Open Dialogue Key to Service Excellence
Wildfire Prevention Section Encourages
Diverse Perspectives


When you think of opportunity knocking, you likely don’t envision a disgruntled client behind the door. Likewise, when you picture model employees, those who question the wisdom of the work you assign them or the priorities you have set may not immediately spring to mind. Yet, these are precisely the kind of open exchanges the Wildfire Prevention Section of Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) sees as essential to its collective success.

As members of the section discuss their Service Excellence Program, which won them a 2007 SRD Deputy Minister’s Recognition Award, it becomes clear that there is substance to the program that sets it apart from typical initiatives aimed at customer satisfaction. Team members exhibit an uncommon awareness of how they need to be with one another to create a successful team that goes well beyond the usual organizational ab- sorption with what one needs to do.

The Ties that Bond

Service Excellence Program Coordinator Herman Stegehuis calls this substance the program’s mortar. “As we talked with one another in developing the program, we realized that our goals went beyond operational measures (the bricks) and had more to do with how we relate to one another and to our clients. People were stressed out and not sharing openly and honestly as often as they should. We needed to focus on what bonds us together and builds our health as a team: the mortar. The fact that the Deputy Minister of Executive Council was encouraging us to take time out for people was a huge springboard for us. It drove us ahead in leaps and bounds. It helped us to create the quality of space where the mortar starts forming.”

This focus on the human substance of the operation is evident throughout the Service Excellence Program manual. At the outset, it identifies the Alberta Public Service Values – accountability, excellence, integrity and respect – and then establishes Guiding Principles necessary to uphold these values. The manual states, “A working culture begins with well-defined principles of behavior. These support our values and guide our actions. These principles form the basis of how we work together in the Wildfire Prevention Section, and with our partners and stakeholders.”

Few would disagree that principles of behavior are critical to service delivery and yet our business documents don’t frequently shed much light on this topic. The fact that it is easier to talk about what we are going to deliver than how we are going to behave when we deliver it probably accounts for this conundrum. Fortunately, the Wildfire Prevention Section had access to the skills of Active Engagement ( or PCD), a training that helps people to acquire skills of engagement that nurture open and nondefended conversation. Jules Leboeuf, a manager with Forestry Division who has completed his practicum training in the PCD, played a key role in helping the team identify the personal awareness and openness with one another needed to develop the mortar.

A Big Picture Drawn from Multiple Perspectives

“I would say that Active Engagement helps us understand that there are many ways of thinking and interpreting and to appreciate how different personalities process information,” says Michael Kakoullis, Wildfire Detection Head. “We’re all ensuring that we are taking time to listen to what people are saying and asking questions to clarify our understanding. It opens up your mind to question “why” and that’s how we learn and are able to see the bigger

Patrick Loewen, Compliance and Enforcement Program Manager, says that he has always valued the openness and honesty advocated by the PCD. However, he says that the introduction of this learning into the section has made him much more aware of when he is practicing it. He also appreciates that others are modeling the PCD values within the section. There seems to be less cost here to say what you are thinking. You are not punished for it and you are allowed to share your opinion, however wrong it might be. With other groups, there would be a cost.”

Non-Defensive Stance Sees Criticism as Opportunity

As part of its Service Excellence Program, The Wildfire Prevention Section invited staff in the field to respond to a survey, dubbed the Zoomerang. The anonymous survey drew praise but also some tough criticism for the section’s work. Says Jules Leboeuf, “When we first reviewed the results, we wondered, ‘Oh, wow, how are we going to manage here?’  But this is the reality. This is the perception in the field. It’s not up to us to change their truth. We need to engage in open conversations with our clients to understand their perspectives.”

So the management team set about answering the concerns. Notes Tracy Price, FireSmart Sup- port Technologist, “We compiled common themes of the questions and responded to all of them. We drafted up a response that said, ‘Here are your questions and here’s how we are working towards solutions.’” Adds Margriet Berkhout, Vegetation Management Support Technologist, the survey and the section’s response to it “sends a message that we are serious about this and you can hold us accountable.”

For example, one staff member from the field didn’t see the value of a liaison position. “Who is he and what the hell can he do for me.” Instead of getting defensive, the management team set about addressing the question. “It forced us to rethink how we structure that role within our group,” says Community Protection Specialist Adam Gossell. “The liaison officer was working out of a different floor and a different branch. We decided to move that person closer to the FireSmart unit so that the role he plays can be better recognized and understood.”

“If you take personally some of the harsh comments that are made, you set up barriers and close yourself off to the opportunities. As service providers and as a provincial office, working through differences of professional opinion and conducting ourselves with transparency are vital to achieving goals and objectives as a group,” says Mr. Gossell.

This discussion on the survey takes place at the Wildfire Prevention Section’s weekly M & Ms (Mental Models) meeting. The title of the meeting acknowledges a reality that is often not considered in group discussions: that each of us tends to speak and behave in ways that are based on our individual mental models, comprised of learned sets of rules and understandings of how the world works. Because discussions often don’t give opportunity to illuminate these mental models, we are inclined to function together like icebergs, bumping up against one another on the surface without seeing or understanding what’s underneath. The informal, drop-in M & Ms are designed to give space for each of the Wildfire Prevention Section team members to voice what’s on his or her mind and to examine the assumptions that underlie one another’s mental models.

Giving focus and importance to the human dynamic and how team members are experiencing their work, the meetings exemplify one of the ways in which the section ensures that its Service Excellence Program is, in the words of its coordinator Herman Stegehuis, Provincial FireSmart Program Manager, “Not just a plaque on the wall, but actually practiced in the hall.”

Learning to be a Learning Organization

One of the guiding principles of the Service Excellence Program is that the Wildfire Prevention Section be a learning organization. That means that risks and failure are regarded as an integral part of the team’s growth and team members are “peers in the learning and understanding of the issues, barriers and challenges of the organization.”

“Staff members question everything I do,” laughs Hugh Boyd, the Director of the Wildfire Prevention Section. “There are a lot of questions but they are delivered in an open, diplomatic way. Staff members are not trying to undermine my authority. We are still a quasi-military operation. There’s no misconception about who the bosses are and it is still, when it needs to be,  a prescriptive office.” (See Who’s the Boss)

And, Mr. Boyd attests the openness and attention to how staff relate to one another have paid great dividends. “I have seen a productivity increase in our section as well as a huge morale increase. You can sense it at meetings and gatherings. It’s a good place to work. That’s the best reward I could ever get.”

Mr. Boyd recalls one incident when a staff member came to him to express a serious concern with one of his colleagues. He notes that we often fall into the default of talking to a third party about the problem and avoiding the person we have conflict with. “I asked if he  talked to the person with whom he had the problem. This encouraged him to do so; they openly shared assumptions and, instead of stew- ing and brewing over the matter, they got it all straightened out.

“We have also discovered as a team that questioning directives can help us ensure that we use our resources wisely. One of my managers expressed concern about a call from the top levels of the organization for manpower to be redirected to a high priority project. I know it was difficult for him because we all take pride in tackling emergencies and other tough situations. As it turned out, his concern was valid. (See What’s at Stake.)

“In a command and control organization one does not normally question top-down directives, but when the manager questioned this one, he raised important points that I hadn’t thought of. In the end, we realized more help was not what was needed. I find it easier to question what’s asked of me than I did before. Testing each other’s thinking and comments has helped our efficiency in decision making. We don’t spend a lot of time going around in circles anymore. The responsibility for success lies with each person. It has made my job a lot easier.”

Keeping Snowballs in Check

The ability to question assumptions about priorities and directives in relation to what each team member is experiencing has enabled the Wildfire Prevention Section to use the full power of its people and a team perspective of its operations to identify and respond to concerns. Staff members frequently bring to the group concerns about “snowballs” that could build to avalanches if not addressed. Not only does this put threats on the radar, it brings forth the group intelligence to prevent problems from growing. (See Where Did That Snowball Come From?)

The written charter is central to the Service Excellence Program. It encapsulates the goals, objectives, values and process of the team. The articulation of values and process sets the stage for an environment in which values are more important than boundaries and hierarchy. Many staff members have the charter close at hand in their offices and bring it to meetings, pointing to the stated intentions of the group when things get off course.

Says Connor Wollis, who recently joined the section as Wildfire Land Management Specialist, “The Service Excellence Program makes the transition into the team easier for newcomers. There is lots of opportunity to engage and conversation is open and transparent.”

As Hugh Boyd notes, the focus on how the team relates is an “excellent way to show that people are our number one resource. Oftentimes such claims can be empty. With the PCD, we can actually take time and see what people are thinking and feeling and ensure that we practice what we preach.”

By Deborah Witwicki