Hope you are all well and managed to enjoy some sunshine over the Easter break. April seems to have flown by!
Three things have really encouraged me this month: the progress we have made on “positive reinforcement” as a way of training our guide dogs; the feedback we have had from the 1000+ colleagues we reached and listened to on our recent local roadshows; and the talent and creativity in our organisation.
A couple of years ago I visited some of our sister guide dog organisations in the USA. I was struck particular by the work being done in Portland, Oregon, where the team there were training guide dogs in about 8 to 12 weeks using positive reinforcement and process improvement techniques. I was convinced that the way forward for us in the UK was not to copy but to develop “our way” of introducing these techniques. Our work to integrate early and advanced training of our guide dogs had already reduced our average training times from 32 weeks to around 24 weeks, so last year we started a “positive reinforcement” pilot……this month I learned that the first of these pilot guide dogs were up and running and working out there with their new owners. Their training having been completed in…….13 weeks!
Now, I receive and deal with a fair number of complaints (and sometimes congratulations) about our services; a few days after I learned about the results of the pilot, completely unsolicited, I received the following email:
Dear Mr. Vaid
Having recently completed my training I am now the very proud and grateful owner of a Guide Dog for the Blind or partially sighted.
I would like to take this opportunity to let you, and your colleagues know just how this wonderful opportunity has changed my life for the better.
You will, no doubt. receive many such letters like this, but I would particularly like to express my thanks to the trainers who helped me along this path to ownership of a beautiful, well trained dog (Black Labrador, Joe).
From Justin, who originally interviewed me at home in a very kind, sensitive manner, to all the staff I met at the Euston office, they were unfailingly friendly and polite.
I would particularly like to recommend Luke, whose patience and good humour to me (and the others on the course) was at all times exceptional during my training week at the Ibis hotel in Euston, plus the following week at my home learning my specific routes, thus making it a serious but fun 2 weeks.
I understand that Rob actually trained Joe and it’s thanks to his patience that Joe has turned out to be such an obedient, loving working dog.
Once again, my grateful thanks. Please feel free to pass on my comments and observations to all concerned.
What I guess Betty didn’t know was the significance of this letter and the fact that Joe had been trained in 13 weeks! The letter is also an amazing testament to the skills, empathy, humour and dedication of our staff — not just our colleagues in London, as I truly believe this is representative of all our colleagues at Guide Dogs. So, really well done to everyone — this is a milestone for us!
Feedback and Talent
One of my deeply held beliefs is that the best ideas come from people who actually do the work. Over the past few weeks my exec team colleagues and I have been outlining the challenges and opportunities ahead for us as an organisation. I think we reached over 1000 colleagues — maybe around 80% of our employed staff (don’t worry, volunteers, we have not forgotten about you and your valuable contribution, we are working out ways of getting to you too!).
I have lost count now of the number of emails and corridor conversations I have had with colleagues who have told me that they now understand where we are going, what they need to think about in terms of their contribution, and in many instances how re-energised they feel about our work. This has been backed up with ideas for cost efficiency coming out of the woodwork that we had never imagined or considered. A great step forward. This is the power of face to face communication; but as we all know it cannot stop with one roadshow, or one site visit, me and my team will need to do much more to systematically listen to everyone across our charity.
With the positives there are also challenges; and the main areas I will be focusing my team on in the coming weeks will be around the following major themes that cause concern to our colleagues:
· Our complex and onerous appraisal process
· The amount of emails and communications material everyone receives
· A perceived disconnect between central and local teams
· How we lead and deal with operational ups and downs
· Difficulties associated with training and professional development
If we can solve these (and other issues) and build on the amazing skills of our staff (as highlighted by Betty, above) then we will definitely be on the road to being truly world class.
Finally, I would like to say a massive thanks to all of you who have encouraged me in my role as Acting Chief Exec — your support, messages, and warmth has been unbelievable and really appreciated; especially so when I have to explain to my son Alf that I will be out before he wakes up and won’t be back to read the Octonauts to him (but, hey, isn’t Captain Barnacles a superstar!).
Finally, my soundtrack for the month: Jamie xx; Peter and the Wolf, op 67, Prokofiev; Florence and the Machine; Blondie; and Johnny Cash!
Have a great month all!