Good management begins with Mama

Roger Trapp reports on the benefits of a 'touchy-feely' appraisal system
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The Independent Online
Every month, managers at Sun Valley Foods are judged by those working for and alongside them on their ability to match 14 behavioural criteria. For the producer of ready-made poultry dishes for the likes of Marks & Spencer, Asda and Tesco, this Monthly Anonymous Management Appraisal (Mama) is part of a fundamental effort to change the way it operates.

As human resources director Martin Wibberley explains, last year saw a "multi-pronged attack" designed to make production more efficient, simplify the management structure and change the organisational culture.

The changes followed a survey of the top 100 managers at the end of 1995 which showed that the company's disappointing performance appeared to stem from poor organisation at the top. "What we found we didn't much like," says Mr Wibberley. "The management population was not characterised by a lot of mutual trust."

He and his colleagues were worried that they had "a dysfunctional management population". So they decided to recruit Philip Cox Hynd, of the consultancy Harley Young, in a bid to put it right.

Mr Cox Hynd introduced Mama, a PC-based voting system that tests the extent to which individual managers live up to 14 aspects of behaviour considered to represent the company's five core values of honesty, openness, trust, integrity and commitment. Two of the aspects are: promoting humane working hours and honouring agreements by being punctual for meetings - both important in creating a positive office atmosphere.

Mr Cox Hynd, who has worked with organisations as diverse as Microsoft and the investment bank BZW, is a former actor who - with his psychotherapist wife, Annie - concentrates on what is commonly regarded as the soft side of management: people and relationships. His first step was to take the top 15 people in the company on a sort of retreat where they were encouraged to talk about their motivations, their concerns - and their colleagues.

By all accounts, it was not an easy experience, with a certain amount of anger and a few tears. But it helped the participants develop a better understanding of the people in whose company they spend most of their waking lives. The programme was then extended to the rest of the 100 senior people.

Moreover, those involved realised for themselves, admits Mr Wibberley, that "there was quite a lot about our behaviour that was totally dysfunctional". There were, for example, no rules of behaviour; and people accepted that because it was part of the culture.

Since the establishment of the five core values in the past year, the performance of the business has improved. But to make sure things don't slip, Mr Cox Hynd is still running sessions and the management is still being assessed.

Mr Cox Hynd emphasises that with this sort of "touchy-feely" approach, "you have to come up with measurements that can be taken seriously around the boardroom table".