Gert-Jan van 't Klooster (Liander):
'We've finally cracked the code of a headache-inducing case'
Turner established a connection between daily work and mission.
Liander Case Story: Gert-Jan van’t Klooster, Regional Manager Amsterdam at Liander, in conversation with Patrick Davidson, Strategy Execution Program Manager at Turner about the strategic assignment.
In the coming years, Liander will face at least a doubling of energy demand and all aspects related to the energy transition. However, the aftercare of projects ‘outside’ on the streets, was not optimally organized. Gert-Jan van ‘t Klooster, regional manager Amsterdam at the Large Consumption Reconstructions and Networks (GVRN) department, was tasked with streamlining aftercare and enlisted Turner for the execution of the plans.
1. What was the issue for which Turner was engaged? And what made it complicated?
Liander is a complex organization responsible for the electricity grid in six major regions of the Netherlands. As Regional Manager Amsterdam at the GVRN department, Gert-Jan van ‘t Klooster received the task at the end of 2021 to streamline the aftercare of projects. ‘We face various problems,’ he explains. ‘We have a lot of work to do, and the workload is increasing. Energy consumption is rising. Compared to a few years ago, we do twice as much work. And it’s only getting more. The grid needs to be strengthened; 2,500 additional medium-voltage stations need to be installed in the city. Not only because of the increasing demand but also because of the energy transition. In the best-case scenario, energy demand will be twice as high in a few years as it is now, and in the worst case, four times as high.’
With his own GVRN department, Van ‘t Klooster is responsible for medium-voltage: large and medium-sized customers, new city districts, and the renovation of the existing grid. Liander has divided the work into three phases: preparation, execution, and aftercare. This work is carried out in chains. And when that doesn’t go as planned, you notice it in aftercare. In Liander’s terms, aftercare is not just about closing the pavement but also about administrative handling. ‘A few years ago, we faced a huge backlog in aftercare. The work outside, such as replacing or upgrading cables and pipes, was done, but the handling was delayed. You have to imagine: we work with technicians who often enjoy their work but have less affinity with their administrative tasks. It’s like when you organize a dinner for your friends: many people enjoy cooking and eating together, but at the end of the evening, there’s a pile of dishes that must be taken care of.’
The administrative handling was not very smoothly organized, Van ‘t Klooster explains. It involves completion documents so that cables in the ground can be located, ensuring safety, checking invoices from contractors, and being accountable to the financial administration. Packages of information that were constantly being passed around. From one of the three departments that the fifty teams internally deal with – the financial administration, the asset registration – which forms the basis of Alliander – or the OIV’ers, who ensure safety. If something was wrong, it came back, and the teams had to knock on the doors of the contractors again, and they had to approach the subcontractors again. And so it went on all the time. Moreover, the contractors are only paid when everything is completed. Van ‘t Klooster: ‘In the time of COVID-19, it became even more complex because the economy came to a standstill. Suddenly we had no cables anymore. Yes, maybe a team in Amsterdam-Zuid still had some. But how did we find out?’
Patrick Davidson, who was involved in the project on behalf of Turner, found it interesting to see how the technicians ‘outside’ managed everything themselves. ‘A hundred meters of cable? We’ll take care of that. Outside, everything always went well. But how do you keep track of the data? That is essential for when there is a malfunction. The emergency service needs reliable data. Those technicians are working somewhere else tomorrow. But they also have chores to do; the administration needed to be sorted out. Only then are you really done with your work outside.’
In early 2021, the green light came from the Board of Directors that the problem had to be addressed.
2. What led to the breakthrough? In terms of content, change management, and/or project management?
Gert-Jan van ’t Klooster shares that there have been several breakthroughs. Firstly, in collaboration with Turner’s team. He found the initial presentation by Davidson and colleagues a bit overwhelming, but he was immediately honest and open about it. “That transparency and clarity set the tone. We knew what to expect from each other. It took some adjustment, but we immediately got on the same wavelength.”
The second breakthrough followed naturally. “We identified the problem right away. If we want to tackle this mountain of dishes, we need all involved parties, from our own financial administration to the contractors. You can keep passing packages around, but if you don’t organize it differently, it remains a game of ping pong. That’s why we introduced the concept of the smallest table. It means not constantly passing packages around but sitting together with the minimum number of people needed to get the job done. At crucial moments, people from my team sit down with those from project administration, asset registration, to quickly discuss what can be passed on and what cannot, instead of hoping it works out. That has truly been a massive breakthrough.”
“The concept of the smallest table leads to a kind of fluid meetings,” adds Davidson. “You didn’t have to sit there all the time. Once your topic was discussed, you could get back to your work. That’s a completely different mindset. I love minimum viable teams; we did this assignment on behalf of Turner with just the three of us. It wasn’t our intention to take over the project. The people from Liander and their partners, such as contractors, did the work themselves.”
In this structure, the team leader must stay on top of things, according to Van ’t Klooster. “People often exhibit old behavior. Here’s my task; let me know if it’s not right, they say. Something like that is not resolved in one go. Patrick and his two colleagues helped a lot with that. In the beginning, they attended all the meetings, not to take over our role but to observe and coach. Why aren’t you taking action? They put everyone in position. Very useful. And in a short time. Everyone now knows: a leader is there to help remove obstacles so everyone can do their work smoothly.”
Breakthrough number three was intervening immediately when a dilemma arose. “You have to recognize that there’s a problem that needs to be solved first. Otherwise, you’ll never make progress. Small problems that can be solved within the team, but also larger problems that need to be elevated. This way, we implemented various small and large improvements, making the engine run better and better.” An important point, as it shows people how they can contribute to accelerating the energy transition.
The realization has sunk in that Liander cannot succeed in realizing the strategy without other parties, Van ’t Klooster explains. “Leading the way are the contractors, but also the three departments we deal with internally: asset registration, project administration, and the OIV’ers. We regularly gather to discuss various emerging themes, trying to make progress continually. And that’s how we’ve cracked the code of a longstanding headache. It’s all about teamwork.”
3. How was the execution achieved?
The execution started with the acknowledgment that Liander did face challenges. The trigger came from the financial column, Van ‘t Klooster explains. ‘We completed the accounting later than anticipated. And then alarm bells start ringing.’ His former boss briefly considered replacing the entire system, but it didn’t go that far. ‘We disassembled the entire system, and then it became everyone’s problem: the Board of Directors, my boss, myself, and my team leaders. This created alignment at every level. We realized that there were two bottlenecks: the accountant was not satisfied, and we ran the risk of a safety issue. This created a shared sense of urgency. Everyone on the shop floor understood what was going on. That pile of dishes just had to be cleared.’
From the beginning, Van ‘t Klooster and Turner’s advisors worked with a mantra: one goal, one image, one rhythm. ‘With three Turner people, you can’t guide fifty teams at once,’ says Van ‘t Klooster. ‘We started with a coalition of team leaders who felt the urgency and were enthusiastic about our plan. A coalition of the willing. Not only from my team but from all over the country. Patrick and his colleagues supported that throughout the country. I encouraged my colleagues to pull, and I was pushing from behind. That’s how we quickly found success, and the ripple effect grew.’
Of course, they encountered hurdles in practice, especially in the relationship with the contractors. ‘Sometimes the collaboration was awkwardly organized, sometimes they couldn’t find each other well,’ says Van ‘t Klooster. ‘So we shifted our attention to the next problem. The first blow is worth a dollar. We just looked at what the problem was and then positioned the team leaders to solve it.’ Davidson: ‘Sometimes you had people who were angry with each other. Then I would say: put it on the board, Disagree and commit. This is the agreement, and whether you can get along with each other doesn’t matter. We had, for example, the contractors deliver their administration every Monday. This initially met with resistance, but after two weeks, the supervisor said: it’s stupid that we didn’t do this earlier. It’s just about getting the basics in order. They liked that too. No cuddle sessions, just tough assignments.’
There was always the awareness that everything had to be in order because of the upcoming task: the energy transition. Those medium-voltage stations that Van ‘t Klooster mentioned, they don’t only come in Amsterdam. They need to be installed across the entire country. ‘Scaling up is not a choice,’ says Davidson. ‘That decision has long been made.’
4. Are there benefits for all stakeholders? For customers, shareholders, employees, management, and society?
By the end of 2022, the project was completed to the great satisfaction of all involved. The feeling that there was still a mountain of dishes waiting disappeared. Contractors are paid more quickly. ‘It took some getting used to for them, but there is much less hassle now,’ says Van ‘t Klooster. ‘The process has been simplified, especially in financial administration. This gives our colleagues the space to think about more important matters than peeling every millimeter to check if it’s in order.’
And Liander not only has better accounting but also more confidence in safety. ‘We can now focus on the energy transition. The baggage that distracted us has disappeared. In the long run, it could be a benefit that location data becomes available more quickly, so the streets are open for less time. And therefore, you are less unexpectedly confronted with a cable lying three meters away. Then we can help accelerate the energy transition.’
The final sprint was initiated with a Collaboration Day, where, at all locations nationwide, all stakeholders were present. The fifty teams and their internal and external partners focused on the finishing touches. ‘At that meeting, we discussed various actions according to the small table principle to get and keep things going. That worked really well. We also made it a really fun day with a good lunch.’ Davidson: ‘The last quarter was very exciting; the results had to become visible. But that day worked like a flywheel at all levels.’
5. What was the most significant dilemma, and how did you deal with it?
One of the main dilemmas Van ‘t Klooster encountered was that he had to manage the entire project as a primus inter pares. He was not the boss but had been given the task of leading this project. That meant a lot of calls, a lot of convincing. ‘I had to really get my colleagues going. That meant showing urgency. First create movement, then think about the structure.
Another dilemma was how to bring together the different people involved. How do you ensure that they delve into each other’s problems? That can only happen if you get them to start working together and collaborating instead of passing work on.’
Gert-Jan van’t Klooster, Regional Manager Amsterdam at Liander and Patrick Davidson, Strategy Execution Program Manager at Turner.
Gert-Jan van’t Klooster
Regional Manager Amsterdam, Liander
Strategy Execution Program Manager at Turner
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