Thinking radically differently to transform property services. Ray Jones, Group Managing Director at property services company Liberty, discusses how systems thinking can add greater value for both clients and customers.
Across the property services industry there are exciting opportunities to rethink traditional ways of working and bring fresh ideas to the sector. The need to boost efficiency continues to be a challenge for contractors, as clients are looking to the industry to demonstrate how it can continually add value.
At Liberty, we believe added value is not just about driving down cost – it’s about rethinking the way we work and building partnerships to make sure that investments and resources are targeted where they are needed most. Our commitment as a contractor working across all areas of property services, including gas servicing, mechanical and electrical and repairs and maintenance, is always to work in a way that is smart and straightforward. Our approach is to do the correct work for the customer at the right time – every time.
Systems thinking, using the Vanguard Method, focuses on economising how we work to remove unnecessary processes and increase the effectiveness of our service to deliver better outcomes for customers and clients.
We continuously check how we do things and gain a greater insight into our business by taking an ‘outward-in’ approach to view services from the customer’s point of view. We listen to colleagues to understand what is working and what isn’t and empower them to make the right decisions for the customer.
Liberty’s experience so far has demonstrated that this approach makes sense if all parties have the trust, openness, time and commitment to a different approach.
In partnership with clients, Liberty is successfully using systems thinking, and hybrids of, to deliver contracts more effectively.
Systems thinking in practice
Working with Portsmouth City Council, Liberty is responsible for the gas boiler installation, servicing and maintenance of approximately 15,000 homes.
Using a systems thinking approach, we worked in partnership with the council to map out their processes for every job. We talked to employees, customers, suppliers and shadowed jobs from when they were called through to the council, to completion.
This allowed us to identify any areas in our processes that were wasteful and didn’t add value. Right from the outset of the contract, we were able to develop a new way of working that was specifically built around the needs of customers. For example, a major part of the waste was engineers leaving customers’ homes to get parts or to book replacement part jobs in for another day.
We recognised this was a crucial area to introduce change to meet our ambition of completing the right work every time and delivering more in each visit. We implemented a new system that has two key changes:
Firstly we adopted a multi-skilled approach that allowed a single gas engineer visiting the property to carry out installations, repairs and servicing that previously would have required involvement from three specialists.
Secondly, arrangements were made for delivery drivers to transport the parts needed to our engineers if they were not available from their van stock.
These two interventions allowed engineers to complete more work in one visit, saving time, minimising disruption and most importantly, significantly improving customer satisfaction.
Smart and straightforward
The changes the systems thinking approach has helped us to identify are simple, smart and highly effective. For example, by talking and listening to customers, we have changed the way we book our annual gas checks to ensure we are using the method of contact that best suits them. In doing this, we found that 75% of all services could be completed within five days from first contact by calling customers to allow them to choose the time that is most convenient to them.
In Portsmouth, this alone allowed us to reduce the no access rate from 33% to just 8%, and allowed Portsmouth City Council to move from a ten month servicing cycle, to a genuine twelve month cycle, effectively saving Portsmouth City Council a whole years servicing budget over the term of the contract.
Open and transparent client relationships
A key asset is helping to build better partnerships with clients, suppliers and contractors by working together to understand every element of the customer journey. This builds trust and develops stronger relationships that respect the value that all parties bring.
Transparency and trust is crucial to systems thinking and can be improved through the wider adoption of open book accounting. This gives clients full visibility of commercial information and supports a partnership approach, which has sadly deteriorated within the sector over the recent past.
With Portsmouth, Liberty has taken this approach to share the benefits of cost savings made through systems thinking interventions. This has allowed Liberty to deliver works outside of the scope of the original contract, paid for fully by the cost savings made elsewhere. This open and transparent relationship has also saved Portsmouth City Council significant procurement costs when they chose to extend the contract to its 10-year term and they have also been able to reduce costs associated with administration required for service booking to zero as this is now handled by Liberty.
The partnership approach has developed an apprenticeship programme, which has been operating for more than eight years. As a result of this programme 50% of the engineers now working on the contract are ex-apprentices.
With big changes on the way for our industry, we need to be ready and agile in our responses. I believe that systems thinking is one way that we can enable the sector to achieve this.
This is an exciting time for property services to be dynamic, responsive and to transform traditional ways of thinking to deliver long-term value and benefits for clients and their customers.