Council Transition Support Expert Interview: John Cawley, structural design and change management expert

LKS Quaero is offering a complete package of Council Transition Support for amalgamating NSW Councils. This is part of a series of interviews in which our transition expert team members pass on some key nuggets of advice.

John Cawley is a change management and structural design expert, with expertise in organisational and business function system design. A qualified and highly experienced mechanical engineer and manager, John has led a distinguished career as senior executive in vocational education and in private industry. He is a proven project manager across complex projects and an experienced Lean practitioner and facilitator. John is a former General Manager of a major supply organisation to the automotive and appliance industry sectors, with extensive experience in highly technical robotic automation manufacturing facilities. He has international presentation experience in new and emerging technology, green technologies, and logistics. Here is his structural design and change management advice for leaders of amalgamating NSW Councils.

What are the key systems design and change management challenges in an amalgamation?

The key change management challenge is to establish a cultural fit. Some years ago, when a manufacturing conglomerate I worked for acquired a group of companies, it took ten years to wind out the old culture and wind in the acceptance of the new culture. In order to successfully establish a new Council, you have to properly establish a new culture much faster than that. What that means is drilling down into knowing people: what are their values? Establishing the mission and values is really important: the mission establishes the boundaries around what you can and can’t do and the values determine who you are. Strategic planning is really the starting point for determining the strategic and cultural fit.

The key challenge of designing a system is to separate out the system and the process. Once you have your strategic plan, you need to link it in with the operational plan. Underpinning that are your systems and processes. Identify what systems you currently have and determine if you have the right ones to achieve your operational plan, the right processes to enable it, and the right people to drive it through. Those are the three crucial things: systems, processes, and people.

What design and change management opportunities should Council leaders look to seize?

Councils going through restructures will gain the most value by applying a Lean approach. Lean looks at your systems and processes, identifies waste, and helps you to determine what adds value and what is non-value. You will need to map the current state and the future state in order to determine what is of value to the customer and the community.

Most organisations concentrate on the value adds – which make up less than 10% of business costs. Because they don’t concentrate on the non-value adds, they can only get a 10% return. The bulk of the business costs sit in the non-value adds and Councils should look to that 90% for opportunities.

If you were a leader of a NSW amalgamating Council, what would be in your 30 day “action plan” to launch the amalgamation process?

Communication: it’ll make or break it. You need to have a sound communications strategy that involves constantly informing all the employees of what direction the Council is heading in – and you need to do it not once, not twice, but a hundred times. Employees need to see the General Manager/CEO on a regular basis – whether that’s weekly, fortnightly, or another basis – for a “horse’s mouth” approach. They need to be able to ask and get the right answer straight from the horse’s mouth. This avoids confusion, rumour, and low morale.

As for the broader strategy, it’s important to understand what the customer wants. The strategy has got to be customer-centric and that sets the platform for what you are going to do. You determine that by asking what why we’re here and for what purpose. That purpose sets the mission statement, the values, and the strategic statement that we’re making. All this needs to be determined with the leadership team right at the start of the process.

What else can leaders do to ensure the right, sustainable decisions are made for the long term?

Leaders need to engage with their stakeholders throughout the implementation process, both externally and internally. Constant feedback is vital, which is why leaders need to conduct constant consultation with staff. Establish a mechanism or avenues for people to make comment, capture all the comment coming in, and make a determination on each one in order to flush out any concerns that people have. Consultation should happen more frequently towards the beginning of the process and taper off towards the end.

A closed feedback loop is necessary: if you’re putting out the communications, they need to have the means of getting back to you. This is part of the prototyping process for Scrum (a methodology related to Lean): a short feedback loop so you can implement change iteratively. It helps you to start doing things earlier and also to deal with any problems earlier. You’ll constantly improve what you’re doing and, by engaging more knowledgeable people during the process, you’ll reduce risk.

How can you help with change management and structural design?

I have a lot of experience and knowledge of structure, looking at organisations and looking at the value that units provide to the organisation and to the customer. I do this at a deep level, not just a managerial one. I’ve been an apprentice, a tradesperson, a designer – a creator of things – but have also been in senior management. I can therefore drill down to a deep understanding as well as knowing the helicopter view. I’m a creative thinker with an engineering background and can take both a strategic and creative approach. I have experience in Lean over many decades and also have a post-graduate qualification in Lean Enterprise. I am not only an experienced, cost-effective project manager, but have also taught project management. In addition to assisting your organisation for the life of project, therefore, I can help transfer skills to your staff. Skills transfer is important: your organisation needs to be in complete control and know how to build long term sustainability, with the empowerment and ownership of decision making and responsibility.

At LKS Quaero, we offer support to new Councils across culture and leadership, strategy development, financial analysis and advice, industrial relations, structure and recruitment. Transitioning to a new entity represents a massive opportunity. It’s a chance to re-set the vision, strategy, and culture for a new organisation. At the same time, there are pitfalls to be avoided across all areas of operations. See our Council Transition Support page for more information. If you’d like to know more, visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.