Watch out for the toolheads

Those readers who followed my spat last year with the ‘lean’ people from manufacturing will know my antipathy to what they are doing. They think ‘lean’ can be achieved with tools and recently they have focussed their attention on service organisations to sell their snake oil.

“Watch out for the toolheads” is a free download from the web site. It is an article that tells you everything you need to know about the lean manufacturing tools, what they are, how they work in manufacturing and why they DO NOT WORK in service organisations.

Essential reading for all who are at risk of being duped. For your free copy go to:

NTL gets bad press

Last month’s newsletter on service failures in the private sector brought a lot of responses telling me how bad NTL is at service. Here are two:

A reader writes:

“NTL wrote to me to say: ‘You may have noticed that since the beginning of September there have been some delays getting through to our Customer Service teams. This is because we’ve started a programme of service improvements to help us give you a better level of customer service next year. The programme is underway and will be completed early in 2005.’ Meanwhile my NTL telephone line, paid for by my company, has been out of action since 24th December 2004 and the earliest NTL say they can visit to repair it is 18th January 2005. The company is considering whether to have a new BT line installed which would be quicker!”

I can’t imagine what they are doing in their ‘improvement’ programme. Oh, OK, I guess I can (!). If it is taking them months to improve they are doing the wrong thing.

Another reader writes:

“The sons of a work colleague had been without their internet connection for 3 weeks over Christmas. Repeated calls to NTL finally resulted in a recorded message being relayed that said, in essence ‘If you’re ringing about a faulty internet connection, get lost!’

Good fun eh? 2 more lost customers!”

One wonders whether NTL managers care about profit. I am sure they don’t know enough about true costs.

Good cop

A policeman writes:

“I recently got promoted to Inspector and was given my own Police Station. I have officially declared my Station to be a ‘Systems Thinking ‘ Police Station and published a Strategic Plan outlining this, which has been accepted.

Our first major success was youth disorder. My initial demand analysis showed that 50% of calls to us related to this subject but it was never recognised. We never got to the 1st or 2nd call, the failure demand started to pile up, and we ended up getting the 11th and 12th call and the cops were going round in circles.

It has been like a textbook transformation. I still have to pinch myself when I recount what we have achieved in only two months. We have turned a process that was in reality a compartmentalised chain of chaos into a steady stream of free flowing information. We had near immediate success in terms of getting good quality information at the first point of contact with the public, passing this good information to operational cops quickly, attending calls quickly, dealing with the problem effectively, making arrests, referring those not arrested to diversion, having the information in the process structured so that what’s put in by call handlers can be used by analysts at the end of the process, working in partnership with other professional agencies getting them to recognise that we are all in the same process and having our information tailored to also suit their needs.

I could rave on for hours about this but its safe to say everything that could go well did. It was scary that by doing the right thing from the very beginning, and for the right reasons, it all fell into place.”

Simple, practical and effective. And I bet he won’t be afraid to argue about any dumb specifications he gets from above. All cops should be like him.

Bad cop

A reader writes:

“I was discussing how the NHS game targets with an ex-policeman who is now a lawyer. He felt the Police to be ahead of the game. For example, crime clear up is a key target but arrests for shoplifting don’t count.

So, when someone is caught shoplifting in a shop the first time, some police forces persuade the shop to write a letter to the shoplifter stating that they are no longer allowed on the premises. The next time they are caught shoplifting in that shop, they can then be charged with trespassing and burglary!

Another burglary is then added to the solved list!”

There are lots of examples like this. Targets only motivate people to be seen to achieve the target, why don’t ministers and police chiefs know this? Maybe they do and they just don’t know what to do instead. The answer is easy; get people to work with actual data (just as our good cop did), not arbitrary data. Actual data is useable in understanding and improving performance. Isn’t that what we want? Instead the minister’s behaviour ensures we get more ‘bad’ cops. Tragic.

While we are on the subject of police, a reader responded to my recent piece about civilians working for the police being told by their chief to wear police uniforms so they can achieve their ‘visibility’ target. The reader reminded me that it is an offence to impersonate a police officer. Maybe the chief constable concerned should have his day in court…

Solving planning problems

Re planning (newsletter passim), a reader writes:

“On the planning issue, I can tell you how the targets are hit, if you didn’t know already. A colleague who is an architect was chasing up a planning issue and got talking to one of the planners. He got complaints about how busy they are, the increasing number of applications, the number of complaints, and all with fewer staff. As the conversation went on, it got round to rejected applications. Guess what, most of the additional load comes from applications that are rejected for a small problem that could probably be resolved with a quick phone call and a small amendment to the plans. It is rejected to make sure that the planning department hits the government targets; if the application is turned down for whatever reason, it counts as a resolution. Box ticked; don’t worry about next month’s workload!”

As he said, I know this already, but it is worth including here, as it won’t be long before ministers make false claims for planning improvement.

Will new Labour save the NHS?

New Labour promised to save the NHS. Tony and co tell us they have invested resources, but does investment equate to improvement? There may be more resources (nurses and doctors) in the NHS, but what is happening to performance?

A reader writes:

“I emailed you earlier about a hospital trust which had had particular problems hitting the government’s target of 98% of patients passing through A&E in 4 hours, but in achieving improvement had admitted c20% more patients to a hospital bed.

I recently saw the national figures and WAS SHOCKED. They show that in the last year (when the target has increased from 90% to 98%), admissions into hospital via A&E have increased by 20%!!

The government are about to announce their ‘success’ in achieving these targets, and use this as part of the election spin. Doubtless a couple of gongs will go to the bureaucrats at the centre who have been credited with (bullying others into) this ‘achievement’.

If targets are stupid, targets such as this are particularly stupid, as they are so far from end to end regarding what is important to patients. The good honest hard working folk in the trusts have done what most of us would have done if our jobs were threatened (as they regularly are) by failure to hit this target – anyone with a sprained ankle, bit of a cough or mild injury who has been waiting over three hours in A&E gets pushed into a bed.

This bed costs c£300/ day in ‘hotel’ (i.e. nursing/ facility costs before any treatment), and deprives patients of being at home, whilst exposing them to MRSA etc. Meanwhile, many NHS trust are in meltdown financially, and costs are being cut in ways which seriously affect patients.”

It would be better for the patients, better for morale and cheaper to design the NHS against demand, but they don’t have any useful demand data. Why not? The minister insists they report on lots of other wrong things. He should be held accountable for the consequential waste: diminished health care, higher costs and de-moralised people.

Education suffers

A reader writes:

“I don’t know if you have seen yesterdays Education Guardian, but there is an article about schools manipulation of students’ choice of A-level subjects irrespective of those students needs, to ensure high performance scores. This really illustrates how the current obsessive audit culture has wholly eroded any notion of schools putting their duty of care to all their students above their need to hit performance targets that may damage them.”

We have just started working in Education. Like other public sector services it is replete with specifications dreamt up by those told to do so, inflicted on those who deliver education services with deleterious impact on service and efficiency. I guess this must be the hallmark of new Labour.

Performance indicators undermine performance

I have yet to find a performance indicator (PI) set by government that passes my test of a good measure (does this help us understand and improve performance?). A reader has sent me two examples of PIs making things worse (as they do):

“Supplying and fixing grab rails has counted as a PI; supplying and fixing stair-rails has not. We were told that while a client often needs a stair-rail plus a grab rail at the top of the stairs, to make PI figures look better, grab rails are sometimes done – and the stair-rails left for later.

The PI counts minor adaptations done within a week. But suppose, a client, for any number of reasons, prefers not to have the work done now? Suppose instead, they chose to book a visit in three weeks time? It’s excluded from the PIs. It would simply not count at all. The PI assumes that doing the task of a minor adaptation within seven working days is always a good thing. The fact that the client has chosen another date and is pleased that the Authority has been able to fit the service around his or her wishes is simply disregarded from the ‘performance’ statistics”.

It is like this with all local authority services, the ‘performance indicators’ undermine performance. In a recently publicised case, featured in the Observer last Sunday, a local authority went from being the worst at benefits processing to the best in months, but in doing so ignored the guidance provided by government.

Gordon Brown (the UK chancellor) invested £200m in the Department of Work and Pensions programme telling local authorities to do the wrong thing with benefits processing. While claiming to hold public sector organisations accountable for delivering his required ‘return’, he himself is aiding the deterioration of service and rise in costs. Who should we hold accountable?

Reflections from a financial services manager

A senior manager in financial services read “Freedom from Command and Control” and sent me the following reflections on what’s wrong with management in his organisation:

“HR policies – one of the points that you didn’t touch on was the stupidity of some companies HR policies. The one that always causes me the most amusement is the one where Job Evaluation systems place an emphasis upon staff numbers (i.e. the more staff you have reporting to you, the higher your salary and status). These companies are then surprised when their innovations, whether they be IT solutions or system changes, never seem to work. They don’t seem to appreciate that it is hardly ever in anybody’s self-interest for the project to work and their staff numbers to be reduced!!”

He is right, we don’t talk much about HR. The primary reason is HR is a ‘system condition’ so best changed as and when you can see the impact on performance. Furthermore if you are open about the implications for HR you get into a protracted discussion trying to solve problems you don’t yet have. In simple terms the way to do it is make changes to policy and practice after you have made a performance (system) change.

“Senior Management bonuses – as somebody who has qualified for senior management bonuses I thought I’d share my experiences with you. In theory, “top” management set really challenging targets and all managers get a well-deserved bonus for achieving them. The reality is that everybody wants a piece of this particularr “gravy-train” and so the targets are set on things that are achievable or can be manipulated so as to make them look “achieved”. It is not in anybody’s best interests to have truly challenging targets that might not be achieved!”

Sad but true. If only these people knew how to look at their systems they would see plenty of scope for sustainable improvement. But their focus is elsewhere.

“Efficiency – in the mortgage industry up until about 40 years ago about 95% of the costs of processing a mortgage application were staff costs. Efficiency was therefore measured in terms of “number of mortgage applications processed per staff member”. Despite the fact that staff costs are now less than half of all costs involved (the bulk being largely IT), some mortgage lenders still measure efficiency in terms of number of mortgage applications per staff member. Therefore, if you spend £10m on an IT system, and staff numbers subsequently reduce, it looks like an increase in efficiency! This is despite the fact that total processing costs may have risen significantly! This in appropriate measurement of efficiency is, of course, currently being supported by a company that sells IT “solutions”.”

I am involved in just such a case at the moment. The IT ‘solution’ will be no solution at all, but looked at in the way he describes no one will know.

“Project Management – I worked at one Financial Services company where in order to control costs they determined that only “major” projects would be resourced. In order to qualify as being a “Major” project it had to involve expenditure of at least £250,000. In practice, what this meant was that any improvements that wouldn’t cost much money were never implemented because they never qualified for the “Major Projects” list and hence were never introduced! So many low cost initiatives have never seen the light of day whereas expensive, ineffectual IT solutions continue to be introduced. Apart from the phenomenal waste of money, just try to imagine how de-motivating this is for the staff, who continued to identify realistic cost-effective solutions only to find that none of them were ever acted upon.”

Doesn’t anyone care about profit?

I expect you do!!