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Operational Excellence at Serco – Embedding a culture of continuous improvement in public service delivery

In 2020, the Institute of Continuous Improvement in Public Services (ICiPS) recognised Serco with two awards, for developing prisoner problem solving capability to support rehabilitation and for the Company’s progress in embedding a culture of continuous improvement (CI).

Debbie Simpson, ICiPS CEO, said: “Serco has made a radical shift in their approach to CI. It has been embedded at every level in the organisation worldwide and woven into every step of the employee lifecycle. Each discipline, from HR to Finance, works together to ensure CI is the way work is done. Not only this, but their CI ethos extends to the way they work with their customers and suppliers.”

For Paul White, Operational Excellence Director for Serco UK & Europe, the Company’s heartfelt commitment to CI, defined and delivered through its global ‘Operational Excellence’ (OE) programme, is embodied in a 15-minute new joiner training video about OE, written and narrated by Serco Group Chief Executive, Rupert Soames.

“It’s what convinced me to join Serco,” says Paul. “To see the CEO of an international FTSE 250 company spend 15 minutes personally explaining the importance of CI to all employees was astonishing. Leadership commitment is the foundation of a sustainable CI culture, and it’s evident at all levels in Serco.”

Since joining in 2018, Paul’s job has been to build a powerful OE capability that dovetails into delivery of the UK & Europe strategy and drives game-changing results for the business and its people:

“We have OE business partners in every Business Unit who work closely with leadership to govern an improvement project portfolio aligned closely to strategic priorities. OE principles, systems and tools are applied wherever we can make a difference, from marginal gains implemented by frontline colleagues to radical process redesign.”

OE initiatives in 2020 delivered a range of benefits, improving safety, resilience, quality, delivery, cost, people engagement and environmental performance. For example, a Northlink Ferries project to reduce one vessel’s fuel consumption, which resulted in CO2 savings of 534 metric tonnes/month, and a Procurement project to standardise facilities management waste bags, which improved quality with a superior product whilst enabling cost efficiency savings of £180,000/year.

Paul sees OE as a strategic enabler within Serco’s approach to become the best-managed company in its sector:

“Improving efficiency and effectiveness in our services and ways of working helps us to ‘execute brilliantly’. Building confidence in the current and future quality of our services whilst keeping pace with evolving customer needs in a highly competitive landscape helps us to ‘win good business’.”

The power of OE to enable rapid response to changing requirements proved invaluable during 2020:

“Covid-19 is an excellent example of how OE enables organisational agility. Mainstream OE training and projects paused at the start of the pandemic and there was a conscious decision to utilise OE skills and resource in the Covid-19 response.”

With the right knowledge and capability already embedded in all business disciplines through Serco’s OE investment in recent years, the team were able to hit the ground running:

“Members of the OE team were assigned to each Covid-19 workstream, supporting efforts across a range of priorities, such as partnering with HR to reduce recruitment lead time to manage increased service demand, and collaborating with Procurement to manage demand vs. supply of personal protective equipment.”

Paul is very proud of his team, whose passion for bringing OE to life in Serco is reflected in their 2020 engagement score, an impressive 84 out of 100:

“We brought together a tremendous group from around the business – talented practitioners with a range of backgrounds and experience, a very diverse set of skills and a strong public service ethos. Aligned to our shared vision, with clarity of purpose and consistent ways of working, they’ve become a high-performing team who enjoy what they do and are making a difference. What they’ve achieved is incredible.”

The team subscribe to a ‘servant leadership’ philosophy that focuses the role of OE and supporting functions on enabling frontline employees to deliver value to customers.

“Some think OE is a magic wand, but all we’re doing is facilitating cross-functional collaboration, transferring capability and fostering a results-driven culture of CI. The real magic is when our colleagues are empowered to apply OE techniques to improve performance themselves, which provides scalability for organisation-wide transformation. We've trained more than 2,000 people to date and they’re the ones making a difference every day which culminates into significant benefits at the Divisional level.”

For Paul, the opportunity to train, coach and lead thousands of switched on and receptive people, all of whom are motivated to make a positive difference, is a career highlight:

“Having led OE across a range of sectors and industries, I can safely say that Serco’s public service ethos provides an optimum culture and energy for CI. There's a profound difference between seeking only to increase profits and striving to enhance social outcomes. To be part of it is very rewarding and a great honour.”

There are exciting and innovative opportunities on the horizon as Paul and his team work to keep Serco at the cutting edge of CI:

“At the heart of OE is the natural human instinct to improve. We’re not implanting that into Serco – it’s already there in abundance. We help the organisation empower and harness that instinct through a structured approach, tools and techniques. As the democratisation of technology accelerates, we hope to enable access to a growing range of specialised capabilities for our colleagues.”

An example of this is the use of low-code applications for process automation:

“Low-code applications can be developed by OE practitioners or business users to improve process flow in transactional environments, enabling a technology-driven approach to employee empowerment and CI – that’s the next step in our ongoing journey to ‘execute brilliantly’.”