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Case study Cougar Automation

October 2015

From best to
good practice HR:
Developing principles
for the profession
The CIPD is the professional body for HR and people
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Cougar Automation case study

Background and is led by the teams who are management team put a proposal
Cougar Automation is a medium- the closest to the customers, rather together: Either the whole
sized software engineering than being driven topdown by company sinks or we have to make
company, with regional offices the management. This diffused some changes. The two options
across the UK. In providing bespoke decision-making is supported were making colleagues redundant
software solutions to clients, the by democratic decision-making or everybody tightening their belts
organisation has opted to compete processes (including an election of and we ride it through.
based on the high quality of the company leader), appropriate
service, rather than the lowest cost. team structures (based on cultural It was put up for a vote, and
Building close relationships with fit as well as skills) and collective everybody decided that they
clients and delivering excellent reward systems. would take a salary sacrifice. I
service is, therefore, essential, and think that was the first big vote
is reflected in the organisational Achieving a democratic that we had in the organisation,
strategy and the way the work is organisational culture where it could affect the business
organised day to day. Involvement of staff in the as a whole. It was spelled out that
decisions that impact the everybody has to vote, and unless
Cougar Automation is managed organisation is a distinctive feature it was unanimous, unfortunately
by a leadership team made up of of the way Cougar Automation wed have to go down the
the company owner, chairman and is run. This way of working was redundancy route.
local business directors, who firmly demonstrated at a particularly
believe in the virtuous circle of happy difficult time during the recession. As a result of the vote everyone
people delivering a fantastic service, At the time, the company was chose to opt for the salary
creating happy customers, which struggling to maintain cash flow sacrifice, with the higher earners
drives profitability. The employees and was forced by the creditor taking the biggest cut and those
are viewed as the starting point of to make more cuts to remain in on the lowest salary losing
the value chain and as one of the operation. nothing, cultivating a feeling of
organisational stakeholders. One being all in it together. Since
business leader explains: Recognising the drastic impact then transparency and employee
that further cuts would have on involvement in decision-making is
Its all about the customer service. staff, the leaders decided it was one of the principles for Cougar
Theres a system integrator like us important to involve them in the Automation. For example, the
in every town, so its quite hard to decision. Although the cuts were company council is used as one
differentiate yourself, unless we unavoidable to keep Cougar in of the channels to provide a full
deliver fantastic customer service. business, they realised there were view of different opinions on
Weve come to learn over time that different options to choose from various decisions, such as debating
an integral part of that is having in terms of how the impact would company benefits. The leaders
the people who are very happy, be shared by the employees. The attend the discussions to hear
and fulfilled, and trying their best. management presented employees peoples perspectives and then
We are trying very hard to create with two alternatives: making make a decision based on what is
an environment where people are redundancies, or agreeing a best for the business as a whole.
playing to their strengths. That in turn collective 10% salary sacrifice. One Another vehicle for employee
makes them perform better, which of the current employees said: voice is the staff intranet and
results in better customer experience. an annual employee satisfaction
When the recession came, we were survey, where the business leaders
In order to provide the right at the lowest point of the spend personally respond to all questions
environment for the cats as cycle in the water industry [that and comments about the way
Cougar employees are referred to the business relied on] so it hit us Cougar Automation is run.
the business planning is flexible quite heavily financially. And the

1 From best to good practice HR: Developing principles for the profession case study
The core philosophy The leadership team commented
on the value that employee
managers is to motivate the
team just grease the wheels
of Cougar voice brings to making the right enabling people to do what they
decisions for the organisation: do best. A salary belt system
Automation is that rewards people based on merit,
This doesnt mean we always give with individuals moving up as their
decisions should be a yes answer on the suggestions value to the business increases.
made by the most that are made. But we must explain
why were taking the decision were One of the team leaders said:
capable, rather taking, and how we came to that
decision. The question might get The progression with the belt
than through an referred to the company council, so system is down to the individual.
a selection of employees across the Some people progress at that
arbitrary hierarchy. company will discuss it, and then very, very slowly because theyre
there might be a resounding no. not very ambitious; thats fine,
So we have to be consistent. they just want to come in, theyve
been doing this job for ten years,
There have been a couple of they love coming in and theyre
occasions where things were put on solving the problems, thats
for discussion at the company council fine. Other people are very, very
[and the leadership team thought] ambitious, always pushing for more
people were going to love this, but responsibility, for more experience
the discussion showed they didnt. So, more knowledge. They battle
had we decided as a leadership team through it pretty quickly but all
to go ahead with that, without asking we do is just judge them on their
the staff, it would have been hated skills, capabilities and their value to
within the company. the business, where their value will
Devolved decision-making
The core philosophy of Cougar The high degree of mutual
Automation is that decisions trust between the business
should be made by the most and the employees requires an
capable, rather than through an environment which supports
arbitrary hierarchy. Being closest to individual ability to perform.
the customers, teams set their own
targets and decide how to achieve All salaries, team performance and
them, including being responsible employee feedback are visible to
for their own budgets. This is everyone, which creates a high
why Cougars recruitment and level of autonomy and individual
management systems are set up to responsibility for performance.
encourage people to play to their People are trusted to be
strengths and to reward talent and professional in their behaviours
hard work. and are empowered to make their
own decisions and choose their
The organisations flat structure way of working, as long as they
provides people with opportunities achieve the end goal. One example
to move across teams or to of this is that no authorisation is
become project managers, required for holiday or expenses.
according to their individual The culture of trust and open-
strengths and ambitions. In this book management encourages the
structure team leadership is not employees to think of it as their
viewed as an upward step, but company and are all committed
rather a different set of skills to making it a success, which is
that an individual might wish to reflected in the levels of service
develop. The role of the project delivered to the customers.

2 From best to good practice HR: Developing principles for the profession case study
Similarly, the teams are responsible
for their own recruitment,
what you need to get the job done,
within reason, obviously. Theres
where new skills are required no issues about, Go and raise an and progression
to deliver projects effectively, order, get your boss to sign it, get
and determining the amount his boss to sign it and all this. are discussed
they spend on training and Theres none of that.
reward in balance with achieving collectively,
profitability targets. Development
and progression are discussed
Key findings
The vision at Cougar Automation
depending on the
collectively, depending on the (happy cats, happy customers, contribution of
contribution of each of the team eliminate waste) is illustrated by
members to the overall goal. the figure below. This is enabled each of the team
One project manager explains: members to the
We all work for the same goal.
commitment to employee
happiness, expressed in
overall goal.
Obviously in our team we have autonomy and flexibility at work
our principles which all of us work collective culture, fostered
towards; as long as the project through organisational
doesnt suffer, the customers structures and job design
happy, how we get there is up to democratic decision-making,
us. So as far as Im concerned they where the people closest to the
could all go and work on the golf customers are empowered to
course if they want. make key decisions
a reward and development
All the bureaucracy has been structure that supports
pushed to one side, and we just individuals in playing to their
focus on getting the job done, and strengths.
do whatever needs to be done
to get to the end result. Just get

Better pay and benefits


More opportunities Happier

Increased customers More
customer flexible
retention working
share of More empowerment
More confidence
Profitable Closer to
growth Learning customer

Make more Good word

money on of mouth Reduce Deliver
sustainable basis prices better
New More local
customers offices
failure Reduce
Reduce Bigger Increase lead time
risk customer quality
costs Become Improve
Cash for More support operation
investment Sales effort more lean

margins Cash for

3 From best to good practice HR: Developing principles for the profession case study
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Issued: October 2015 Reference: 7124 CIPD 2015