The importance of quality in the not-for-profit housing sector

We recently featured in Quality World magazine, where we talked about the importance of quality in the not-for-profit housing sector. In the issue, Anna Thomasson at Quality World wrote:

Hafod has grown from a small housing association into one of the largest not-for-profit health, social care and housing providers in Wales, UK. The company helps people to maintain their independence and personal wellbeing in their own homes, supported housing or one of its residential care homes.

It operates across nine local authorities and employs about 1,400 staff, predominantly in the health and social care arm of the organisation. Last year, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary, but it is in recent months that it has made great strides in growing and adopting a quality culture. Quality World speaks to members of the team, Jas Bains, Jamie Smith and Rachelle Beasley, to find out more.

Jas Bains became Group Chief Executive of Hafod in 2017. Jamie Smith joined Hafod in 2018 as Director of Research and Innovation. “I’d see my role as three-pronged,” says Smith. “I create a pipeline of innovation and improvement, dealing with a wide range of factors, from developing systems and technology in care to developing new governance models for the organisation.

All of these help Hafod to achieve its strategic objectives and its purpose of making lives better. Second, we continue to test the effectiveness of what the company does, and the outcomes it achieves, using research and evidence. And third, we ensure that Hafod places its customers at the heart of everything it does and all the decisions it makes. It means understanding what the company’s customers want and need and translating that into service design.”

As Transformation Lead, Rachelle Beasley, CQP MCQI, was hired to take Hafod through a transformation programme by implementing quality management in 2019. She has rolled out a transformational programme across the company, ensuring the framework is in place to do that, as well as making sure that there are the correct processes, systems and culture to achieve all of Hafod’s strategic priorities.

Business goals

Inheriting a rather old-fashioned, traditional organisation with a number of antiquated and outdated systems and processes, Bains recognised immediately that this was not the desired culture across the organisation. For the next two years, he set about building the fundamental pillars to operate as a good, sustainable and solid business.

“The exciting challenge for us,” says Bains, “is really to be at the cusp of the integration of housing, care and support. This is the Holy Grail really, in terms of relationships.” There is a good interface between health and social care, he adds, not just in Wales but across the UK. Until now, housing has been the missing component and, uniquely, Hafod is a provider of all three. “What we’ve been doing over the past 12 to 18 months is planning and realigning our resources, as well as adjusting things so that we become Wales’ go-to organisation for the integration. That’s the big challenge,” argues Bains.

Achieving change

Hafod has worked with nine local authority areas in Wales, employs around 1,400 staff and supports approximately 16,000 customers. A key challenge – one faced by many institutions of a large scale such as Hafod – is a resistance to change, says Bains. “We inherited a high level of apathy and staff engagement, and staff feeling a lack of direction,” he says. It wasn’t the first time he’d overseen a programme of change in an organisation. “We applied the Kotter principles, and in doing so immediately injected a sense of urgency, a sense of pace about the organisation. It’s been very much cultural,” he adds. “It’s about changing mindsets and to take people on the journey.”

Smith agrees that the main challenge is a cultural one and that innovation, in particular, makes people feel uncomfortable. “It can feel disruptive. It can feel like something of a threat to the way we’ve always done things, and the ways of working that people are comfortable with.” In order to overcome this, he believes that “bringing people along for the journey” is an important factor.

“Actually involving people in changes that make their jobs easier and that make our customers’ lives better,” he adds. Smith offers an example of the kind of discomfort an organisation feels when it begins to challenge based on evidence. “As a sector, we rely on customer satisfaction as a measure of how well we’re doing,” he says.

Hafod has traditionally had very high levels of customer satisfaction, and when you begin to challenge that by questioning whether satisfaction is the right thing to measure and if whether our customers are satisfied means we’re delivering effectively, you have to provide a convincing case. People are not just going to accept that challenge. “So, it begins with the board, and then it filters down through the organisation. You have to get people at all levels to believe by building an evidence base.”

Implementation challenge

Central to the transformation of Hafod was to recruit CQI member Rachelle Beasley to oversee the introduction and implementation of a quality culture. The decision, Smith says, was a simple one. “This organisation is undergoing a huge transformation in every facet of the business. The default for the organisation in the past was to approach transformation in a fairly unstructured way that doesn’t start with what your customers need, what they want and what you need to deliver.”

Beasley’s role was created to oversee change in the organisation more effectively, with the right level of rigour, the right tools, the right expertise and the right resources around her. “But, more than that,” adds Smith, “I think it’s about promoting a healthy attitude to change and failure, and learning lessons when things don’t go as we expect them to. So, Rachelle’s job is as much about culture in the organisation, as anything else.”

Beasley sees her role not just as an innovation within Hafod, but within the not-for-profit sector at large. “Quality management traditionally doesn’t tend to look at this sector,” she says. “So, a lot of the challenge is making sure that we can bring over the skills and tools that we have as quality professionals, to make life better and to help that integration, and be at the forefront of that.”

The traditional, sector-wide absence of quality is something Bains reiterates. “I don’t think quality is necessarily recognised and valued in the not-for-profit housing association sector. We have tended to sort of prefer to count the beans, so it’s more about quantity than quality.”

There isn’t a traditional quality department at Hafod. Instead, each director is responsible for the governance assurance and improvement supported by Beasley and the Research and Innovation team. Beasley and the team are responsible for understanding Hafod’s operating environment and market conditions, for looking at technological change and the policy landscape.

These are translated into ideas that are then tested. Another key component is the customer engagement function, which is about hearing the customer’s voice, understanding their attitudes, perceptions and desires, and then feeding that into research and innovation.

For Beasley, who previously worked in manufacturing, the biggest challenge has been the inward-facing culture of not-for-profits and the housing sector. “I’ve gone to improvement groups across housing associations and project teams across various companies,” she says, “but there’s a lack of awareness of quality and formal skills. Everybody is trying to do the very best that they can, but that’s not supported by anything formal, and it’s not supported by quality management.” To overcome this, she is bringing the outside in, using contacts she’s made at events. “Let’s have a chat with somebody from aerospace or manufacturing. Let’s see what they’re doing. How can we bring it into the housing and care sector?”

The insularity of the sector was a challenge for Bains too. As an example, he points out that he and many of his colleagues no longer go to housing conferences. “Every year,” he says, “it’s the same small group of people.” He discusses ways in which he’s been facing these challenges and admits it’s still a work in progress. “We have a greater accountability emphasis and a stronger emphasis on performance culture.

There’s greater clarity about roles and responsibilities. We’re much better at deploying the right people in the right jobs. We’ve reviewed the skill sets and replenished the board entirely. I’ve brought in a new leadership and a number of new additions to middle management. We’ve improved our communications dramatically, so that they’re no longer mushrooms operating in the dark. That communication extends to all 1,400 people who work in the group. And, by creating our own academy, we’ve placed huge investment and resources in creating pathways for people to move up, down and across the organisation.”

The work’s impact

Quality now runs deep at Hafod, says Smith. The company’s purpose is to ensure that people have access to good-quality housing and to social care. “They need to feel safe, secure and happy, and able to live the lives they want to lead,” Smith says. “You simply can’t achieve that goal for a population of around 16,000 customers without a relentless focus on quality and improvement.” Beasley emphasises this point. “We can’t achieve our priorities without effective governance and assurance and improvement. Otherwise, we don’t improve lives,” he says.

In fact, the implementation of quality has entirely changed the way Hafod operates, says the team. For example, the company’s core IT system, which controls all its housing information, needs to be improved and reimplemented, and the consideration of quality has changed its approach to the project. Rather than simply being an IT-led technical exercise, a quality focus has helped Hafod to see things differently.

Smith says: “The starting point for this piece of work is now, what’s our customer journey? What do we want that customer journey to look like and, more importantly, what do our customers want that customer journey to look like? We built the IT solution to accommodate that, not the other way round. So, it’s a whole mindset shift for the organisation, and that really structured focus on quality has forced us to think differently, and much for the better, I believe.”

The Research and Innovation team continually drives and supports improvement at Hafod. Smith describes this “innovation pipeline” as a way of identifying ideas, which could be from the front line of the organisation or from their customers. It could be a piece of research evidence which offers a new way of working, or a new service model to consider. It could even be a new piece of technology. But whatever that idea, as Smith cautions, “just because it’s shiny and new, that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing”. The innovation pipeline allows Hafod to test these ideas in a safe, small- scale environment, rather like a laboratory. There, it can gather evidence in a disciplined way to test the effectiveness of those ideas before they are implemented.

“We can fail at a small scale, rather than embed an ineffective process and create a longterm failure,” says Smith. “I’ve made it sound like quite a technical, scientific exercise, but sometimes it’s more of an art than science. There’s a good degree of intuition involved. But having that focus on testing things at a small scale, failure, learning, refining your design and trying again is how we ensure that we develop effective processes.” A failure can impact the customer, not just the organisation, Beasley says. “If we make a mistake, what has the impact been on that person, and how do we make sure that we don’t do that again?”

The implementation of quality at Hafod has entirely transformed how it operates, but the company is not prepared to rest on its laurels. Recently, a new five-year strategic plan was approved. This was 12 months in the making as the company was determined to reach out to all of its stakeholder partners and its lenders, but most importantly, to its 1,400-strong workforce. “When we finally agreed the plan,” says Bains, “the workforce felt a deep sense of ownership because it’s essentially their ideas. I think that will secure us a really major buy-in and enable us to achieve those key strategic objectives in the course of the next five years.”

Those strategic objectives are about the integration of health, housing and social care, as well as ensuring that Hafod continues to invest significantly in the provision of both new housing and social care facilities. They’re also about investing in communities beyond its role as landlord, as more of a corporate citizen. And they’re about the development of the workforce. The company plans to continue investing in its own academy and strengthening partnerships with universities and local colleges. Going forward, the challenges for Hafod are those faced sector-wide.

Considerations must be made for a post-Brexit environment and for a state of austerity. As for the integration of health, social care and support on the ground, “We’re venturing into relatively new territory,” admits Bains, “and I think there are all sorts of cultural, governance and business model differences that form part of the challenge, but we’re very much leading and shaping that conversation here in Wales.”

Quality offers a huge opportunity for innovation. “This is where there is a real opportunity for us, because housing doesn’t place quite the same emphasis on quality as do social care and health,” he adds. “In order to win friends and influence in social care and health, quality is at a premium. The starting premise of regulation for health and social care tends to be the quality of care for the patient. Housing has a different starting premise, which isn’t about quality care. So, for us, quality is going to be absolutely huge.”

What are your top tips for developing a successful quality culture in an organisation?

Invest in improvement
Don’t see innovation, improvement and quality as soft targets when resources are tight. We’ve gone against the grain in the sector and invested quite heavily in that expertise, and we’re already beginning to see the payback. – Jamie

Use the right tools
It’s having the right tools in the right places. So, while we’re not subscribing specifically to Lean, Six Sigma or Vanguard, we’re using tools in the right places from all of these and more methods. We pick and choose. We’re in a unique position, so it’s not a one-size-fitsall. And of course, just communication. We have to involve everybody. There has to be ownership at every single level of the organisation. – Rachelle

Nurture culture
Important systems and processes are, ultimately behaviours, values, ethics and drive culture. That’s something that we are reinforcing here in this organisation. – Jas