust by themselves the type of information to be shared – this is the Graal of empowerment – if they see it as a win-win for everybody: win for each team member including the manager, win for the team, win for the global organization.
In order for each team member to accept a new framework as win-win, two types of action are necessary:
- First, seemingly very simple, applying the wisdom provided by Simon Sinek: “Start with the why”, i.e. share the intent.
- Second, even more complex, but thoroughly documented by many change management theories, focusing on the ‘What’s in it for me?’ part of the discussion, i.e. the expected benefits.
Sharing the intent is not as easy as it seems.
First, it is necessary to ensure that the intent is clearly defined within the whole organization.
Second, it is important that the intent creates positive emotions. It is not easy to build an intent as good as Apple’s: put a computer in every home.
Third, it is even more difficult to ensure that the intent is fully endorsed at all levels within an organization. In leadership teams, where politics are often present, it takes more than a nice slide presented to all team members to ensure that the “why” is fully endorsed and ready to be deployed.
In operational teams, if the intent is not connected to their daily life, there is a great chance that the request for more transparency will be seen as an additional layer of reporting, which is by no way a great start for good data quality.
Addressing the “what’s in it for me?” is even more difficult.
To go back to the first example, in the case of the happiness indicator, if the benefits of the indicator are not crystal clear for team members, they could vouch for sunny (=> this way, no question asked, no evaluation, no problem) and suddenly resign (=> this way, absolutely sure that no more questions asked and problem solved).
For teams to be willing to provide good quality of information and thus build higher transparency, there must be an incentive and benefit in the short term and in the long term. For instance, in the case of the happiness indicator:
- the short term benefits could be among others: a collective celebration of success, positive feedback after hard work, being able to share a super-rainy day without judgmental looks, having the opportunity to solve a recurring problem, etc.
- the long term benefits could be identifying patterns and analyzing that cause them in order to minimize the rainy days, reinforcing bonds and self-confidence within the team which create great performance, etc.
As a summary, greater transparency doesn’t mean more data/more KPI. On the contrary, greater transparency means more quality in the data provided. Furthermore, it is worthy to notice that the quality of the data provided is directly positively correlated with the quality of human interactions and emotions in the workplace.
So, before requesting more transparency with a new report/KPI or by deploying a new framework, it is important to invest workload and resources so that both intent and expected benefits are understood by all stakeholders. This takes time (and also costs money) because it is based on human behaviors.
Is there a shorter route to improve transparency?
Certain organizations which want to move quickly and obtain better transparency take a different approach and organize anonymous surveys. The underlying hypothesis is that it will be easier for all employees to express their true thoughts and feelings if it is done anonymously by answering a list of questions prepared by the HR department and an external vendor specialized in these inquiries.
I am still dubitative about this method for 3 reasons, however:
First, this hypothesis that the data quality is better because it is anonymous puzzles me. Why would individuals, knowing that their answers cannot be traced back to them, provide truthful answers? If they do not care, they can just answer fully agree to all the questions; worst, if they have ulterior motives, they can even willingly bias the results.
Second, what is important in these surveys is not the percentage of somewhat agree + fully agree but the percentage of people who did not take the survey. From my perspective, the answer rate of these surveys is definitely the most important result because it demonstrates without ambiguity the interest of the people in the organization for their company.
Some organizations monitor this output, some don’t. Some companies are transparent to publish it, some don’t. Thus, before requesting such a survey, it is important to understand that Transparency is a two-way road and it is not possible to expect more transparency from a bottom-up perspective without having a high top-down approach.
Third, the result of the surveys can be biased very easily. Often, strategic KPIs may be linked to the results of such surveys. And most of the time, bonuses/salaries increase are linked to strategic KPIs.
Thus, if employees are interested in maximizing the chances for bonus/salaries increase (and most of them are), they will do whatever is necessary within their definition of integrity to achieve the strategic KPI and that will mean poor data quality. Instead of answering “somewhat disagree”, they would rather tend to answer “somewhat agree”.
This is why solely relying on such anonymous tools is – to me – an illusion of transparency. Worse, the results can provide a biased picture that is difficult to manage and further analyze: if 95% of the people are “somewhat happy”, what do you do next?
Anonymity is not a warranty that the quality of the information shared will be better. At worst it is a waste of time and money. At best, it helps to know in which direction effort should be invested for greater transparency. And these efforts are on the shoulders of a very specific role: the Manager.
It is the manager’s direct responsibility to create a work environment where transparency is present.
Earlier in the article, the impact of shared intent, expected benefits on the result for a request to higher transparency was described.
Within organizations, sharing the intent, making it palpable to team members in operational and leadership teams, and customizing the way to describe expected benefits is the primary role of a manager. To this end, the manager relies on his/her leadership competencies.
The direct implication is that the transparency – quality and relevance of the information provided – is correlated positively to the overall quality of the management within an organization. Even if it is not the only factor, it plays a significant role.
Thus, if an organization wants to diagnose its level of transparency, and eventually improve it, it needs first to assess its quality of management and invest in managers and more precisely the level of leadership within management.
With all the literature available stating the difference between the manager and the leader – implicitly or explicitly stating that managers need to become leaders – we could think that a new job position has emerged. Companies are no more recruiting managers, instead, they recruit leaders.
Discussing this subject with more experienced people can be a good laugh but leadership has always been part of the manager’s main competencies, it has just been forgotten in the past decades. Meanwhile, managers have more and more become “synchronizers” and “reporters”.
Today, organizations have identified this leadership as a competitive advantage and hence want to develop this competency. Nevertheless, the difficulty is that it is not possible to quantify a level of leadership, let alone to standardize criteria. Leadership can simply be observed “in situ”, over a certain period of time.
Transparency takes time, is qualitative and needs managers.
At the end of this article, I hope that it is now clear that higher transparency within an organization is not a six-month project and cannot be summed up with more KPIs. On the contrary, it can take several years since transparency depends on human interactions and could result in simplified KPIs scorecard.
Takeaway #1: Transformation Program Timelines should be at least spread over a few years. Rule of thumb? One year per management level. If there are 10 management levels or more… good luck!
Higher transparency will be achieved with the quality of the information provided by individuals. The more the intent and the benefits are understood, the better the quality.
Takeaway #2: Invest in managers, at all levels, for greater transparency within a whole organization
Overall? Transparency is not quantitative, it is qualitative. Higher transparency is not achieved with more KPIs/data, it is achieved with greater data quality. Bear in mind that a KPI is only a formula computed from data filled-in by humans and the same rule still applies: garbage in, garbage out.
Takeaway #3: Do not rely solely on KPIs. Go and see by yourself.
Clotidle Chaussade | Lean Transformation Expert Contributor.
Clotilde Chaussade is a Lean Transformation Practitioner with more than 15 years of experience in IT and Finance sectors. In Asia, she decided to further practice Lean Transformation in various contexts – start-up and insurance services. This is where she obtained her Lean Six-Sigma Black-Belt certification and championed the successful lean certification of her whole team.
Through her diverse professional experiences, Clotilde Chaussade developed her own approach to Lean Transformation by coaching Leaders in discerning their specific value drivers, the gap to achieve them and eventually supporting in designing and deploying the ad-hoc changes.
At work, with her team and colleagues, her mind is always focused on quick tangible results and lasting performance, which corresponds to her definition of “happiness and efficiency at work”. To this end, she likes to experiment frugal innovation with one single focus: creating more value. When not at work, Clotilde enjoys reading, running and cooking cakes, which is her own personal way to practice “a healthy mind in a healthy body”.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of their author(s) only and do not reflect those of The Asia-Pacific Circle or of its editors unless otherwise stated.
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