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The Story Of How A Telecom Giant Reinvented Itself Using Semco Style Principles

Among the first occasions I implemented my training in the Semco Style principles was within a customer team at KPN, the biggest telecom company in Holland. The team was responsible for aggregating services created within KPN for a long-term client, UWV - a semi-governmental organization responsible for employment and social security in the Netherlands. The customer team was the first point of contact for UWV and the back office within KPN, and there were about 125 people performing various roles in this setting.

It was April 2016 when I got involved in this project and some of the main issues were dipping customer service, frequent outages in the IT infrastructure and, delayed delivery of new projects due to lack of cooperation within KPN.

The situation gained importance because the 10-year contract between UWV and KPN was up for its 4-year evaluation in November and they were reluctant to renew it. We were roped in to use the Semco Style approach to

  • increase the fun people had at work
  • reduce the perceived pressure
  • and, turn things around in half a year.

Now that I’ve established the context, here are the measures we took:

We invited all the 125 employees to join us for a day-long meeting but attendance wasn’t mandatory. Before the meeting, we also sent out ‘The Selfie’, a survey based on the Semco Style assessment. It was sent to about 450 people - those who worked on the customer team as well as those who worked for other customers. The 160 responses we received helped us understand how employees perceived things like trust, organizational control and workplace happiness.

Finding Common Ground, Trust And More


The first meeting was attended by about 50-55 people and we began by creating a life history line and asking people to draw their personal and professional milestones. Since some of them were former UWV employees, we also asked them to mark the major milestones they remembered within either companies. The exercise acquainted people who’d been working for the same customer, for years together, but had never met before. Then, we introduced the Semco Style principles and fueled the discussion with insights drawn from the survey.

The survey results showed that although people were very engaged with the customer, they remained reactive and felt unsafe within the company. In fact, right at the beginning of the meeting, someone asked us: "What’s your plan?” and we said: “We do not have a plan”, and he said, “Well, that’s great because then I want to stay!”

The exchange showed that people were fed up with improvement plans and managers telling them to work harder to please the customer. What they really wanted was to think along with their managers about how they could make the customer happier.

About then, the group came up with the idea of showcasing the purpose and achievements of every team for the benefit of all stakeholders - employees, managers and the customer themselves. We wound things up with 8-9 people volunteering to help teams prepare for the next meeting.

What Went Right And What Didn’t

The invitation to the second meeting was kept open for all too. While some people who’d attended the first meeting couldn’t make it, there were many new attendees who wanted to know what all the buzz was about. The main objective was to build on the awareness that we had a mutual customer; we wanted to improve service levels; and to get the contract renewed. The meeting was also attended by two service managers from the customer side. For next two hours, all teams visually presented

  • their core purpose
  • the main product/ service they delivered
  • their input and output in relation to a chain of service delivery, and
  • the achievements they were proud of.

Everyone, including the two customer representatives, walked around the room understanding what each team was responsible for. Although it was a great opportunity for teams to talk about and feel proud of the work they’d done, it also made them aware of the gaps that were causing problems.

When we asked the customer representatives to share their opinions, we were a little shocked: Unless KPN teams improved the way they communicated with each other, and with UWV, the customer wasn’t going to resign the contract. An example they gave involved the team responsible for a sharepoint implementation.

While the team thought the implementation was very successful, the UWV service manager talked about how 200 of their employees couldn’t work in the sharepoint environment because they didn’t receive proper communication. Additionally, KPN’s service desk also reported being left out of the loop, which meant that when something went wrong, they couldn’t properly help customers who’d dialled in for assistance.

Prioritizing Self-Interest


The example helped us better explain self-interest using the Semco Style framework: When people explicitly align their self-interests with each other, they can count on things going according to plan. In order to achieve stakeholder alignment, teams need to consider the self-interests of everyone involved. In this example, the sharepoint team was enthusiastic about shortening the line of communication with the corresponding UWV team. But they forgot the interests of all the other teams that add value to the process.

Now that it was clear how UWV perceived KPN’s service levels, we began identifying the teams involved in each issue and laid out their presentations for everyone to see. It helped us chronologically understand the flow of service and pinpoint the problem areas.

We identified 18 improvement areas and people volunteered to take ownership of each of those areas. While some ideas were basic, like creating a communication scheme or understanding who’s who in a service chain, there were more complex initiatives like, shortening the line of departments or cutting out waste in the change management process.
The customer representatives were involved in all this discussion and we felt confident that they reflected their concerns well.

We didn’t stop there: The people who’d volunteered to take ownership over the 18 improvement areas were coached in defining the end-result they were striving towards. In my experience, when people aren’t sure if an initiative is succeeding, they forget about it or put it on the backburner. To avoid that, we gave them the metrics with which they could measure the success (or, failure) of their efforts and it got people thinking on a deeper level.

A Case Study In Change

To introduce some fun into the exercise, we set up a Christmas tree at office in the middle of summer. We wrote down all the 18 improvement plans on white ornamental balls and hung them up on the tree. As and when we solved a problem, we replaced the white ball with a real ornament. The plan was to have a fully decorated Christmas tree before the year-end, which signalled not just a renewed contract with UWV but also a time for everyone to celebrate the success.

Personally, the greatest improvement I saw was the removal of an entire department in an effort condense things. The people who worked there weren’t fired, but reassigned to other teams they could add value to. It happened because the people who were responsible for shortening the line of departments and improving the change process worked with each other and enabled everyone to skip an entire step in the process by removing said department.

All of a sudden, people had greater ownership of their calendars, were more involved in figuring out what the customer really needed, the wait times were shortened and the customer got more quality in the change they requested. It was really amazing!

The good news is that the customer resigned the contract in November - though not solely because of our intervention. However, the customer felt that KPN had reinvented itself and the pilot project had really helped increase customer satisfaction.

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