Strengths Based Business Process Innovation at Big Mountain Shire Council

Jeremy Scrivens

The Crisis at Big Mountain

In late 2009, the Health Team at Big Mountain was in crisis. Bob Silver, The Director of Information & Business Planning at Big Mountain Shire Council decided to intervene. As Bob tells the story,

“This team was extremely busy and was having trouble coping emotionally. Not only was the leader the coordinator of EH, but he is also the Municipal Recovery Manager and was required to respond to emergencies or community issues that could be constituted as a disaster of some kind. In 2009 the team has been dealing with three major environmental crises, including the Black Saturday Bushfires. They had a huge sense of despair with the workload. Team members got emotional when discussing work. I offered my assistance to do “whatever I can” to help them get back to a resonate team while still managing the priorities – and I didn’t want to lose good people in the process.

I wanted to help them manage the busy workload long term, including coming up with some innovative solutions.”

The demand for Health services was increasing within the community as the rapidly growing population and housing developments took effect but resources were tight and there was no flexibility in the budget for more staff. Within the Health Team, morale was falling, service standards and timeframes slipping. In trays were piling up with new or uncompleted applications for Septic Tank planning permits and inspections.

The Black Saturday bushfires put extra pressure on team members as they became involved in Bushfire Recovery and support in addition to their normal work. This was a period of sustained high stress which exposed issues with the way the work got done, team values and communication. Despite this, the team had won a high reputation for the quality of its work with customers. Team members were highly regarded and respected by their peers and the community but that reputation was at risk.

The Team was under additional pressures. The Shire Council had invested heavily in the Business Excellence Framework and announced a vision that saw higher levels of customer service being provided by Shire service teams, including faster planning permit turnarounds. Finally, the team worked under a rigorous compliance regime which required ever increasing attention to avoiding errors and ensuring adherence to compliance standards.

But how was this all to be achieved with a Health Team that was rapidly becoming stressed and showing signs of disengagement? How to restore a sense of well being to the team and at the same time equip the team to do more with less, “enforce” community compliance and also improve customer satisfaction with service quality?

Focus On Weaknesses & Problems or Strengths & New Possibilities?

Fortunately Big Mountain’s Health Team had a visionary executive leader in Bob Silver. Bob had the insight to see this as a question of team member and customer engagement, not as an organisational problem to be fixed. For this reason, Bob called in Jeremy Scrivens from the Emotional Economy at Work to facilitate an Appreciative Inquiry between the team and selected customers on how to turn this crisis into a new opportunity for team member well being and excellence in customer service.

Bob’s focus on innovative solutions was a key leadership trigger for the team to approach the situation with a different mindset from the “problem solving” lens they were used to applying in their work. The word “crisis” comes from the root word meaning a turning point, a decisive moment. So, rather than focusing on fixing problems and returning to the status quo, the team switched to looking at the situation as an opportunity to build something new by taking the best of the past forward- the best for customers and the best for team members. That something would be aligned to the principles for engaging people in the system emotionally, not just rationally. Engaging team members and customers emotionally has four times more impact on business performance than does engaging these groups rationally – (refer Emotional Economy White Papers-

Appreciative Inquiry- From Continuous Improvement to Continuous Creativity

Many business improvement methodologies focus on what’s broken or not working.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a transformational framework and methodology designed to engage stakeholders in a positive change cycle. Traditional business change or service process improvement methodologies, such as lean thinking or Six Sigma or TQM, concentrate on problems and energy is spent on fixing broken service work flows. The focus is on returning to the status quo. The world view is that of problem solving- identify the root cause of something and fix it.

Evidence is now on the board table that many of these problem solving initiatives fail to deliver or achieve less than promised because they create distrust and a culture of blame and buck passing between team members, business areas and with customers. They also try to isolate problems thereby breaking down the connections between people which is the source of creativity in business and service processes. We know from behavioural research that focusing on problems closes down the thinking processes around creativity and innovation because the goal is to return to the status quo, not on looking outside the existing box. The driver of this behaviour is fear and the goal is control and unfortunately many of our managers and business analysts operate from this mindset because this is what they have been taught, what they have experienced and what is measured.

As an alternative, AI looks to discover what people like best about the topic of inquiry, the service or each other as team members or customers. It connects people, team members and customers in deep, authentic and emotionally engaging conversations around stories of when the Enterprise or service or topic has been at its best. Listening to these stories gives hope and releases creative energy; firstly to discover the unique strengths of the Enterprise, team or service etc and then to envision new possibilities by building on this positive core and aligning all the business around these strengths.

Peter Drucker states that “if we will only exercise the disciplines of identifying our strengths and aligning everything around these strengths, our weaknesses will become irrelevant.”

What the Big Mountain Health Team Did

Applying the Drucker principle and the AI approach to the New Septic Permits Process, the Health Team moved beyond the traditional focus on continuous process improvement and into the space of continuous innovation with their customers.

The team

  • Challenged the assumptions behind the way the work is done now and asked the question why do we really do the work this way?
  • Reflected on stories of peak experiences and big payoffs from stakeholders around what they appreciate most about the Septics Permits Process and what they wanted to see more of in the future from the service,
  • Extracted the unique “service process DNA” or positive core from these stories and conversations and envisioned new possibilities for the future by expanding or building on this core,
  • Designed a future service process which meets the emotional needs of stakeholders and releases more strengths across the process, making the current weaknesses irrelevant,
  • Identified where to align the Enterprise’s “systems” to build and support the future Septics Permits service. They looked at anything and everything, nothing was sacred or untouchable, including values, structure, job designs, information technology, buildings, regulatory practices, myths, mindsets, symbols (e.g. abolishing the current job tile “Community Compliance Officer”) and, where necessary, challenging the assumptions on which some of these current elements are working or constructed. Continuous innovation requires a broader lens than simply looking at work flows in isolation from the “whole business system” context.

Over a period of eight weeks, the Health Team engaged in four conversations around the 4D AI change cycle- Discover, Dream, Design and Destiny.

Appreciative Inquiry “4-D” – Stakeholder Emotional Engagement


A key input into the Health Team’s AI conversations were the positive, “peak experience” or “big payoffs” stories captured during one on one conversations with team members and customers, including plumbers and property owners. These conversations were conducted face to face, recorded with permission and the positive stories extracted and brought into workshops for sharing, appreciation and discovery.

In the Discovery Workshop, The Health Team “story mapped” the current Septics Permits Process looking for what works

  • When had the service or process been or is at its best for stakeholders?
  • What are the key elements that underpin the service or process when it is excellent, the core DNA of process excellence; including the team member and customer engagement factors?
  • What do stakeholders want to see more of in the service or process, rationally but also emotionally?
  • What are the critical Big Mountain systems elements that support the service or process at its best?

Of course, the Health Team knew that the Septics Permits Process wasn’t working at its best all the time. Problems, frustrations and issues with the process came to the surface during the conversations. However, in the AI conversations, the team focused its energies on identifying the Septics Permit Service at its rational and emotional best for people (strengths), and then asked “how can we create new ways of releasing and aligning more of these strengths, so that the weaknesses became irrelevant?”

During the Discovery conversations, The Health Team realised that over the years they had geared up their service processes to engage each other and customers almost exclusively on a rational and “low trust” mindset around efficiency, avoiding errors and negative “gap analysis” reporting, with a strong focus on achieving compliance. As a consequence, they had tended to model their business processes around “system equalizers”, low risk, one size fits all, multiple checking points, low innovation, low personal relationships and “negative” feedback on service performance designed to fix problems rather than release hope, innovation and meaning.

In the Dream Workshop, the Health Team imagined a scenario where the Septics Process engaged stakeholders, both internal and external, to the highest levels imaginable within the Health’s Team’s reality. The Team created their future story for the improved future service by building on the positive core of the current service at its best.

The Health Team developed its own Big Hairy Audacious Goal or BHAG, a process which encouraged the group to think out into the future and create a vision of what might be; the future story that is emotionally compelling. The key feature in this future story is a shift from the current emphasis on compliance and reactive back end checking of septic tank installations to a more proactive front end community education and well being partnership with plumbers and property owners.

In the Design & Destiny Workshop, the Health Team designed the new, future Septics process. They started by creating the following Team Purpose which is highly emotionally engaging for members.

Partnering with our community, protecting our health and environment together

The Health Team “benchmarked” the core personal behaviours and attitudes most likely to engage customers rationally and emotionally in the new process. They aligned these attributes to the Big Mountain Shire’s core values and the future selection process for new team members. The behaviours take the form of “I” Statements.

The Health Team also developed a new customer service charter. The charter identifies the people involved in the service and what they need from the process and each other in terms of rational confidence in the service process and emotional commitments around partnership and relationships. These commitments also take the form of “I Statements” and also linked to the Big Mountain Shire Council’s core values and future team member selection process.

So What’s Really Changed?

  • Transactional work has been eliminated by automating paperwork,
  • Plumbers and Health officers discuss septic tank applications before a formal application is lodged, so that there are no surprises for the health officers when the paperwork comes through,
  • Responsibility for the quality of the Septics installation is placed on the plumbers. The process has been rewired for a “good ball” and assumes the plumbers / applicants will do the right thing with front end education and positive feedback,
  • Focus on designing ‘front end checking’ into the process, thereby eliminating the need for time consuming inspections by health officers before a Permit to Use is issued. Inspections have been replaced by random audits for regular users (plumbers) of the process,
  • Applications are completed the first time they are worked on, within 1 day of receipt (rather than held for days in some cases),
  • Changing the mindset from compliance to serving people. For example, in the new process, health team members go out and visit the plumbers on site, rather than ask the plumber to come to them,
  • The permit shells are created by the health officers on site in the field without the need to go through two different administration points,
  • Changing the mindset from processing applicants to serving people and each person is different. Health Team members have been trained to understand that people are wired differently and want to be treated differently. Team Members have been taught how to use state of the art talent profiling systems to identify the different needs of their customers and how to adapt behaviour to meet different needs. This builds trusting relationships and partnerships. In return, because customers are treated as unique individuals, they are willing to comply with the permit standards- in fact, they chose to comply rather than be compelled- they are engaged.

Benefits & Pay Offs

The Health Team identified substantial benefits and pay offs to all stakeholders, including rational engagers such as cost savings, improved service quality, reduction of backlogs and customer queues, shorter service timelines and freeing up extra capacity in the Shire to “do more with less”. But the team also identified significant emotional benefits and pay offs, including a new way of working together that reduces the boring and repetitive aspects of the work, decreases stress in staff members, releases hope and innovation around doing things better, increases energy and commitment to a shared future and sets up for growth.

The Health Team Leader, Mary Hunter, added

“We have eliminated much of the stopping and starting. We always thought Septics was a good process when we started. If we had mapped it looking at it just as a process, we would not have made the changes we had. The backlogs have gone.

It was the stories from the plumbers that made the difference. Listening to their positive

stories and feeling special and then listening to their ideas for improvements. Also feeling empowered to question anything in and around the current process.

We have a compliance standard of 10 days to issue a permit to install a septic tank. Six months ago it would have been closer to 10 days that most people got their permits. With the new process it will be closer to 5 days without hassles because the service will flow. The 5 days represents what the customer wants and we have redesigned the process to achieve this. We will do this without increasing staff numbers and also freed up more time to do other interesting work. We will still be compliant but will contribute more. We all feel less stress and have the time to work with our customers on creating new ways of providing a better service”.

To finish this story with a comment from Bob Silver

“I found the Appreciative Inquiry process to be incredibly innovative and solution oriented. The Health Team were in crisis through no fault of their own and AI helped bring themselves back to the efficient and customer focused team that I knew before. They achieved amazing results in a small time. The team is now re-energized, has a clear vision, and is clearly empowered to bring about their own success in association with the organisation’s goals. To top it off, one of the team members provided unsolicited feedback requesting me to extend the AI concept across the whole organisation, which I will sponsor within the Senior Management Team. But it wasn’t just AI, it was the application of AI to engaging people’s emotional needs that made the difference.

Another difference I believe was focusing the team on the customer and what could be done to serve the customer. This took the focus away from team members looking at their own problems and what they needed to the bigger question around what they could contribute to the customer. The team discovered the principle that “what can I give is a more inspiring conversation than what do I get?”