Downer – Improving Business Performance

The challenge

Every organisation knows that small things can cause a big hole in profits. Work that needs to be re-done, tasks not completed on time, jobs that run over budget – all these operational deficits can add up to a major drain on the business.

Downer realised the nature of its operations placed a lot of responsibility on frontline road repair and construction crews to get things right. Yet the teams on the job didn’t always see things the same way. Sometimes they took shortcuts they thought made little difference, or ignored procedures they found irritating. They were focusing on the machinery in front of them, not the overall performance of the company.

And who could blame them? Talking about corporate profits to a bunch of hardworking construction crews was never going to change anything. Yet the long-term future of the company depended on frontline supervisors and crews taking ownership of the issue.

So Downer approached The Learning Wave with a request. Could we put together a learning programme that shifted the thinking of Downer supervisors who were in charge of crews around New Zealand?


Our solution

Downer and The Learning Wave agreed that the solution would have to be interactive, not just an exercise that only engaged the intellect. We had to find a way to make concepts like profit and loss meaningful to people who tended to shy away from paperwork.

So we created an interactive learning game, called How Do We Make Money? By engaging Downer supervisors in a fun simulation, and pitting them against their mates, we could get them thinking about the financial consequences of their operational decisions.

How Do We Make Money was built around a hypothetical lawn-mowing business. Working in teams of three of four, each player had to make decisions on the way the business was run. Teams started with the same amount of money and got to see how their choices affected profits. They were presented with challenges, such as an unhappy customer or a change of schedules, and given three realistic responses to choose from. At the end of the session profits were calculated and each team could see how it fared.

The exercise was run by Learning Wave facilitators who travelled around New Zealand to work with the Downer supervisors and frontline managers in each region. There were 37 sessions in total with 378 Downer employees taking part. With around 10 people in each session, the facilitator was able to give individual feedback and ensure all participants got the most out of the session.

The response from participants was upbeat, with comments such as, “I found it really useful being involved in the workshop and was really encouraged by the ideas the guys had.”

But the most impressive results emerged once the simulation was over.


The results

The final step in each workshop was getting the Downer teams to connect what they had learned in the game to what they did every day at work. So each team that took part in the exercise was asked to brainstorm ideas on how Downer could make more money.

Each idea had to be practical and realistic. With the guidance of the Learning Wave facilitators, teams were encouraged to work through the scope of their ideas and, most crucially, put a dollar value on the projected savings. These ideas were then collated and put into a framework that enabled Downer to review and follow-through on implementation.

Ideas ranged from improving traffic management on site in order to reduce accidents and speed up workflow, to sourcing cheaper log books. A lot of teams came up with solutions to reduce the need to re-work jobs, which is an ongoing drain on profitability. By generating ideas from the employees responsible for delivering the jobs, Downer was engaging them in a process to improve productivity across the business.

At the end of the programme, Downer had a list of 62 ideas to enhance the performance of the business. For 35 of these ideas, the participants were able to estimate the potential dollar value of savings that would be generated. The total savings amounted to more than $5 million dollars in year one.

So a game called How Do We Make Money turned into a process to help Downer make more money. It’s always rewarding when a learning programme leads to positive change at the bottom line.

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