Freedom from command and control – the show

“Freedom from Command and Control” now available in American

The ‘sweat shop’ phenomenon

Following the publication of my criticisms of the CCA’s ‘best practice’ standard for call centres, a reader writes:

“My experience of working in a call centre could be likened to being a chicken in a chicken factory. Low morale, outlandish targets, cooped up for hours, no time for breaks, no time to go to the powder room, condescending management, poor people skills, too much monitoring, no opportunity to be self expressive etc.”

And when the workers and their unions ‘get it’ – that these are symptoms of bad organisation design, bad management and management using measures in ways that contravene the Charter of Human Rights, we’ll see some fireworks.

Customer Management magazine carried my critique of the CCA’s standard in its editorial. The CCA statement said the standard is being reviewed. In the same issue of the magazine there were lots of articles about the dire state of UK customer service. I wonder why?

If you haven’t read it you can get the critique at:

Private sector does it better

A number of readers have noted my tendency to write more about the public sector than the private sector, and some people think we only work in the public sector. For the record it’s about half and half. In any event I was grateful to receive this for it shows just how bad the problems are in the private sector where, by the way, it takes longer to make a change because so much of the nonsense is institutionalised.

A reader writes:

“I was reading all about the negative effects of targets in public services and thinking that us professionals in the private sector have been doing it much better for much longer. For example, in one of our operating companies we have several functions with tough targets to meet. Manufacturing have to keep unit costs down, they do this by setting a production volume target – the more you make the cheaper it is. Supply Chain have to keep costs down too, so they have a target for reducing inventory. New Product Development have a target for introducing new products, but only ones that will sell well. Sales have targets on selling more.

When we get close to year-end, when we close the books and report the numbers to the city, all hell breaks loose. Lots of new products are released, all of which are projected to have huge sales. Manufacturing, confronted with the high costs of new products and extra variety, produces bigger and bigger batches to try and get their costs within target. Supply Chain go to war with both of them. Inventory is being pushed up because Manufacturing is producing more than is being sold, and no one wants these new products, they just sit around the warehouse.

Thank goodness for Sales. As year-end approaches they offer big discounts and make big sales to our customers. Sometimes we have to use expensive express freight and pay premium overtime to keep up with the rush, but it does get the inventory levels down. The year ends, and we’ve made our targets; then all the product starts to come back. It seems Sales persuaded our customers to take more than they could sell, it sat in their warehouses for a couple of weeks and now they want to send it back – it was sale or return after all. Unfortunately it’s not unusual for us to have negative sales in the month after year-end.

When I challenged a senior executive about this his answer was ‘I know that each target can encourage negative behaviour, that’s why we use several targets to balance one another out’.”

A senior executive who clearly doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. As Deming was fond of saying, doesn’t anyone care about profit?

The kinds of distortions the reader describes are becoming common in the public sector; make the targets come hell or high water. But what comforts me is the growing disaffection with the whole government-inspired regime and I see it as my job – with others – to continue to point to the folly of government intervention and, moreover, illustrate a better way. This is an argument we will win for we have the evidence of both types: government specifications making things worse and systems approaches producing better results (and results that could never have been thought of as targets).

But he is right. The private sector has been doing it better and for longer.

The real costs of off-shoring

A reader writes to tell me he has just had a:

“Four-hour meeting discussing what we can do to make off shoring work rather than asking how much is this costing, and what is the whole cost of off-shoring to the business; and is the business case still valid (I don’t think there was ever a business case). The answer? Throw some people at it in the UK.

We have an ‘off shore competition’ of the day to find the biggest mistake.

I now spend 1/2 a day a week dealing with the complaints, which is 400 % more than I spent when I managed the team in the UK. Another 1/2 a day dealing with suppliers who have not been paid and their invoices are travelling around the world that we never had a problem with in the UK. That’s 20% of my time dealing with issues that are outside my function (help I’m reverting to their language).

On top of this I have a team who are fed up with all the issues and the Chief Exec now says we are achieving the benefits of off-shoring.”

I imagine this chief executive thinks he is getting the benefits because he is looking at transaction costs. The business case for off-shoring is never more than planned reductions in transaction costs. But the real costs are end-to-end, from the customers’ point of view. We will never be able to give foreign nationals the full context of UK life, behaving imperially by giving them English names and watching Coronation Street (a UK ‘soap’) is not only shameful it won’t work. Getting to grips with the real costs, by finding out how major customer demands are handled end-to-end will open up the right

Sandra Davison goes public

Sandra Davison of Friends Provident was asked to write an article by the Call Centre Management Association (note not the CCA who published the dreadful ‘best practice’ standard). The CCMA people saw her comments about Vanguard in a ‘day-in-the-life’ piece in Call Centre Focus magazine.

She kindly agreed to let me publish it too. You can read it at:

I am grateful to Sandra for ‘going public’. Many of our clients like to keep ‘Vanguard’ under wraps, I think many people think it is a sign of weakness to admit you are receiving help. Or maybe it’s that ‘check’ reveals uncomfortable truths about the current management philosophy. What do you think?

The minister replies

The June newsletter included a letter I wrote to Mr Miliband about my concerns regarding benefits processing (see ‘Minister gets benefits wrong’). In short, I was warning him that the instruction to local authorities to share back-office processing of housing benefits was driving up costs and worsening service; I detailed how and why and explained the better (Vanguard) solution; better service at lower costs (what the minister wants, right?).

Some five weeks later (they obviously don’t take their own medicine on service standards) I get a reply from Phil Woolas, Miliband’s man for local government. After giving me a civil servant-type justification of government policy, he tells me: “The specific problems you refer to relating to sharing services for the processing of housing benefits were examined by our Strategic Partnering Taskforce. As well as recognising the problems experienced by innovative authorities who had sought to jointly provide Revenue and Benefit services, the Taskforce also looked at why these problems arose and has produced comprehensive guidance to assist authorities seeking to establish shared services in this area.”

We are finding it very difficult to find the guidance he refers to. If any reader in UK local authorities can help I’d be grateful.

But I bet when I find it the guidance it will be no more than doing the wrong thing righter. But note how the minister shifted the blame. When it all comes out he’ll be able to say he was acting on the best advice.

It is time ministers got out of management.

Missed the target? OK, we’ll change it

For the last three years local councils have been targeted to achieve 100 percent ‘e-enabled’ services. Many have done as they are told, building call centres that have high levels of ‘failure demand’ (see newsletters passim), meaning worse service at higher cost, but they get a tick in the box. Some have lobbied the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) to say the target is impractical; some services do not suit ‘e-service’.

So the ODPM has now announced that ‘the most difficult ones’ (to be e-enabled) could now be excluded from the 100 per cent goal. In this way local authorities will then be able to claim a 100 per cent success rate against the 2005 target.

Every council has been invited to draw up a list of ‘difficult’ services which, once fully agreed, will then be removed from those which count towards the national target.

That’ll do it.

A social worker writes” decreed in the public sector

“I wanted to say how much I have enjoyed reading your work and learning more about the Vanguard Method. I am a children’s social worker of 16 years standing.

I left my old authority initially to work for an agency, but discovered that far from working directly with children and their families as a Programme Manager, I was once again faced with a plethora of targets that actually got in the way of service delivery. I am actually not a luddite, I believe in value for money, accountability and some evidencing that your services actually meet the needs of a community. However, those targets or what ever else you might care to call them should be relevant, few and actually understandable. When I asked exactly what was the purpose of the data collection? Where would it go? What would it do? I felt like the little boy in the story ‘The Emperors’ New Clothes’. Ultimately you are left with a stark choice of agreement or go. I left.”

It is tragic that good people leave; we should hold the ministers accountable. What she needed was measures, derived from the work, enabling her to control and improve the work. It would have engaged her passion; it would have delivered better service and at lower cost.

I replied to tell her we have just started working with adult social care, as I guess it is similar (in systems terms) to children’s services. Guess what? A system sub-optimised by government interference. Gross amounts of waste and the system fails to help those who need help. Because of the failure of the minister-inspired design we cause peoples’ problems to worsen and eventually spend more than we would have needed to help them. I submitted a paper to the current Green Paper review. Watch this space.

Establishment didn’t turn up

I have just given a breakfast speech in the West Country on the Vanguard approach to improving public services. I was told when I got there that local representatives of the Audit Commission, Regional Government Offices, the IDeA (an ‘improvement’ service for local authorities that I often refer to as ‘no idea’) and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister were booked to come. But apparently when they found out it was me who was speaking they decided it wasn’t appropriate to be there. So they missed compelling evidence-based examples of the better way. Maybe they decided not to come because with every example of the better way I also illustrate how the analysis showed their regime (targets and specifications) making things worse.

The Prime Minister insists we should have evidence-based policy. These people do as they are told by their respective quango hierarchies, even if it is the wrong thing to do. I guess it illustrates the power of hierarchy over (not) learning.

Seddon for Tory leader?

A reader writes:

“I have been thinking for a long time… as a loyal listener to Radio 4’s Today Programme one cannot fail to notice that the Conservative party are in the process of electing a new leader and, simultaneously, thrashing around for a purpose in life! It is clear that New Labour has stolen all their toys and they (the Conservatives) have no idea what they stand for any more; it’s tragic!

Every time I hear one of these Tory politicians trying, and failing, to explain what it is they stand for I think about the work that Vanguard do and think ‘why don’t they just elect John as leader?’ They immediately would have a set of clear policies that would radically differentiate them from Tony’s command and control storm troopers and that are perfectly in line with a founding tenet of their party – small government!

I am certain you wouldn’t want the job but perhaps, for the good of all of us, you should think about whether being PM isn’t your destiny! With my tongue only slightly in my cheek I’ll leave you with that thought.”

Readers may remember from newsletters past, while I am surely political I would make a lousy politician.

But I’m with him in my frustration with the money they are wasting, the services they are destroying and the lives (of workers and customers) they harm.

Vote for me!!!!