Changing an organization’s culture is one of the most complex challenges that a business leader will ever face.

But there are times when a cultural shift is essential for a business to survive and grow. That’s precisely the challenge facing HumanSystems® (HSI®), a Guelph-based consulting and applied research company focused on improving the performance and well-being of people in complex systems.

Founded in 1982 by Bob Webb, a former British Army engineer officer and University of Guelph professor, the company has a well-established reputation for developing innovative solutions to complex problems involving people, performance and technology, particularly in the defence sector. However, over time the company’s concentration on defence work made it vulnerable.

“In business terms, we became overexposed to the economic swings associated with defence sector budgeting,” says Webb. “For a long time, we’ve wanted to reduce our vulnerability by leveraging the experience gained during our defence R&D work to diversify to other sectors but remained challenged about how to achieve this.”

To help figure out how to make that happen, HSI® turned to Innovation Guelph. Starting with workshops at IG on topics such as storytelling and marketing communications, HSI® also enrolled in the Fast Lane program that provides diagnostic and tune-up services to help established companies identify problems and overcome barriers to growth.

“Part of our challenge is, our team is made up of specialists in fields such as kinesiology, psychology, engineering, and biomechanics, and we all like doing technical work,” Webb says. “We relied for marketing on the idea that if you do good work people will beat a path to your door. That’s not proactive, it’s reactive. But it worked for a long time.”

With 15 to 18 staff and a network of research associates, HSI® handles 30 to 50 projects a year: analyzing, defining and understanding complex issues; collaborating with other technical specialists to solve organizational and technical challenges with human users in mind; testing and evaluating equipment from the user’s perspective; developing and evaluating custom e-learning and training programs. The guiding principle in all their work is that people are the most important part of any system.

“Often when developing a new product or system, or purchasing equipment, the users don’t receive the same level of initial attention as the technology, and so you don’t notice shortcomings until it’s too late,” says Webb.  “One way or another, over the life of the system that costs: in terms of performance or safety or additional training or time and money spent making adjustments. Our role is to help clients avoid those ‘if we’d only known’ regrets by identifying and resolving individual and organizational challenges during the design, development or purchasing process.”

Working with IG mentors Steve Barrett and Niel Palmer, the company has begun the process of shifting from a highly technical mindset, well-attuned to navigating the complexities of government contracting, to a proactive, profit-oriented approach needed to serve a more diversified client base.

But change doesn’t come easy, and Palmer praises the HSI® team for being open to the possibilities.

“Half the battle has been getting the organization to accept that, ‘We need to do things differently’,” Palmer says.  “They understand that there are new markets out there but it’s difficult to pivot and create new revenue streams while still paying attention to the core business.”

“This is like turning a big ship around. You start to feel like you’re making progress but it takes a long time until you’re actually pointing in the direction that you want to be headed.”

To help HSI® plot a new course, Barrett and Palmer recommended a 90-day “strategic sprint” designed to break up a long, complex change process into focused, achievable goals. The first sprint involved taking a critical look at areas such as: defining the ideal client; value propositions; communications and marketing practices; sales and billing processes, human resources and more.

“The 90-day sprint allows you to focus on the items that you need to focus on now,” says Palmer. “The sprints help keep everybody on the same page and minimize distractions caused by other longer-term projects or priorities,” he adds.

Key issues are tackled at weekly “Tiger Team” meetings — an approach that emphasizes frank discussions, intense focus, out-of-the-box thinking, and short timelines.

“With this company, it’s not just about identifying particular problems — it’s about a cultural shift. The cultural shift needs to gain traction internally in order for the company to become efficient at identifying and exploiting new opportunities. That’s why these 90-day sprints are so important. You’ve got to keep your eye on the ball, focus on the target, get some things done, and move on,” Palmer explains.

The Tiger Team group has made considerable progress and recently began their third 90-day sprint.  The team is adapting a LEAN management approach to streamline their business processes, improve productivity and focus on client needs. They are also working to better align the goals and expectations of the technical/field staff with the business/administration side of the organization and establishing a dedicated professional services marketing team.

“Making the right changes requires good data,” says Chris Ste-Croix, a senior consultant at HSI® who is shifting into a marketing role. “We’re developing the processes to look at that data which will then give us the knowledge we need to improve our practices so we can become more efficient, more effective, and more profitable.”

“The value or return on investment (ROI) of the company’s expertise in promoting performance, safety and efficiency in defence systems is transferable to other systems. While this transfer of knowledge is most readily recognized by other high risk sectors such as utilities, and emergency services where human performance is critical to avoid catastrophic failure, it is also relevant anywhere people work, live or play. Our great challenge in expanding to broader markets is to explain this potential ROI in terms that resonate with managers in other sectors,” says Ste-Croix.

“From a business perspective, shifting to a more balanced, diversified client base will make the company’s revenue stream more sustainable during swings in demand across different sectors and let us improve our project margins.”

That’s starting to happen, says Webb. “Has this process been a success? We’ve recognized that a consistent marketing effort is a ‘must have’ — a dedicated marketing team is in place with an increased marketing budget.  We are working on better client relations management and setting marketing goals and key revenue indicators.  There is greater transparency within Team HSI® about business issues and progress. We are actively experimenting with using social media.  Words like ‘profit’ and ‘sales’ are in common use.  Now, we are all looking for a healthy annual return, a well-diversified client base that gives us sustainable, repeat business across a wide spectrum of sectors and services and, of course, for Team HSI® as whole to be satisfied with how we are doing.”