Right Answers to Dumb Questions

Right Answers to Dumb Questions

There's only one thing Telstra director of productivity Hayden Kelly likes better than a dumb question - a dumber answer.

If there is one thing Telstra director of productivity Hayden Kelly excels at, it is asking dumb questions. Questions like: Why is this process always done that way? Why can't we improve that process by changing this?

And when the answer is as dumb as the question, Kelly reckons he has struck gold. In Kelly's book, dumb questions and the dumb answers they generate serve the incredibly useful purpose of shining a light on flawed thinking, failed assumptions and rigid practices that have long ceased to serve the organisation. "I love answers like: 'Because we always have' and 'We can't do it because the previous manager said we couldn't'. Those sorts of answers always constitute an opportunity," Kelly says.

Kelly has asked plenty of dumb questions and found numerous opportunities since taking up the post as director of the Productivity Directorate four years ago, charged with finding efficiencies and improving productivity across the full gamut of Telstra businesses and guiding Telstra towards adoption of the process management using Six Sigma discipline. Six Sigma is a rigorous and disciplined methodology that uses data and statistical analysis to measure and improve a company's operational performance by identifying and eliminating "defects" in manufacturing and service-related processes.

Telstra has been well rewarded by Kelly's probing - areas from fleet management through fraud control to forensics and special investigations have found ways to adapt and improve under his tutelage. The dumb questions have paid off in considerably diverse areas of activity across the company.

For instance, an early project led to the establishment of a preferred list of just five firms to supply all of Telstra's IT contract labour for the next three years, an initiative which is delivering Telstra improved processes, better value for money and improved accountability. A similar initiative saw Telstra develop umbrella agreements for key suppliers of IT professional services, a move which is helping Telstra save by delivering projects to market, faster and at reduced administration and legal cost. Those latter decisions followed an extensive tender process conducted by Telstra's corporate sourcing department, under the guidance of the Productivity Directorate.

Another project, to speed the repair time of broken or faulty mobile phones, is on target to save $2.4 million over three years, with improved fault repair performance estimated to save $15 million over three years. And a move towards providing online human relations (HR) processes and information about annual leave entitlements, paperless pay slips and the process for salary reviews, incentives and performance ratings has cut costs and improved productivity.

Also, Telstra has proved so successful in boosting the performance of its fleet drivers by extending the principles of workplace heath and safety into the driver's seat, that it has earned national recognition at the Australasian Fleet Managers Association (AFMA) awards.

And there's more - much, much more. It is a pretty broad remit, but Kelly's ultimate ambition is to do himself, and his office, out of a job.

"In five years' time I would hope that there is no Productivity Office," he says. "I would hope that all business units are responsible for their own process management using the Six Sigma program. I would think that there will still need to be some coordination across the top, but not being needed to be driven the way it's driven now. I would see that we would become like a General Electric - in that those staff who have been trained, particularly those younger ones, are the real influencers in the company. And if a process or a business initiative isn't commercial, well it just doesn't fly."

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