Client: eprimo GmbH
Industry: Energy supply
Size: 1.4 million customers
More effective cooperation - A good start
at eprimo GmbH
Collaboration with Coverdale began for eprimo in 2008. The idea – and the challenge – was to establish a fitting vision and mission as well as suitable structures and forms of co-operation for the growing company. The rapid growth of the customer base was accompanied by an increasingly complex day-to-day business process, which required the capacity for rapid responses and sound decisions. The limitations of the firm’s hierarchical structure became clearly evident. During the progressive growth process since the takeover by RWE, the objective was to provide consulting and training support for the process of reorientation in the Operations Department headed by Ralf Friedrich beginning in 2014/15.
The aims of the process devoted to a strategic reorientation in support of more effective self-organization were:
- To involve employees in the reorientation process, enabling them to shape and develop it as much as possible and to encourage them to take on more responsibility.
- To support managers in the process of evolving from the role of decision-makers to that of advisors and coaches capable of delegating responsibility and to equip them with the corresponding management tools.
- To install standardized tools for efficient cooperation within the organization – the operating system.
... and thus to design leaner internal processes while pointing out perspectives for further development at the same time.
Interventions by Coverdale
At the outset, a guiding model consisting of the corporate vision, its mission and the basic principles of cooperation and the new management concept was developed in collaboration with employees.
Workshops for managers and line employees were then conducted on the basis of the model. These work-shops were combined with competence-enhancement training and individual coaching sessions. Reviews (consistently linked with topics covered in workshops and training sessions) are conducted four times per year, with guidance and support provided by Coverdale.
As the number of new customers continued to increase while staff size remained unchanged, the number of employees invested with more responsibility rose proportionately. These employees are happy with their new duties and grateful for the support they receive in their new roles. The regular reviews and the introduction of new fields of learning have given rise to a constant, fluid learning culture that strengthens managers in terms of their awareness as well as their decision-making and management skills.
“We turned the responsibility over to the teams and let them do what they needed to do. When we noticed that things were looking shaky, we didn’t hit the brakes and say, ‘That’s not working at all.’ Instead, we took the process a step further. Sure, there were risks involved in doing that. But things really did get better afterwards – not for everyone yet, but it is working. The fruits are already there to see.”
*1964, head of Operations and Portfolio Management at eprimo GmbH in Neu-Isenburg; training and studies in the German discount retail food trade; actively involved in the design of the liberalization of the electrical power market since 1998 and later in the gas market; responsible for the expansion of business operations at eprimo in response to the requirements of a constantly changing market environment and a progressively growing company since 2007.
Questions for Ralf Friedrich,
Head of the Operations and Portfolio Management Department at eprimo GmbH
You were first confronted with the issue of self-organization within the context of the in-house vision-development process set in motion by Board of Management Chairman Dr. Dietrich Gemmel. Do you remember those days?
Yes. We had only been here in Neu-Isenburg for a year. We had 15 to 20 percent of the customers we have today, and it was obvious that it was time to escalate. The challenge back then was to get the management team to commit to ensuring that a lot more would now happen than just drop-by-drop growth. We showed that it could be done relatively quickly. We reached the first million customer mark after two or three years. Welding this unit together under those circumstances and with many new people in the management team was truly an awesome process – supported by Coverdale.
So you would not refer to that point in time as the beginning of the self-organization process?
Oh yes, the beginning by all means. We had a goal, and everything worked wonderfully until we posted the first black zero. But then everything just kind of plodded along. I am confident that we can make the new goal in the process that is just now getting underway, emotionally graspable once again. We like working with images. The seafaring metaphor was introduced on Hanspeter’s and Coverdale’s initiative. That helped us get back to doing graspable things again.
Is there anything different or unusual about the current change process?
Something I find exciting and which really is different is the fact that the sense of responsibility we demand from our people has stopped them from just sitting there doing nothing. I recall phases during which I would explain things to the whole team and ask questions when I was done – and nothing would come from them. That is changing now. I think that is good, because it takes the fear out of the issue of change. That is one of the reasons why people react the way they do otherwise. When it is transparent, it gets put on the table, and you can talk about it and find solutions.
You explicitly rejected the “Big Bang” approach. Would you do that again?
Yes. We did not want to create a "Big Bang" and tear the whole place down. Customer service is the front runner – keyword Customer Service 4.0. Most everyone in the department has now climbed out of the hole and is actively confronting the new situation. A smaller group is still having trouble adjusting to the changes. And we will have to find solutions for that problem this year. The important thing is for every division and every department to find its own way and then proceed with small steps. A fully planned project for the next two years simply won’t work. I see that in the case of the subject of Scrum. My advice is this: Start moving, look where you stumble, and make sure you get rid of the traps. Retrospectives or reviews, as Coverdale calls them, are ideal tools for that purpose.
In what sequence have you addressed the issues in question?
We started to look at new methods and mechanisms in agile work environments in the Intralab early on: business model canvasing, lean start-ups etc. In one building (which is currently being remodeled) the working environments are much more open, and Customer Service will be moving there soon. The works agreements on working hours and workplaces are in place. Everyone has a laptop and a mobile phone, and work schedules have been relaxed. Employees are required to work 40 hours a week – period. Where doesn’t matter, although it should ideally be at the facilities of the service providers. We are currently working on an interdepartmental structure for a strategy for escaping from the silos. Another issue is the need to update the existing individual goal-agreement system.
Knowing what you know today, what advice would you give other organizations that are striving for more effective self-organization?
I’d begin by making sure to minimize risks. Then – at least in the case of organizations in our size range – I would always engage an outside consultant with the appropriate know-how. Then, the people responsible for the process have to get that into their heads. Being able to let go is very important in this context. And error culture is another keyword. People must be allowed to make a mistake once, but must then learn from it. If they make the same mistake again, it is probably time to take another look. That is the task that remains for a manager.
Your colleagues mentioned the ’eprimo spirit’ and emphasized that it should be maintained in the face of changes. What is so special and worth preserving about it?
These reservations exist because we have always tried to think and act in a solution-oriented manner. When I look ahead today, the world does not seem as clear and understandable as I would like it to be. That leads to hesitant decisions that are interpreted as showing a loss of ‘spirit’.
I was surprised to witness the honesty and openness that prevails in your department head meetings. Why is that openness necessary?
Maybe that is a matter of spirit as well. Work is not everything. There is home life and sports clubs etc., as well. I have to try to consider the personal matters we discuss in our quarterly department head meetings moderated by Hanspeter in order to be able to manage with an eye to specific situations. That is at least as important as knowing what colleagues have to offer in terms of professional expertise. And to exercise restraint or give people certain liberties here and there in recognition of such matters. And to know that it won’t help anyway to go on the attack because someone is going through a difficult personal situation.
How has your role as a manager changed?
There is one point that your Coverdale colleague reminds me about continually: the need to bow out of the operational sphere and take on more management duties. That is one area in which I have made progress. On the other hand, I have built an interdepartmental network of trusted colleagues – people I believe will always give me an honest answer. I take the time to listen to their worries and concerns. When you do that, you quickly reach the point at which things become painful, and you can deal with that much better on a horizontal plane.
How has cooperation within the teams changed?
We are already working in self-organized teams in Customer Service. That always sounds so wonderfully hierarchy-free, but of course it is not. They are hierarchy-free only in a disciplinary sense. When I work with a team I am a team member and am permitted to express my opinions. Decisions are made by consensus in Customer Service – and against my wishes or those of the department head, if need be. That is definitely one thing that works much better than I expected.
How would you define eprimo’s formula for success?
That brings me back to the idea of spirit. If the vision, the goal, is clearly defined, the rest largely takes care of itself with the existing group. We have experienced that in three or four cycles over the past twenty years. You have to have a clear picture of future goals and convey it to others. Then things will start to pop.
That is a great last word ... .
Isn’t it? I just occurred to me.