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From hard hats to hair nets…


Recently we have been working with senior leaders at Arla UK on one of their most significant capital investments; the construction, successful commissioning and operation of a new mega-dairy on the outskirts of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Arla UK has an ambitious growth strategy and this new one-billion litre fresh milk dairy is directly in line with the company’s growth and environmental commitments, aiming to be the first zero carbon milk processing facility in the world.

We got involved because the people responsible for making this amazing project a reality had already anticipated where the biggest challenge was likely to be: in the behaviours and culture they created.

As with most capital projects, there is an inherent tension between those who build and those who use, particularly when they are reporting to different parts of the business with different budgets and P&L responsibilities. This overarching context, and the pressures therein, combined with an engineering-focussed team and a community that is gradually transitioning from hard hats to hair nets, is almost perfect for creating behaviours that are short term and egocentric, with little incentive to invest in relationships. In effect, the leaders, and the working community they are responsible for, can easily forget they are all working for the same company.

Our challenge was to help them create a One Team culture that would shape their predictable routines, their shared narrative and their behavioural rituals – a living, breathing way of working that transcended specialism, ego and petty politics.

And one autumnal day, it all started in a soggy field overlooking the Aylesbury Vale, when we gathered the initial team together with a local historian and environmental specialist, and we built from there; with team workshops focussing on behaviour and engagement, insightful observation and feedback in team meetings and individual performance coaching, over the best part of a year. The leadership team ebbed and flowed, the faces changed and the group evolved as the milk silos rose out of the ground and the mud receded, but the One Team ethos and behavioural commitments (by and large) stayed constant.

Eleven things we learned along the way:

  • Work hard with the most senior Project Lead and most senior Operations Lead – get them completely aligned on the principles of working together
  • Both Project Lead and Operations Lead must be wholeheartedly and visibly involved from the start
  • Any perceived divergence of intent or action between them will be magnified through the entire team and be used as permission to blame others
  • Wholly involve key support functions that are not located on site (such as IT, HR and Finance) so they “feel” the project just as much as those with mud on their boots
  • Agreed “ways of working” must be defined really, really clearly – particularly for detail-oriented engineers and project managers
  • Cultural rituals embed agreed behaviours – meaningful “checking in” at meetings, effective and clear behavioural routines for dealing with dilemma, conflict and uncertainty
  • Emphasise the impact and consequences of decisions made now on team members who have not even joined yet – making their lives easier or harder?
  • A clear and obvious shared narrative to help new team members “belong” quickly – in this case an entire wall dedicated to an informal timeline
  • Create cultural permission, and expect competency, to give and receive immediate performance feedback that includes “how”, not just “what”
  • A One Team ethos gets even harder to maintain when defined sub-groups move out of a shared Project Office
  • Successful capital projects are more than “cost, quality, time” equations; they are “performance culture, evolving community and higher purpose” equations too.

For more information about our wider work with Arla, click here.


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