Brightside at Harvard: Hope may not be a strategy. But it is an asset.

A front view of the Baker Library at Harvard Business School, featuring a belltower, a portico with six columns, a circular paved area, a lawn and several trees.Anand Shukla, Brightside’s Chief Executive, has been sponsored by the Harvard Business School Alumni Club of London to attend the Harvard Business School course Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management and to go on a study tour of other organisations in the US. He will be writing a blog posting his thoughts and reflections during the course and study tour. 

In my last blog, I touched on one of the programme’s key themes: creating the conditions for employees to thrive. We studied an extraordinary case to illustrate this point: Tessei, a Japanese company responsible for cleaning Japan Rail East’s bullet trains. Blighted by safety issues, customer complaints and operational mistakes in the mid 2000s, employee turnover is at an all time high. A new leader ditches the command and control model and involves his staff in a complete redesign of the service, which still has a ludicrously tight seven-minute turnaround time to clean the trains. Their suggestions are adopted – in particular more engagement with the passengers – and the mission is changed from a cleaning company to a company that serves people. Today, it’s a famous company in Japan with people arriving early to watch staff clean the trains (!) in seven minutes, enjoys very high levels of performance and employee satisfaction and is studied by companies and governments from around the world.

This case introduced me to a useful framework when considering people management consisting of three dimensions: capability, motivation and licence. This last point – licence – is essential. Do employees have a measure of autonomy over their conditions (not to be confused with a blank cheque)?

We also discussed the concept of operational transparency in a service culture. When customers can see the staff and the effort they make (for example in a restaurant which has its kitchen in full view of the customers), customers enjoy the product more. And staff productivity goes up too – a win-win.

The cases studied continually came back to purpose – “if we truly lived up to our potential, how much good could we do?”.

But “vision without execution is hallucination”. And many of the cases studied highlighted operational excellence – in particular Aravind, the South Indian eye hospital. Created in the late 1970s, Aravind now treats 500,000 patients every year, is a global centre of excellence, operates at a 35% margin and treats its low income customers (most of them) for free. It is only able to do this with a relentless focus on efficiency and process management (as well as, of course, on staff development. It has recently opened a management training centre).

So the six-day course has, alas, just come to an end and I am about to set off to meet related organisations across the US on a study tour. My final blog will round up the key themes and lessons learned for Brightside from the people and organisations I have met.