People often use the analogy of a swan gliding gracefully over the water whilst its feet are frantically paddling below the water as a way of encouraging people to make things look effortless and not to distract people with all the hard work going on.

However, in business, is this necessarily a good thing?

At a recent assessment session I was running it was noticeable that the overall Contract Manager and Service Manager, who we will call Chris and Sarah in this post, were heavily reliant on the outputs of their ‘Excel guru’ and analyst who we shall call Fred for the purposes of this post. Chris and Sarah are hugely reliant on the outputs produced by Fred and recognise that succession planning could be a problem. Indeed when Fred was on 2 weeks leave, Fred’s manager picked up the ‘day-to-day’ aspects of the role. However, one of the core parts of Fred’s role, producing the monthly service invoice, could only be completed by Fred as he was the only one with the understanding of what to include in the invoice and how to split activity across the various service lines in the invoice.

Fred does a very effective job of always being busy and showing swan like tendencies when supporting Chris and Sarah with the right insights and information.

However, on investigating further, it was apparent that Fred, whilst effective in the outputs produced, was not at all efficient. Fred is highly experienced in the business domain and implicitly understands the meaning of much of the data and the subtleties of the invoicing details. However, it is fair to say that Fred’s knowledge of Excel is ‘basic’, hence the manually intensive approaches being used. Tasks that could easily be automated, were being undertaken manually and repeated each time a particular piece of analysis is undertaken. Requests for ad hoc data analysis from colleagues were delivered in a very unstructured way, dependent on whether the monthly service invoice was being prepared. Overall, there was no defined process for any of the repeat activities, thereby increasing the reliance on Fred.

Since Fred does a good ‘swan impression’, Chris and Sarah are not aware of the inefficiencies of the analysis work and just see the quality of the outputs. This means that it is not easy for them to identify a need to improve. So:

  • As a manager, are you aware of the amount of ‘paddling’ needed to produce business outputs?
  • Is this the level you would expect?
  • As a team member, do you let your manager know how much effort goes into producing analysis outputs?
  • Do you suggest ideas for improvement?
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