Pioneering lean thinking in hotels
CASE STUDY – Dreamplace Hotels in Tenerife have been on an improvement journey for several years, but only recently did they find a way to truly become a learning organization: lean thinking.
Words: Juan Pedro Gonzalez Garcia, Operations Director, Marco López, General Director, and Francisco Marrero Almeida, HR Director, Dreamplace Hotels – Tenerife, Spain
Our quest for a better way of managing our hotels began, as it has for many organizations around the world, when the economic crisis started to bite. Our first answer to the adverse market conditions – and the first phase in our transformation – was to try and identify our main problems and improve what we refer to as micro-processes. We focused on this for two years, during which we improved a lot.
As part of our improvements, we kept cutting waste and unnecessary resources. This is great in itself, so long as the customer experience doesn’t suffer as a result. When we began to see a negative impact on the quality of service, we realized the need to adopt another approach. Only fixing the process wouldn’t take us far; instead, we had to find a way to engage our people in the continuous improvement of the business.
That’s when the second phase of our journey began. With our Plan Talento initiative, we began to develop problem-solving and decision-making capabilities in our people. With over 700 people working for Dreamplace Hotels, we couldn’t expect to be able to control everything that was going on, let alone tell a cleaner or a dishwasher how to do their job. Plan Talento continued for around five years, after which we integrated it into our lean transformation.
In the past three years, we have been working with Instituto Lean Management to infuse lean thinking into our organization. Building on the process work we had already done and on the systematization that we had achieved, we are finally in a position to look for talent across the business and find a way to replicate it. We began to observe the work with new eyes, and finally understood how to effectively develop the problem-solving capabilities of our people. In the past, we used to make rushed decisions, whereas now A3 thinking and data are giving us a way to reach agreement and implement solutions everyone is happy with.
THE CHANGE WE UNDERWENT AS LEADERS
Lean gives people the confidence to raise problems without fear and creates in everyone a sense of urgency around the idea of change. At Dreamplace, this only happen because we ourselves have changed as leaders. Our relationship with employees was always positive, but it was still based on old-school command-and-control. Over time, we have learned to empower people to make decisions by asking them the right questions, rather than spoon-feeding them the solutions.
We still have a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to changing the mindset of some in middle management. To get there, we have understood that we need to stop making decisions we are not supposed to make, let people work and expect results from them based on the KPIs we have established.
We have gone through a big transformation as a management team, not just as individuals. For one, we are looking at long-term goals, not just quick gains. Furthermore, now that we have begun to ask more questions at the front line, we are learning to be open to sharing our own mistakes within our team. We need to set the example for the rest of the organization, after all.
We are also learning to coach one another. Each of us have strengths and weaknesses and we believe it’s important we learn to complement each other, if we are to help ourselves to succeed as a team. An immediate consequence of this was that we have been able to show people across the business that no matter who you talk to in our five-strong management team, you’ll always get the same answer. This isn’t to say that we are constantly in agreement from the get-go, but that it’s important that we reach consensus in our decisions, so that we can approach the rest of the business with one voice. As a united front.
THE CUSTOMER AT THE CORE
The hotel industry has changed beyond recognition. Guests now expect an experience when they visit a hotel, and this has forced us to change the way we interact with them – starting from the way in which we ask for their feedback. We no longer ask them whether or not they found the food to be tasty, for example; instead, we ask them how their “culinary experience” was. This gives us much more information on how we can improve, because it touches on things like the level of the noise in the restaurant and the ambiance. These days, we pay attention to details we would have ignored years ago. For instance, we recently contracted a London DJ to come and create a number of set lists that we play in different parts of the hotel at different times of the day. We have even started to measure things like the quality of sleep!
By helping us to solve problems once and for all, lean thinking is giving us the time to focus more on the customer experience. It’s been great to see the focus of our people’s A3s move from things that improve their lives to things that improve the experience of customers. It was yet another reminder of how important it is to ensure that the customer experience features prominently in our approach to people development.
Our approach to capability development has also changed greatly since we have embraced lean thinking. For example, we have simplified the system we were using to assess the skills of our people, by involving the heads of the different departments. We can’t build the evaluation tool for a cook without involving the manager of the restaurants! In this sense, the role of HR has evolved somehow, to become one of coordination and facilitation: we align the evaluation system with what we want to achieve in terms of customer experience. Using this system, we have built a map of the skills we have, to see immediately who needs to develop what capabilities in what department. It’s a great way of knowing where we are.
Just over a year ago, we started the process of cross-pollination among our hotels – for instance, we move key people from one hotel to another, and we get our sub-groups together regularly to share their A3s and learn together. This is by far the most important thing we are doing in terms of knowledge sharing, and it’s clear that it is allowing us to achieve results much faster than we used to.
Our biggest accomplishment to date is perhaps the deep transformation that our work environment has undergone: not only have people stopped focusing on non-value-adding activities (like scheduling shifts), but they are also approaching their work with their brains switched on. They are very engaged, and that’s because lean in many ways forces you to make a choice between tapping into your potential or just coming to do your thing and going home. In other words, it forces you to plug in your brain. Is there any other way to transform a culture?