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Multichannel Thomas The Tank Engine

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Category : Blogs

A story of production and productivity

Like all children’s TV programmes, the story was underpinned with an educating message. In this case, the engines must be useful – their ultimate worth is seen in terms of production and productivity.

The story follows the good steam engines and the bad diesel engines, and the plot revolves around the diesel engines’ plan to take over the clean and tidy steam shed.

The bad engines manage to persuade good-hearted steam engine Percy to go to their own dirty shed and bring some of his friends with him to help tidy it up. But the bad diesels reveal their true colours and imprison Percy and his friends in their own shed while they steal the steam shed. Thomas comes to the rescue and the steam engines confront the diesel engines.

In the end, the Fat Controller insists that the steam engines help the diesel engines to clean and tidy the dirty shed, and everyone is happy.

It struck me how the story mirrors how many companies have attempted to manage their new digital innovation teams and operations…

Innovation teams and the increasing need for multichannel operations

Innovation teams (either those building new products or services, or those looking to use rapid development techniques to improve and optimise existing business streams) are regularly set up and run as separate entities or departments within a company. This is often because the new teams require different skills or mindsets to those operating in a “business as usual” (BAU) manner.

However, this can also result in them being at odds with traditional teams, who don’t understand the new areas and see them as a threat (the steam engines view of the diesel engines), rather than focusing on their shared goal of meeting customer needs and how to integrate and understand how innovative ideas can help the business-as-usual teams, and vice versa.

Some companies have realised that these cross-company conflicts are not efficient when the end goal is the same; serving customer needs better. But that normally happens once the innovation teams have started to (or at least have been perceived to) deliver benefits back into the organisation as a whole. However, sometimes this can be too late, so there is an increasing need for multichannel operations, and for new and old teams to work together effectively.

Working together…

Many companies send innovation team members to other areas of the business, or embed BAU members within innovation teams. In the Thomas the Tank Engine metaphor, Percy represents a team member from the innovation area of the business going to an existing BAU area. He finds the new team to be crude and dirty, but he realises that it’s because the diesel engines haven’t had any help and they lack the traditional skills – which is why he brings his friends to help clean their shed.

Companies need to encourage an approach that focuses on meeting customer needs, to try and remove the competition between areas. In Thomas’ story, the two teams continue to work separately rather than integrating. It would be the responsibility of the Fat Controller to change this.  Unfortunately, there’s no way round this – the Fat Controller here would represent the Board!

Thomas the Tank Engine represents a cautionary tale for companies with innovation operations, and how they can best share knowledge across teams. Despite the utilitarian message that a happy organisation is one that works together and focuses on the end goal of meeting customer needs, it can be easily missed without the right environment.

Perhaps the Fat Controller should make sure the different teams of engines work together more regularly and rotate who does what to truly work effectively together.

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