Personal blog. Day job: Customer services, digital and data in Hackney

Month: November 2021

Weeknote v10.47

Week beginning 22 November

I feel two contradictory feelings about this week: I’m pleased I did everything that I set out to do, but am worried that I’m limping to the finishing line already. Literally, I’ve consistently ran less far than the previous week and don’t care enough to fix it – even though my stretch target of 1,500 miles for the year remains in view. I also lay awake for hours at least twice this week, which might have had an impact. Sadly, I don’t often notice that I’m tired until I find myself constantly refreshing my phone. 

I spent most of the week in the Service Centre. Nicola is leading our work to improve the experience for residents, making it more welcoming, simpler and ensuring we have the same visibility of what’s happening as we do for services we provide on the phone or on web chat. It’s lovely to join a video call in the atrium and have colleagues remark on what an impressive building it is, more than 10 years after it first opened. And I enjoy working where I can be in the middle of the hustle and bustle rather than being marooned in a meeting room. 

Ron started as head of customer operations. He’s brought a great energy and natural enthusiasm already. His first few weeks are all about orientation and observation and I suspect he’s having to work hard to curb his instincts to get things done.

We also had seven new starters hit the phones on our priority housing repairs lines. We recruited them through the Hackney Works service which helps ensure the heartbeat of the service stays local. The early signs suggest it’s already having a positive impact for tenants, with average waiting times around five minutes for our emergency lines. 

The Repairs Improvement Board met on Friday, providing an important senior-level oversight for the improvements that are needed. It’s important to maintain that system-level view so that we tackle all the things that are making it harder for residents to get the service they need. There are short term improvements we’ve already started to make, and we’ll need to ensure that we address the deeper issues also, so that the changes we make are sustainable. 

I got stuck-in to two projects (our cloud engineering excellence and documents products) in a way that I really enjoy, don’t get a chance to do often enough but also constantly worry about. Getting into the detail of who needs what, when and how that’s best achieved makes me feel like I’m practically making a difference. But I worry that I’m either duplicating what the team is able to do without me or pushing people in the wrong direction as a result of having partial information. 

I also spent some time tackling one of the three thorny issues that I wanted to resolve by Christmas. We’ve got a way forward, which is positive, but I’m also worried that our contrasting opinions on the root cause is going to trip us up. We can’t not act, but will need to tread carefully to ensure that the difference doesn’t undermine the good intentions. 

And with that, next week I’m sort of on holiday for the next week. There are a few work-related things that I want to do but am largely going to be unavailable during working hours. I hope it’ll give me a new perspective on the opportunities and challenges we’re going to tackle in 2022.

Weeknote v10.46

Week beginning 12 November 

I couldn’t handle the pressure of a team that hung on my every word (and it wouldn’t be healthy) but I still get a thrill when I throw something out and someone picks it up. So my week started well when I checked my inbox to find people eager to help deliver the five things that I wanted to see us achieve by Christmas in v10.45. I had a moment on Monday where I had to double-check that I really was committed to those being ‘the things’, But after a year of setting weekly, then fortnightly goals for the software and data recovery workstreams I’ve got much more confident in defining and committing to outcomes. 

I’d resolved that this week and next would be focused on pushing things over the line. It’s the third time this year I’ve had that kind of goal. I don’t enjoy it and am not even sure it works. I’ve never got personal satisfaction from getting things done. If anything, it leaves me feeling dissatisfied. But I’m also uncomfortable with the leadership style. Yes, it says to teams that have been battling with something for a while ‘we’re here to help you get it done’. But it also creates an additional reporting layer which doesn’t add much value and it rarely makes anything go quicker. It also takes a degree of humility; I feel like we’re never less likely to meet the goal within the timeframe than when it’s nearly achieved. Of the three applications that we’re trying to get done by the end of the month, the one that was looking least likely a week ago now looks most likely. 

We published the next level of detail on our plans for the future shape of IT. We’ve made some important adjustments to the previous proposals whilst remaining true to the vision and purpose. We’re pretty confident about the big pieces but the stuff that will affect the day to day for most people needs to be worked through, and we can only do that together. I hope that calling out to lots of our questions will help the team see where they can help make this work. 

One of the themes that keeps returning at the moment is the shortcomings of change that focuses on one part of the operating model (just tech or just skills, for example). That sort of change has its place tactically, where it opens up broader opportunities but can also lead to lots of effort to make marginal progress or, worse, lots of hard work to improve something that remains fundamentally the wrong thing to continue doing. In those cases, designing technology that’s fundamentally simple and flexible is so important because it reduces the cost of future change. 

I had two days in the office this week, which were really enjoyable. There was just enough mix between time to just ‘be around’, meetings where some of the people were also in the office and communal space to do video calls. 

I’ve observed before how it’s hard to stand back when you’re operating in crisis mode. But I wanted to understand how the last year has affected the culture in one of our teams. I was really pleased to get an interesting set of responses to an anonymous survey. Most people thought the culture had changed considerably in the last year and there were some positive insights about the culture and the areas where we need to improve were things that we had already identified. 

Next week Ron starts as our head of customer operations. It’s a vital role to get right. It has to have the same agenda as Angharad’s customer experience team but with different horizons. We need to support the customer success managers to continue to evolve into their new roles and make sure that our proactive work to support vulnerable residents is matched by operational excellence for our transactional services. 

Weeknote v10.45

Week beginning 8 November

A lot of this week was about Thursday evening. It actually started on Wednesday evening. Zoe messaged me following a show & tell about Link Work. This is a new team that is using our Better Conversations approach, developed through COVID, to call residents who we haven’t heard from in a while where who might need our help. The show & tell, held out of hours, had excited the team so much that it ran late. And Zoe thought I should join the next one. So I got into Hackney early on Thursday morning so I could listen to the team share their experiences and promote the work ahead of the next round of secondments we’ll be offering to join the team. I asked about the conversations when people weren’t so pleased that we’d called and was really impressed by the thoughtful, calm response that Maria gave. 

At Thursday lunch, Jasmeen led the IT strategy show & tell to share her experiences of Lauren Currie’s Upfront course. Her presentation was so good that everyone was still buzzing from it that evening when we gathered to say goodbye to Rich Smith. More of the team were together than at any point since last March and it reminded me about all the best things about our team. 

But Thursday also saw the news break about the appalling conditions of a tenant’s home. There’s little about that which benefits from my commentary. But the recent work that we’ve been doing, in close collaboration with the housing leadership team is the most important thing in my job right now and my ability to make a positive difference will be an important part of how I’m judged in the role. 

There were three conversations that really stood out through the rest of the week. I was given some feedback by one of my peers about a project we led together. It was kind, constructive and direct. For me, it makes the difference between being motivated to tackle the issues rather than spending energy getting cross about how the message was communicated. I hijacked the (software) development team meeting to review the progress we’d made following a session in July on their ambitions and goals. We’d made tentative progress towards tackling some of the issues we’d discussed but it also reminded me how much more we could do. I’ll need to work smarter if I’m going to have more impact there. And finally, I took part in a feedback session about another project which has been going well on the surface, but been more challenging for the folk involved. I was pleased I had done it, but also a bit frustrated with myself for not having looked more closely sooner. I’d heard bits about some issues bubbling away but not worked hard enough to understand their importance. 

So my agenda for the last six weeks of the year is looking increasingly clear… and I’m partly committing this to paper to hold myself to account:

  1. We’ve got some clear goals around improving the tenant experience of accessing our repairs service; 
  2. We need to embed the Link Work model so that it can grow int of central part of how we do ‘customer services in Hackney
  3. There are three new projects we need to set-up well, ready for a fast start in 2022 (single view, temporary accommodation and data platform)
  4. Putting the detail on our plans for the future shape in IT
  5. Supporting the new customer operations and customer experience teams settle-in and accomplish their short term goals
  6. There are three thorny internal things that I’ve committed to tackling where progress needs to be tangible before Christmas

Good thing I’ve only got the one week off!

Weeknote v10.44

Week beginning 1 November

A lot of this week was about how much you need to really want something to make it happen. I realised that this week’s note is much easier to write than last week’s poor effort. I’d always prefer to have weeks that are good or bad – never those that just ‘happen’

We managed to haul over the line two things that were complicated and important (a contract issue and an organisational change proposal), and had now become urgent. Rob’s taught me something about diligent unpicking of issues and I’d like to think that I bring the impatience necessary to force an issue. 

I also had an exit interview with Rich where we reflected on how we’d both changed, and how the team has changed, over the three years or so that he’s been in Hackney. The focus that we’ve had over the last 18 months has been necessary and beneficial in many ways but has come at the cost of the audacity of the previous period. I did once wake up on a Saturday morning, design a project and publish a tender for an idea that I had. Now I dream of document migration projects.

We’ve talked about transitioning from start-up to scale-up to try and capture the journey we need to make. But it’s now blindingly obvious to me that, even though most of the team won’t have worked in a start-up, the concept is obvious and the idea exciting. But what on earth is a scale-up, and where’s the benefit of that? It makes more sense as ‘manager needs’ rather than ‘user needs’. There are benefits; in terms of making simple tasks easier, needing fewer conversations and providing more tools to enable teams to focus energies on higher value tasks. But we’ve not explained that or spelt out examples of where we’ve achieved it. (I can be rude about this because the concept was my idea). 

I used the energy from being in the office this week to come up with ideas of how to improve the customer experience. I’ve been wondering what the Hackney version of the Timpson promise might look like. It’s so simple that it would be easy to do ineffectively. But done well it could be a powerful contract between residents, customer services and the wider organisation.

We also did a retrospective on a complex case in order to understand how we could design a more systematic way of identifying emerging problems, earlier. Here to Help is teaching us that there’s a category of problems which aren’t severe enough to justify intervention from any one one service but when we look at all the contact that someone has had with the council we can see a clear case to work together, across our services, to provide early support. 

I was also surprised and delighted by a couple of things the team had done. The facilities team have produced a realtime dashboard showing availability in the service centre, our main building. It’s a tool to help staff feel confident in planning their week. And there was a brilliant post from one of our customer services advisors on their experience of paying council tax to another local authority, with some practical tips for the team on how to ‘be the guide’ and ‘make things simple’ – two of our key behaviours. 

Next week, in fact the next two weeks, are finally feeling ‘lighter’ in terms of diary obligations. I’m hoping to use the extra time to give some real focus to some things that could do with a bit of a push – mostly projects at an early stage that need to get going, and those at a later stage that need to finish well. 

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