An apology to overseas readers

I am aware that I have been given to writing a lot about how UK government is destroying performance and morale in our public sector organisations and there is more of it below. I hope that overseas readers will bear with me. Think about it this way: we gave you that evil disease ISO 9000, there is every chance your politician are engaged is a form of industrial tourism and these other diseases will be with you sooner or later and in some form or other.

Should I have a New Year resolution to cut down on this stuff? Let me know. For that matter, let me know what you like and don’t like – after all I write this for you! Or do I write it to get stuff off my chest?

Command and control is bad for your health

A good friend and systems thinker writes:

‘I’m reading a book called ‘Genome’ by Matt Ridley at the moment. It’s about the recent discoveries re DNA, Genetics, etc. There’s a section on illness caused by a reduction in our immune system and some surprising findings re the cause of heart attacks. Recent scientific research is showing that the less control we have over our lives the more stressed we become, our cortisol levels rise and illness and heart attacks follow predictably. It is nothing to do with the amount of work we do, with busy, senior jobs or fast living personalities. Cholesterol, diet, smoking and blood pressure are all relegated to secondary causes (and nowhere near as serious as a lack of control). The lower down the organisational tree you are at work, the less control you have and, as Mr Ridley puts it, ‘Your heart is at the mercy of your pay grade.’

It is the word control that caught my attention, together with something the book says that made me think about command and control systems and particularly ISO 9000 : ‘… cortisol levels rise in response not to the amount of work you do, but to the degree to which you are ordered about by other people. Indeed, you can demonstrate this effect experimentally, just by giving two groups of people the same task to do, but ordering one group to do the task in a set manner and to an imposed schedule. This externally controlled group of people suffers a greater increase in stress hormones and rise in blood pressure and heart rate than the other group.’

So, here’s a wonderful new argument for us, John – recent scientific studies show that command and control is bad for your health!’

Quite so. And bad for your customers, shareholders, economy..

Call Centre managers are not ready for systems thinking

I was invited to attend the UK’s Call Centre Association Convention. Earlier this year, you may recall, I was super-critical of the ‘Best Practice’ call centre Standard and after an interesting ( 😉 ) meeting the CCA asked me to publish a systems thinker’s approach. I did so, but I suspect only the Vanguard clients understand what it means.

Some 500 people attended the Convention. The bulk of presentations were the usual junk – technology as virtuous from the technology suppliers (technology is a feature, not necessarily a benefit), incentives and cool furnishings as virtuous from call centre managers (treating the people well does not change the basic ‘sweat shop’ paradigm), CRM as having to be taken seriously and as a big ticket item from those who have invested heavily (CRM is no more than sophisticated ‘push’ – it is not ‘pull’) and so on. It became clear to us (I was with Stuart who runs Vanguard Scotland) that to ask the kinds of questions we would ask would not be productive – when you have to explain the thinking behind the question the question gets lost, so we kept private counsel. Maybe we will need to ask our call centre clients to talk about the profound impact of systems thinking on call centre performance as a bridgehead to introducing the thinking. But for sure this audience were not ready for us.

Health Service mania

There are many examples of government targets destroying performance in our health service. This is one sent to me last month:

To get patient [trolley] waiting times down in Accident and Emergency, the Chief Executive of Good hope NHS Hospital Trust (Birmingham) has decreed that patients won’t be admitted until a cubicle [aka bed] is available. The result is paramedics have to stay with patients when they get them to Accident and Emergency. The CEO hits his targets, patients wait just as long, and paramedics are prevented from responding to the next call.

Brilliant. Someone should tell the minister about how the fish rots from the head.

Seddon is silenced.. Oh really?

In March this year I spoke at the UK’s Civil Service Excellence Conference. I was (he says modestly) a big hit. Naturally, the theme of my address was how government initiatives (‘Best Value’, ‘Excellence Model’, ‘Charter mark’ etc) actually worsen performance and how systems thinking provides better answers to these questions. As ever, I peppered my presentation with practical examples. It went down so well that I was invited to speak again at the next annual event.

Then earlier last month, the invitation was withdrawn. I was told that civil servants on the planning committee were reluctant to have any presentation that did not support government policy.

Never mind the facts..

An article in The Times informs us that the UK Treasury is considering a tax credit for small companies that attain the Investors in People Standard (IiP). In the same article we learn (again) that people have doubts about IiP’s efficacy and they are concerned about its bureaucracy. It is no wonder, the assessment asks people:

Are you trained enough for your job?
Are you communicated with enough?
Do you know where your organisation is going?

What do you suppose the answers to these questions are in any organisation? And so the interventions that follow are concerned with objective setting, training and communications. In my experience these are rarely the major causes of performance problems. But it is all written down and executed so some paid assessor can add a further burden of cost to the enterprise.

In its defence, Sue Martin of IiP says the Standard ‘has to have an effect on the bottom line somewhere’. Perhaps she could tell us where? More importantly, perhaps she could tell us why? I know why it wouldn’t – performance is governed by the system, to change the system you have to change thinking. IiP appeals to traditional thinkers, they think the people are the problem. It is just a variant on ‘how do we get them to do it’? IiP is another of our ministerial inventions. Many years ago a minister thought
training was the key to improving performance, so the Standard got developed to ‘encourage training’. Appealing, but flawed. Instead of ‘investing in people’ we should be investing in the re-education of management.

ISO 9000 corruption in Japan

A Japanese correspondent writes:
This week NHK reported on TV news that JQA, the largest certification body in Japan, was disclosed eighty million yen tax evasion by national tax offices. TV said that the body had hired many part-time assessors to correspond rapid increase of assessments and paid the fees for them lower money than entered in the books. It falsified accounts. Thus the difference between true payments and the book accounts amounts eighty million yen. It is the most notorious case in Japanese quality world. The worst case I have seen in the UK is the targeting of ‘cross-selling’ amongst assessors – when they have you by the short and curlies, they flog you things you don’t need. Sad but inevitable examples of the coercion surrounding ISO 9000.

Whatever your religion, I wish you the best for your forthcoming celebrations.