I travelled by train last week. Up and down the country. I was in London for a UK National Health Service meeting and train was somewhere between my only and best option. There is much to admire in the NHS. And there is much to change and improve. Time will tell the benefit of our meeting last week, but the mere fact that NHS leadership are engaging with UK industry feels positive.
The people I spoke with were passionate and committed; interested and engaged. Some were NHS employees but most – like me – were representatives from related and associated industries. I left London pondering the challenge of changing and improving an organisation that employs over 1.7 million people (only surpassed by Wal-Mart apparently).
Every challenge and every opportunity is magnified in an organisation of 1.7M…let alone an organisation with 63 million clients and a budget in excess of £100 billion. How would you define the culture…let alone change it? How would you define the purpose…let alone measure performance? How would you assess customer satisfaction…let alone improve? If I were involved, what would I do? What would I focus on?
Travelling by train to and from the NHS was a fraught experience. I didn’t have as much control as I do when I drive, and I had to make more decisions for myself than I do when I fly. I travelled north from London late at night (hopelessly delayed). I travelled south from London in the middle of rush hour (exactly on time). I could see WiFi on my computer all the time; I was able to connect to WiFi about half the time; I could send and receive email for even less time. My cell phone couldn’t find any cells. I read. I slept. I thought.
I had booked ahead (dramatically cheaper seats) in a quiet coach (an apparent contradiction in terms). I planned my connection transfers from station to station…which inevitably were either too long and tedious, or too short and frantic.
When I drive I am mostly by myself in the car. With the radio. With my cell phone. When I fly I am by myself on a plane. With the cabin crew. With my email and movies. On the train I was with lots of people I didn’t know. In their space. Seemingly involved in their discussions.
The most enjoyable aspect of my train travel was the selection of coffee shops at every station. My worst was this forced interaction. I seemed to spend my time apologising (I have long legs), or declining (I am not interested). Quiet carriages ban cell phones – although no-one seems to have told people continually calling my fellow travellers – but yet passengers are seemingly free to enter into long and loud conversations with each other.
Catering on my trains was mixed. Sometimes surprisingly good; frequently not; always quite expensive; occasionally non-existent. But I do remember Leo. Leo pushed the catering cart on my train north (the late one). He made that journey bearable. He was amusing and he was engaging. He explained more about or delay than the train driver, and seemed to ask (and care) how everyone’s travel had been impacted.
He joked about the train coffee (he was right) and recommended the red wine (right again). He diffused the angry passenger; and informed the concerned traveller about alternative connections. He did it all with a smile.
He made a difference to me. He made an impact on me. I was impressed and grateful. Just before we arrived I made sure I found him, told him and thanked him.
The answer to my question then? It’s always the people.