Inside modernising operations on Defence bases Nous Group

Inside modernising operations on Defence bases

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In this episode of NousCast we head inside Australia’s Department of Defence, where the division responsible for delivering services to Defence facilities was seeking to modernise its operations. Along the way we’ll hear about the customer service challenges the division faced, the research deep-dive to understand the needs of users, the dashboard, clear communications and changed culture that emerged – and how Nous worked with the department to nail the implementation.

In this episode we speak to Alice Jones, the former First Assistant Secretary of the Service Delivery Division in the Estate and Infrastructure Group of the Department of Defence, as well as Nous Principal Greg Joffe.

You can read more about the work featured in this episode.

About NousCast

The NousCast podcast brings you fresh thinking on some of the biggest challenges facing organisations today. In each episode of our third series, NousCast will feature interviews with Nous clients and consultants to a cutting-edge project, from the challenge to the approach, outcomes and lessons learnt.

Ari Sharp: Good day, and welcome to NousCast, brought to you by Nous Group, an international management consultancy. I’m your host, Ari Sharp, and in this series of Nous Cast, we’re looking at some of the projects we’ve undertaken at Nous over the past few years. You’ll get to meet the clients we’ve worked with, and the Nous consultants who supported them to meet some of their biggest challenges. Today, we’re hitting inside Australia’s Department of Defence, where the division responsible for delivering services to Defence facilities was seeking to modernise its operations. Along the way, we’ll hear about the customer service challenges, the division faced, the research deep dive, to understand the needs of users, the dashboard clear communications and changed culture that emerged, and how Nous worked with the department to nail the implementation.

Joining me from Canberra is Alice Jones, the former First Assistant Secretary of the Service Delivery Division in the Estate and Infrastructure Group of the Department of Defence. And on the line from Sydney is Nous principal Greg Joffe, who has decades of experience supporting clients on strategy challenges, and worked with Defence on developing and delivering its step change in service delivery. Let’s get into it. Alice Jones, welcome to the Nous Cast.

Alice Jones: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Ari Sharp: And Greg Joffe, great to have you with us.

Greg Joffe: Always a pleasure.

Ari Sharp: Alice, if I can start with you, the Department of Defence has a massive footprint across Australia, so I imagine the work of the service delivery division is vast and challenging. Can you tell us a bit about the scale of the department’s network of bases and the role that the division performs?

Alice Jones: So the division is responsible for estate management, and that can be like building roads, changing buildings, keeping buildings safe for the use of the military. It also manages base service contracts. So several years ago, we outsourced maintenance and soft services such as cleaning, cooking, security, so we also are responsible for contractual management of those services. The base is also… Everyone thinks of Defence and just… I think sometimes sees Air Force, Army, and Navy, but the complexity is that some bases are responsible for the training. That’s our new recruits and young people who we need to keep safe, and there’s different requirements for looking after those buildings, and maintaining them to a training base, to an operational base where you’re flying fighter jets out, or a maintenance base where you are doing sustainment on chips, such as in Sydney or say in Perth. And you’ll hear more and often in the news now around Adelaide, and submarines being maintained and fixed up in the wharfs at Adelaide as well. The division had at about 1300 APS staff, and about 120 military, so they’re in itself as another complexity on managing civilians versus military. They’ve got different rules and different structures as well. The budget was significant. I mean, the whole group had a budget of about three billion, but my division that I was responsible for, probably had about two billion of that. So two thirds of the budget was actually allocated in our division.

Ari Sharp: Given the size and the complexity of the task that you’ve just told us about, I gather that achieving a consistent high level of service could be pretty challenging to achieve. What were your objectives when you first spoke to Nous? What were you really seeking to achieve?

Alice Jones: I was new to the Department of Defence. And I have a background in working in service delivery and working with large systems, so I was actually brought in to help them actually develop a customer service focus. So when I first arrived, I thought I had a great team of dedicated people who were dedicated to supporting the military and the Department of Defence’s mission statement, but they were a bit over-focused on process and technical aspects of their work. There really wasn’t a culture of customer service. They didn’t understand that they actually were in a customer service business. So I guess my main objective was to get the teams more customer focused. Also, everyone; customers, the military, and other APS staff told me that whenever they went to bases, everything was different. There was different processes, nothing was streamlined. They didn’t feel like anyone really listened to them, understood what they needed, and that basically, they were not just heard very well, and their needs and wants weren’t really understood. There was no empathy for customers.

Ari Sharp: Greg, if I can bring you into the discussion, before you suggested any changes to the service delivery division, you took quite a while to fully understand the problem. How did you gather information, and what did you learn?

Greg Joffe: We decided unlike most consultants, that what we didn’t want to do was reinvent the wheel. So we actually started by looking at the existing data. Defence and most of the Australian government and many of other government agencies have lots of data on customer satisfaction. So Alice and myself and Nous’s team went through what do we already know from all the surveys that have already been run? In addition to that, as Alice says, it was really important to both get the executive and all of the staff in the division on board on what we were trying to do. So we had quite a number of meetings with the executive team talking about what’s working well, what’s not working well. And then we also ran a survey with all staff, where we talked about what was working well, what wasn’t working well in relation to customer satisfaction.

And we also ran a number of workshops around the country including on bases, just to get people’s direct on the ground input. Also, as Alice says, a lot of the work is delivered through major contractors, big contractors, so we also had workshops with the contractors looking at what they thought would most improve customer satisfaction, working with the contract managers and the people within SDD, and with the contractors in those workshops. So we’re getting multiple views on where were the big opportunities, and then you get all this data and then you have to go, “Now out of this, what’s the three to five things we can actually do the most, and that’ll give us the most uplift?”

Ari Sharp: And so Greg, once you had all this information gathered and analyzed, you were in a position to make some recommendations. What changes did you suggest?

Greg Joffe: We suggested a bunch of interrelated changes. So one was, the organization structure was good, but with some tweaking could be even clearer. So there were some opportunities to align what went into each division, so people were just a bit clearer on who was accountable for what. There were some major processes that were causing a lot of pain. There were some processes that were taking very long time, going in endless cycles, and for the customer, things were not being resolved nearly as quickly as they needed to be. So we knew that some of those processes in being fixed would make things a lot better. Alice and I were also meeting with customers including people like the Chief of the Army, Chief of the Air Force, Chief of Navy, and they didn’t have a good way to think about the service they were getting, or well structured way to think about the service they were getting. So a third area was actually creating a dashboard that would give each of these services a view on how their bases were going.

So you could go to Air Force and say, “Here’s all the Air Force bases, here’s what’s going on,” and that was a mechanism that enabled Alice to have better conversations with them. We also knew the culture was an issue. As Alice said, many people just didn’t have a strong customer service culture. They didn’t come from that background. They had the right intention, they just actually didn’t know how to do it and what it looked like. So we knew that we needed to run a stream, giving people basic customer service culture and skills. And then there was an area around information management, where people often couldn’t find easy to use information on what they were supposed to do in particular situations.

So it’s all very well to say to people it’s all on the Internet, but if the Internet’s large and complex and there’s a ton of information that is sometimes contradictory, and you’re sitting in a base in the middle of nowhere, what instructions do you actually follow? So we realized there was a big opportunity to really drive improved information management and systems usage, to enable people to get the information they needed more easily.

Alice Jones: Just picking up on something Greg said, it was interesting trying to teach staff how to have a better or improved customer focus. Was actually about their communication skills. Having a conversation and negotiating, or proper conversation about what someone needs or wants it delivered, is actually more complex, and requires a bit more effort than to be able to say no, and create a process for them to do it. So I also felt that one of the things that we identified was the skill increase that people needed around customer focus, but also just playing negotiation communication skills on how to achieve an outcome with a customer as well. So that was really, really important.

Ari Sharp: Alice, can you tell us about how you experienced this as a project sponsor? What strategies were in place to make sure the solutions being put forward actually met your needs and were likely to be sustained in the long run?

Alice Jones: I’d have to say it was a bit of a partnership because Greg was quite insistent on making sure that we met regularly, and had quite open and frank discussions. So managing it, we made sure that we were dedicated to it as an executive team. So we already met every fortnight. So every fortnight, we actually dedicated time to discussing the project and how to implement it, and whether it was working well or not. Greg and his team actually teleconferenced indoor, participated in those meetings. And in between times, Greg and I had conversations about what seemed to be moving really well, maybe what were blockers for us, where we needed to get more support. So I guess one of the keys to success I find is sometimes is that you need to really insert yourself into these processes. You can’t delegate it, I think, for people to do, because then, it’s not gauged as of high value and high interest if the person who’s in charge isn’t actually really interested in it.

So those meetings that Greg and I had were good, because he would also challenge me sometimes around my thinking, and sometimes I’d say, “No, we can’t go off on that track because this is where we’ll end, and that’s deviating from what I really want to focus on. Yes, it’s a good idea, but we do need to just focus on this bit.” And I really appreciated that honesty. I think sometimes when you work with people, they just tell you what you want to hear. And I think Greg and I had developed quite a nice relationship in being able to be quite frank with each other. He’d also be really frank about who might need a little bit of extra support from me.

So that would be really, really good. But on the flip side, I’d also talk to my leadership and say, “How is the Nous team doing? Where do you think we perhaps need to have a chat with them about maybe focusing more or less on? Is it working really well?” I think that what was really good about that was, we had regular contact, we talked to each other, and there was a fairly transparent relationship. I think Greg would agree, I’d pretty much say, “Look, I actually think this is going to be patient, we really got to rain this in.” Or we’re having trouble progressing this bit of work, I’ll ring people and make sure things are focused on and energy’s put in. And particularly around the HR issues, I had to speak to the union, so we made sure that was under control as well.

So for me, I think the close contact, and the Nous Group were really good at providing project updates paperwork. So I could send out as well to people so they could read as well as hear. So I think as a project sponsor, and Greg’s enthusiasm to meet the chiefs and senior staff was really good for me. And what I liked about it was he also kept saying “We’ve got to make this division look good as well,” and I think that his interests were my interests. And I think that’s what was really positive about the relationship and how it worked.

Greg Joffe: Just to really emphasise one of the points she made, I think the reason this was so successful was because Alice led it. So we supported Alice, but there was a real sense of Alice was always in there driving this thing. And it’s not easy driving something with these many people just distributed around the country. It’s a lot of work and energy. So Alice was meeting with me, and we were thrashing things through. Alice was ensuring that significant chunks of the executive meetings were allocated to this project so that all of her executive were on the journey. Alice was making sure that emails were going out every fortnight, updating her staff on where are we up to, and what’s coming next, and what we need from you. And Alice was out there visiting around the country, in bases, talking about it and delivering it. So people always say the role of the leader is absolutely critical in these transformations. This was a classic example of that. There’s no way it would’ve been nearly as successful without Alice driving it with the energy that she did.

Ari Sharp: And on that, can you tell us about the outcomes that were achieved? What benefits did you achieve for your stakeholders?

Alice Jones: We had 27% higher ratings by the senior Defence officers of the division to support capabilities, plus improved positive ratings on collaboration and follow through. So 14.7% increase in senior Defence officer satisfaction across SDD of this division at each base. So that was one of the things sometimes I got a little bit hijacked. When I went to meetings, I’d hear that a senior officer on a base had this complaint, or this was happening, and the chief would be telling me, and it’ll be hard for me to respond because I didn’t know, and we have a saying in Defence that the first report on war is never quite accurate. So your first report on a complaint is never quite the whole story. So I learned in my early days not to jump to conclusions to make sure I really truly understood the issues. And even better, was 61% less time for key Defence contractor processes.

So what would happen if someone put a job for something to be done or some work to be done, and as Greg said, when we actually looked at the process mapping, it was going through endless decision processing, endless double checking. And things were on the waiting list, I think 18 months went but without an answer. So the fact that we could remove 61% less time required for those key decisions was just amazing.

Ari Sharp: Greg, from the evidence that Alice has presented, obviously, the project had a significant positive influence at Defence. Can you tell me what were the big insights and lessons from your perspective?

Greg Joffe: So the first, just to repeat it, is you’ve got to have the most senior person really committed to this being the biggest thing. We work with lots of organizations where they have lots of different priorities, and sometimes things aren’t a main priority or real priorities for the CEO, or the secretary, or whoever we’re working with, and if they’re not, your project is about 50% less likely to succeed. Then if you’ve got full support of the most senior person. So I think Alice’s energy is probably the biggest thing. Alice’s energy and focus on driving customer satisfaction was critical. I think another one was the customer engagement. We made this huge effort to get, sorry, not just customer engagement, but staff engagement as well, a huge effort to ensure that everyone felt included and able to contribute.

And when we did the roll out of the changes, we also made sure that all across the country, people were getting consistent training and consistent engagement. It wasn’t just like, “Here’s a bunch of stuff, please read it.” We had managers cascading training across the country, Nous supporting it. So it meant that everyone was involved. There was a sort of all of organization process rather than a central thing that then got distributed to everyone else, and I thought that worked really well. And the executive team were highly engaged in that, and really made sure that they worked well. The other one for me is this sense of creating a dashboard of something that says what is the truth. So Alice’s example, we’d go into meetings and people would complain about a wharf, in a particular base that someone had complained about. And because there was no overarching evidence that said, “Yeah, but how are we going overall?” You really had to sit there and talk about a wharf on a particular base.

Once we had a view that said, this is what success looks like, these are the measures, and here’s how we’re going in the last month, in the last quarter, etc, then you could have a much more structured conversation about how things were running. And exactly as Alice said, we then had much better conversations with the chiefs of the services, but even within the executive team. We could actually then drill down for each of the regions, and they were very clear how they were doing, and then they would, without having to have any conversations, start picking up with their own teams, “What’s going on here? What’s going on here?” And start fixing things. So I think that sense of creating visibility through a dashboard that’s carefully thought out, and we spent quite a lot of time designing it and testing it, allows you to really focus. And that would be another key learning uptake from this project.

Ari Sharp: So, Alice, one final question for you. What advice would you give to another organization that’s considering undertaking a step change in operational processes?

Alice Jones: I think the most important thing is, A, you have to really be involved in it. But I think what we always do is we do consultation, we create plans on people’s ideas, but it’s the implementation, embedding it down, I think getting staff involved as Greg has mentioned. But I think the one thing we haven’t talked about that we did, was even with the senior staff, when we were going out to manage the actual changes and what was going to change, and to talk to staff about it. The actual team did scenario planning and how they would deliver their message all together, so that we knew everyone was going to be on the same united communication plan. So I think that also gave me confidence that I knew all my direct reports would be actually saying the same thing, and they got to practice it.

And so it helped them with their confidence to get the message clear, and it was a good lesson in unity. So I think that role playing that we did, and the planning of the sessions and what we are going to say, rather than sending out a plan and saying to a senior leader, “You’ve got the skills, go and deliver this message to your staff and make sure they’re on board,” I think was really good. And also how to measure it, and getting quick wins, I think we got satisfied customers and we had things to measure the results. So I think that made staff feel good about it, and realize it was actually worth doing. And I think that’s why a number of staff really switched the way they approached their work.

Ari Sharp: Alice Jones and Greg Joffe, thanks for talking to the NousCast.

Alice Jones: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Greg Joffe: Thank you.

Ari Sharp: That was Alice Jones, a former first Assistant Secretary in the Department of Defence, along with Greg Joffe, a principal at Nous Group. You can connect with Greg via LinkedIn, and you can read more about this project and lots of other Nous projects on our website. That’s We’ll put links in the episode notes. That’s it for this edition of Nous Cast. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode. We’ll catch you next time.