78 – Organisational comfort zones in local government. Where is yours?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         730 words

Challenge capability diagram
The idea that people are often in their comfort zones and that learning and improvement occurs when you move out of it has currency in local government today. The concern is that when people find their comfort zone they settle in and thereafter resist change, even beneficial change. Individuals are regularly being asked to leave their comfort zone and accept challenges. Does an organisation also have a comfort zone?

I think many organisations do – and they stay in them. It will usually be the zone that the organisational leaders, the council or the CEO and Executive, allow it to be in. Frequently, it is a place that they understand and there will be a level of challenge and change activity that the leaders are comfortable to support. The question is what is that level at your organisation?

I have developed a model to help think about this question using a couple of ideas:

  1. Improvement in operational capability delivers benefits to customers or communities paying for the services of the organisation through greater effectiveness in implementing strategies to create expected value. Here the assumption is that people giving you their money expect something in return.
  2. Organisations move through stages of maturity in accepting the challenge of change and embedding continuous improvement. I suppose, my assumption is that every organisation is trying to improve.

The diagram below has been adapted from an earlier post by Lancing Farrell and illustrates the relationship between these two ideas and how it can be used to identify a series of ‘comfort zones’.  I will describe each zone.

comfort zones

In Zone 1 very little is happening. The organisation is about ‘business as usual’ with occasional efforts to improve in response to problems that can’t be avoided. The only expectation of operations is that it will not hold the organisation back or embarrass it with a headline in the local paper. The management focus is on stability. The average level of performance is low and the amplitude of variation between sub-optimal and optimal performance is narrow.

In Zone 2 more is happening. The organisation doesn’t want to lag the sector and may want to be as good as neighbours or the best organisations in the sector. There will be pockets of excellence where managers or team leaders have started to improve operations. The focus will be on ‘best practice’ in operations by copying other councils. The average level of performance will be higher (dotted line) and the amplitude of performance will be wide. There is a big gap between the best and worst performers.

Zone 3 is reflects an organisation-wide effort to improve operations and performance. The focus is on being the best in the sector. Strategy and operations will be tightly linked and resourcing will be appropriate for long term strategy. The average level of performance will be higher and the amplitude of the range of performance levels will be much narrower. A controlled and effective improvement process has started.

In Zone 4 (and so far it only exists in my imagination) the organisation wants to redefine expectations. The customer experience will exceed anything they imagined was possible. This could be highly reliable and consistent services delivered efficiently or highly responsive services meeting variable needs effectively. The rest of the sector will be watching and learning. Operations will be creative and proactive in creating value for the community. The average level of performance will be much higher and the amplitude in performance levels will be very tight – everyone is performing consistently. There will be an upward trend in performance as the effective deployment of continuous improvement becomes part of the way of life in the organisation.

My question for you is where is your comfort zone?

Any objective view of local government would suggest we are most comfortable in Zone 1 or 2. Zone 1 is where we mostly reside until there is a revolution and the council and/or CEO changes and then the whole organisation is thrown into transformative and reactive change. This could include a restructure, new top management, introduction of Lean or Business Excellence, and lots of change until everything settles down to a new pattern of stability that suits the comfort zone of the CEO or council. I am sure some councils have reached Zone 3 when they have had long-term and stable political and organisational leadership.

I haven’t heard of any council aspiring to reach Zone 4 or systematically setting about working out how to do it.

Slack, Nigel, Chambers, Stuart, Harland, Christine, Harrison, Alan and Johnstone, Robert 1998. Operations Management.