A trip to the NAO

Last week I went to the National Audit Office. They asked me to join a panel to respond to their forthcoming report on shared services. Wild horses couldn’t hold me back. Although I went with a worry in my mind: over recent years the NAO has begun publishing material on ‘best practice’ and much of it is conventional management rubbish, much like the junk promulgated by the Audit Commission (still not yet dead).

I am sworn to secrecy, but I hope you can read between the lines when I tell you the NAO report was in the best tradition of the NAO’s work – strongly evidence-based – and nothing I learned surprised me.

Whether it surprised the other panellists I couldn’t say. They were all from the major consultancies and IT firms and their collective response to failures of shared services was ‘it’ll be alright if you do it right’. You would have been proud of my endurance as I listened to numb-headed platitudinous management speak. Better governance, stronger project management, clearer statements of requirements, a good dollop of culture change and other numpty ideas, all of which amount to doing the wrong thing righter.

The report will be published next year. Is it to be a stimulus to re-thinking policy? The Cabinet Office plans to legislate to force government agencies to share services. While the ‘big’ boys may be licking their lips the rest of us will be crossing our fingers.

More wrong stuff righter

Meanwhile the Cabinet Office is publishing guidance on how to reduce waste in IT projects and avoid IT failures. What do they think the answer is? Better governance. Maybe the big IT companies write this stuff for them, I wouldn’t be surprised.

I have spoken to a number of IT audiences recently. These are developers, not big company people; they are people who like to do stuff that works. Being techies they spend lots of time on the web and they tell me they’d prefer me not to talk about things they’ve already seen or read. So to keep my audience happy I trawled around Vanguard for some new (to me) IT stuff.

What I learned was jaw-droppingly good. Vanguard people have engaged IT developers in our ‘study-improve-pull IT’ method with profound results: far more value from IT (supporting better services) and massive reductions in costs. Small interventions are delivering huge changes and dumping the conventional methods (waterfall, agile and lean) is leading to savings in the hundreds of millions. I’ll publish some of this work next year. Maybe we can get the Cabinet Office interested. I wouldn’t bet on it.

£2m spend on ‘digital talent’

The Government Digital Service is spending £2m on what it calls ‘IT talent’ to digitize public services. They say rapid, user-led development, using open source, agile and cloud based infrastructure is now ‘the order of the day’. Oh, that’s all right then.
To quote from the report:

‘You will have to trust me on the numbers for now, but our first cut across Government services shows that the potential savings on moving transactions to digital make this type of recruitment cost insignificant. An example: in 2009/10 Government services excluding PCTs received at least 693 million telephone calls, at an average cost call of over £6 each, and over 150m of these calls were self-reported as avoidable. If we can move a fraction of these to compelling, digital transactional services with very high completion rates, the savings are quite clear.’

Well I guess while we might trust them on the numbers we can also trust them to move massive amounts of failure demand to digital ‘channels’ and in so doing create even more. Worth the money?

IT talent can find out more here: http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/2011/10/25/the-second-lever/

Universal Credit

Meanwhile, the arguments about Universal Credit, the digital-by-default service, carry on. A journalist called me to get my views. He told me Lord Freud had two numbers: apparently there are 162 ‘scenarios’, I guess in Vanguard-speak that means 162 different types of demand (tell that to a housing benefits officer) and the total cost of UC is expected to be £2bn. I shall keep my offer on the table – to develop the UC in a local authority at minimal cost – as I am sure they will need an insurance policy.

I’m meeting the DWP soon, so more news later. The article about UC can be read here:

London Assembly baffled

Returning to the shared services problems, the London Assembly is baffled by the lack of progress delivering savings from shared services in the fire and police services. That they are baffled and one asserts this must be due to ’empire building’ suggests they don’t know what questions to ask and are, like the promoters, stuck on the notion that it must be a good thing to do. Read the news here:

Prison officer baffled

A prison officer blogs to complain that: ‘Everything has to go through shared services which slows it down even more as they are so incompetent. It is unbelievable. My report was done by [the shared services supplier] and it took 3 months after it was submitted.’

No doubt the bosses will be claiming the shared service is delivering lower transaction costs, oblivious to the real costs.

The blog is here (scroll down for the comments on the shared service):

More grief in Australia

Two more reports on shared services going down down-under:



Lawyers fight back

Lawyers are taking the minister for justice to court over his plans to put call centres at the front of legal advice. Their case is built on evidence form similar schemes. But they forget that our ministers don’t like evidence. It will be an interesting one to watch. See the report here:

Another big idea

The housing minister has launched yet another initiative: this time a house-swap scheme for people who need to move to take up a job offer. Is there any demand? No one in Whitehall knows. Ask people in housing offices and they say none or miniscule. Did Whitehall study how we help or don’t help these (few) people right now? Of course not. Does the lack of this scheme prevent people moving around to get jobs right now? I’d ask the Poles and others for whom this doesn’t seem to be an impediment. How much will be spent on the minister’s brilliant idea, for it won’t be doable without a computer system and a national ‘portal’? We don’t know yet.

But, in the style of the modern politician, the minister gets his attack in first, saying he is ‘determined to shake up the lazy consensus that traps people in this system’. What lazy consensus? I think we should shake up the consensus of ignorant spendthrifts in Whitehall.

See the news here:

Ministers carry on regardless

Despite promising to stop buying computer systems that cost in excess of a hundred million pounds, ministers continue to chuck cash at them. A Home Office minster is spending £200m on an IT system to ‘speed up’ criminal record checks. Has anybody studied why they take so long? Does anyone know whether they ‘work’, i.e. prevent criminals getting jobs they shouldn’t have? Is anyone paying attention to how many people give up volunteering because of these checks? I doubt it. The minster claims this to be a ‘value-for-money decision’. I suspect it is a waste-of-our-money decision. Criminal record checks were set up in response to the Soham murders. It is a classic example of responding to a special cause; never a wise thing to do. See the news here:

Lean failing in Canada

Canadian research shows that two years into their lean programmes most companies failed to get as little as 5% improvements in efficiency (compare that to Vanguard’s work where 20 to 50% improvements are realised in a matter of months). Then, worse, even those savings were found to be temporary! Yet, as the article says, the bandwagon rolls on.

Read it here:

Tool heads destroy care service

One of the Vanguard team was asked to repair a lean intervention in adult care. The tool heads had set up functional teams: the red team picked up the phone, the blue team did an initial assessment and then social workers would attend in order to complete the assessment. Managers had been told things were improving, but had their doubts.

They were right to be sceptical. The ‘improvements’ were associated with meeting target times in each of the teams. While the teams had been fizzed up to meet targets, the reality was that more old people were being sent into short-term care – something they didn’t want – and it was costing a fortune. The target to assess people in 28 days led to cherry-picking cases that could be assessed quickly, leaving others to wait beyond 28 days, and once the 28 day target had been breached, it mattered not how long you leave a case. The tool heads had no idea of the volumes of failure demand (55% at the first point of contact). The red team had more than 250 initial assessment tasks outstanding, and the rule was the clock only starts when the red team opens a task. At the back end our man discovered a growing backlog of care packages – people had to wait for their care. The activity measures looked fine, but taking true end-to-end measures exposed what was going on.

Shocking, awful and plain wrong. It makes you wonder how they get away with it. In case you are concerned, we helped the managers design a system that worked. Assessments are completed in days and care provided speedily, preventing people from going into care. If you haven’t read it we put a summary of our recent care services event on the web, this gives the reader an idea of how to make care services work: https://www.01handshake01.com/v1_lib.php?key=care&id=526

Academic taxes my patience

I wrote an article to be published in Public Money and Management in response to an academic’s defence of lean. The defence was occasioned by the publication of a study of the impact of lean on morale in HMRC (very negative). The academic, an apologist for HMRC and poster-child for public-sector lean, argued that lean needs to be studied at a number of levels. But the one level the academic always avoids is the dependent variable: does it work? Instead, interviews with incumbents are presented as ‘research’. Doh.

Amid a tsunami of bad news – errors for PAYE taxpayers, rising complaints from accountants and call centres that don’t pick up calls – the academic supports the notion that HMRC is on a ‘journey’. The destination can only be down the toilet, with an academic as cheerleader.

If I were on twitter

Maybe the man I would follow is someone who calls himself Juan Peeceflow, (geddit?) the ‘Bad Lean Sensei’. He describes his work as ‘screwing up organizations and [expletive deleted] off employees’.

Some of his tweets:

I didn’t have to read any books for my online black belt. Now that was lean.
5 whys only needs to be 3. I leaned out the problem solving process.
Lean tip: fire somebody who isn’t following standard work. Will give the others something 2 think about over the weekend.
I force people to be enthusiastic. It is mandatory.

Should you wish to follow him, his moniker is: @BadLeanSensei

Do you think I should tweet? I’m wondering.

Policing in austerity

To end on a positive note: Simon Caulkin wrote up our recent police conference, giving highlights of the presentations. In his own words, it was unusual to be moved by what one hears at a conference. You can read his summary here:

Seddon speaks

As this newsletter arrives in your mailbox I am on my way to speak at the RSA in London, and I hear it is ‘sold out’. Let’s hope some of the great and good come to listen.
In the next month I am speaking at:

CIPD, Manchester, 8th November: http://www.cipd.co.uk/cande/annual
Swedish National Forum for Improvement, Stockholm, 15th November: http://www.riksforum.se
Swedish Public Sector Conference, Gothenburgh, 16th November: https://www.webreg.se/wrd.php?event=KM2011&cat=
CQI Conference, London, 30th November: http://www.thecqi.org/Community/CQI-Conference-2011/