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How Vitens involves employees in creating a new identity

Involving employees in organizational strategy and change. There is no better way to inject energy and focus in an organization. But how does that work in practice? I recently visited Vitens and asked manager communication Koosje Zomer how employees participate in changing the course of the largest provider of tasty and healthy drinking-water in The Netherlands.

A new DNA

When back in 2014 Vitens adopted its new vision of the future it was immediately clear to the management board that there would be more than a little impact on the daily work of employees. The somewhat inward character of a traditional public utility company needed to make way for a customer-focused and sustainability orientation. Three core qualities were deemed to be essential in the new Vitens-DNA: craftsmanship, being relevant to customers and expanding boundaries.

‘Participation within boundaries’

In a multi-faceted organization like Vitens it’s hard to define unambiguously what the three core qualities, or the nine key behaviors derived from these, actually mean in daily practice. The nature of the work done in different units such as the laboratory, customer contact center or network operations — where some 250 engineers work to ensure a constant supply of safe and tasty drinking water — is so wildly different that a ‘one size fits all’-approach would struggle to transcend the level of meaningless platitudes.

So Vitens decided to let managers figure out with their own teams how to move forward. Only the desired outcomes — three core qualities and nine key behaviors — of the change program “Working on our DNA” were declared as non-negotiable, ‘participation within boundaries’, as Vitens calls it.

Wake-up call

All change starts with understanding why. Vitens translated this principle to a so-called ‘wake-up call’ on its biannual team managers day. All Vitens-managers were exposed to five different simulated customer situations, performed by professional actors. Desperate customers getting lost in the endless loopholes of customer care. A minor glitch that became a serious calamity because of miscommunication.

Such real-life experiences have proven to be real eye-openers, sometimes so confrontational that managers have a hard time believing they actually happened. This approach has developed into a series titled “the customer and us”, real stories about real customers.

From stand-up to talkshow

The question of how the new Vitens-DNA affects daily work, is primarily addressed at the level of individual teams. At the customer contact center and the ‘technical failures desk’ for example, daily stand-ups are employed for that purpose. The team manager’s role is mainly to listen.

But how can all these emerging change stories become connected in an organization that encompasses 1,400 employees scattered over four regional offices and 130 service stations? In addition to the intranet and Vitens’ internal magazine Source, Vitens has created the ‘Tafel van Vitens’, or Vitens Coffee Table, a talk show which takes place several times a year in different locations, where experiences and insights can be shared. The show is captured on video for those who are unable to join and to serve as inspiration material for team sessions.

Having tea with the top management team

The dialogue on “Working on our DNA” also extends vertically. The top management team conducts weekly so-called tea sessions (literally ‘kopje koffie-gesprekken’ or coffee conversations, given the habit of conversing over coffee rather than tea in the Netherlands) with a group of eight Vitens-employees. There is no fixed agenda for the sessions, participants can bring up anything they wish to discuss. These tea sessions are not only helping top management and employees to better understand each other, they also provide lots of useful insights and information.

Every week a “question of the week” is selected from the tea sessions. The management board’s response is shared on the Vitens intranet. An analysis carried out by the communication department of the themes that were discussed, revealed among other things that many employees are weary to see Vitens’ typical family culture disappear.


Another way in which Vitens uses real experiences from real people is inspired on ‘Keuringdienst van Waarde’. Triggered by questions from viewers, this humorous television show follows the often surprising trail back to the origins of many mundane food products. Similarly, a pressing question from a Vitens-customer is provocatively captured on video. A team of three Vitens-employees tries to come up with an answer within two hours. The answer is turned into a short film as well. The videos are used for various purposes as part of the campaign ‘The Customer & Us’.

Ownership and team-DNA

An important objective of the change operation is to create a culture of taking ownership, in other words to make self-directed behavior the new normal. The idea is that departments determine independently how they want to shape the new DNA in daily practice. Managers play an important supporting role. Special DNA-days were designed to help them do this.

The DNA-days kick off with each team manager doing a self-assessment of the current team-DNA. This is the starting point for designing an action plan. On the second day the team managers present their plans to each other with lots of room for feedback and exchanging ideas. There is also a dedicated space on the intranet where managers can share what works well and what could go better. It also serves as a platform for exchanging ideas throughout the year.

Open and transparent communication climate

Reaching out and generously sharing information across functions are seen as vital elements in the new way of working. To promote this kind of collaborative behavior, Vitens actively fosters a climate of openness and trust. Communicating transparently, being straightforward about agreements and expectations, speaking up and pro-actively providing feedback are seen as high-priority behaviors.

The importance of openness is highlighted for example by giving all operational teams, as well as the HR and communication advisors, access to the reports of the management board’s weekly tea sessions. The state of the communication climate is also a recurring theme at the annual management days and in the regular employee DNA-survey.

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