The Word of Gold: in every business, the best ideas are often to be found in the most unexpected places

A belief lurks in the breast of a certain kind of private practice lawyer that the skills and knowledge of non-lawyers are highly commendable, and no doubt valuable in their way, but, are, you know, not on quite the same level as one’s own. You see its baleful influence in firms which pay attention to their lawyers’ development, but less to other staff. Ideas for improving the business may abound, but never see the light of day, because the infantry is given little or no forum by the generals.

I was reminded of this recently by a feature on the distinguished industrialist John Neill, chairman and chief executive of Unipart, who was born in South Africa but educated in Scotland. So respected is his approach to productivity, honed over four decades of developing “the Unipart way”, that his company supplies not just a vast range of components, but consultancy to blue chip companies and the NHS.

His method is based on a simple, but powerful idea: improvement comes from engaging the entire workforce every day, and great ideas come as often from the shop floor as the boardroom. Progress happens not through spectacular lightbulb moments, but through countless small changes which cumulatively are transformational.

He cites this example: until recently, one of his workers used to spend 45 minutes several times a day, using a forklift to check parts stored in out-of-reach bins. In one of the “daily huddles” which are a feature of the business, he suggested fixing a camera to the end of a pole, an idea which shaved two thirds of the time off the process. Multiply that gain by scores of employees every working day of the year.

A less positive example comes from the NHS. Neill was told a consultant needed a new £1 million operating theatre. Being sceptical, he went to check for himself. He gathered round every member of the team. It was, he says, like “opening a fire hose of ideas”. A nurse explained that they could do one more operation a day, equating to a productivity gain of £750,000 annually, by employing a porter so that patients could be brought in without the nursing team having to fetch them. This simple change would have completely avoided the need for a new theatre, but I describe it as a less positive example, because when Neill took it to management, their reaction was “Oh that lot, they’re always complaining…”. An expression involving donkeys and lions comes to mind. 

Turn on the tap

Much of a law firm’s work relies on similar tasks being done consistently well. Without stretching the analogy too far, in many ways law firms are as dependent on process and project management skills as is manufacturing. Though this is better recognised than it used to be, deciding what constitutes best practice is still considered the province of people at the top. Deep employee engagement as championed by Unipart is rare.

The fire hose of ideas Neill discovered in that operating theatre is probably hanging on a hook in your firm, waiting to be turned on. Here is a simple, effective method, first suggested by David Maister, which I have helped introduce and seen work well in a variety of different firms.

Divide the firm into teams according to discipline and location, keeping each as tight as possible. Task each with coming up with answers to the questions:

How can we:

  • Give clients a better experience?
  • Improve productivity?
  • Increase our skills?
  • Win more and better work?

Let each team decide on its priorities, but insist that:

  • The focus must be on action, not aspiration, so each team must come up with recommendations for specific actions.
  • There must be a reasonable, but stretching timetable for implementation.
  • Named individuals must be accountable for implementation. They do not need to deliver everything themselves, but they do need to be accountable for making sure everything is delivered.

This is a rolling process. Once a project has been completed, teams form anew and move on to the next. 

For optimum results, the firm’s leadership must:

  • Walk the walk (unlike those NHS managers) by coaching, mentoring, removing roadblocks and being grounded enough to take advice and constructive criticism from subordinates.
  • Measure and publish results.
  • Reward employees’ efforts directly, and publicly celebrate their contribution. The Unipart camera idea was immediately shared worldwide, with attribution, on the company’s Facebook page.

The cultural benefits of this approach are at least as great as the operational. Encouragement, appreciation and feeling that “our views matter” are more important to building loyalty than money. Few experiences nourish more than feeling part of a close-knit team and the pleasure of shared achievement. The Unipart way is a rare example of how unleashing a hose can also light a fire. 

The Author
Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. t: 07968 484232­; w:; t: @thewordofgold
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