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How To Avoid The Cleanup SquadHSBC compliance officers began their audits of the bank’s U.S. operations in September 2013 …. Unlike the heads of commercial banking and retail banking, the investment bank leader at the time … Chief Executive Officer Patrick Nolan, didn’t attend the first meeting with HSBC’s compliance officers …. It wasn’t until early February 2014, as the auditors were finalizing their report, that Nolan met with them. Rather than accept their view of his business, Nolan shouted at … [them] for wasting his time.”  HSBC Managers Battle The Cleanup Squad, Bloomberg Businessweek, July 13, 2015.

Oh boy.  I admit that I care little for auditors, quality control, process improvement, project management offices and other “tacked on” organizations that have been put in place to help us get better at something.  In every case, if we simply did what we were suppose to do, these superfluous organizations would be unneeded and by their presence only increased cost and reduced productivity.

However, I’ve been on both sides of the equation.  I’ve been a process improvement guy, a project management guy, an auditor, an internal consultant and troubleshooter, and an external consultant.  These positions meant that I was on the cleanup squad and on the outside looking in on those folks doing the primary work and telling them how to do their job better.  The bottom line was always the same, in my experience, if the guy on the outside looking in is more experienced (and capable) than those folks doing the work then he or she can add real value.  If the outsider is less experienced, and say mindlessly following a script or checklist, then the chances of being useful, again in my experience, are almost nonexistent. Of course, a lot of people on cleanup squads think they know more than the folks doing the work when they don’t.

I recall the first time I was hired as a project manager.  After a few months on the job, my conclusion was that the project management initiative was a patch on the system.  Line managers were clearly not working well together, were competing with each other and not cooperating, and so projects and deliveries were suffering (e.g., late and buggy products).  It was felt that if we had a professional project management staff, then our issues of planning, coordination and cooperation would go away.  They didn’t.  Instead the line managers just did to the project management staff what they had been doing to each other which was to undermine each other’s efforts.

Also see How To Rid Yourself Of Those Inefficient Political Battles

Since I had had significant line management experience, I was able to be the “honest broker” and pull together cooperation of the teams.  Often I effectively ran their organizations, with the line managers often trying to set me up to fail by letting me do it, and I could run them better than they could. As long as I was not considered competition to them individually, and could make them look good, I was able to get away with getting things done this way.  Humorously, after several successful projects, I was promoted to director and almost immediately lost what cooperation I had had from these line managers.

In another cleanup squad case, after years of failing to improve an organization, we simply threw out the literal guide and took a completely different approach.  In this case, instead of telling everyone what to do — as our process improvement charter empowered us to do — we instead implemented a service to the organizations we were trying to improve.  We would no longer try to tell them what to do.  Instead we “visited” them for a week, summarized what we thought the did well and where they could improve, and then left them with an option at their discretion for us to come back in six months and do the same “visit” again.  It was strictly up to them to decide what to do differently, if anything. Our key output was to show them how already close they were to the standards that were the overall organization’s goal.  All departments, but one, achieved the standards in nine months were we had made no measureable progress in the proceeding three years.

For more on a service approach to improvements see Don’t Project Manage Change – Provide A Service!

I did experience one improvement effort where at the summary meeting the most senior manager told us we were wasting everyone’s time and then he  told his folks attending the meeting to “go back to work.”  This effort went horribly wrong because one of our improvement team members, trying to curry favor with the senior manager,  kept telling the senior manager during the period of the survey that his organization looked great.  It only took this one bad behavior by one team member to undermine what would have been otherwise a very beneficial effort.

See related If Nothing Else Honesty Is Just More Efficient

Cleanup squads, which are essentially project teams, are often needed after disasters or after years of poor performance.  The cleanup squad is only useful if they can truly help those folks struggling to do the job.  If not, then they are just so much noise and not only don’t add real value but instead just slow down the recovery effort.  A good cleanup squad has to be as well organized and inventive and focused as any good project team.

Is your project really a cleanup squad and what are you doing unique in recognition of this and to be successful anyway?

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