Want to be in the movies?

On April 13th I shall be making a DVD in Buckingham (UK of course). There are a few spaces in the audience. Registration starts at 9:00 am, the presentation starts at 10:00. It will take about 2 hours and you get a free lunch! The presentation is ‘An Introduction to Lean Service’. If you’d like to be in the audience please e-mail Anna: office@vanguardconslt.co.uk

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Am I political?

A number of newsletter readers have written to express their concern that my newsletter is political. Is it political to point out how often (all the time) government specifications actually make public services worse and drive up costs? Is it wrong to question the value of regulation in the private sector and present evidence of it sub-optimising systems and damaging their ability to serve customers? When I write about these phenomena I don’t expect my readers to think they should vote for one party or another, I expect them to engage politicians on the issues. It would be a mistake to think any political party has the answer. Certainly in the UK none has. I would like to vote for someone who was prepared to be open about the problems and not dogmatic about solutions.

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Is it ‘political’ to disagree with government?

Without doubt public sector reform will be a major issue in the forthcoming election. As the temperature rises ministers adopt a new pre-emptive variation on Peter Mandelson’s (the UK’s master of ‘spin’) dictum ‘if you can’t win the argument, take out the man’, One government spokesman, speaking on the radio, argued that anyone who studies the record would be ‘foolish’ not to see the ‘obvious’ truth that public services have improved. It puts anyone who would disagree on the defensive; it would seem carping to doubt the ministers.

Yet I do. And I have the evidence.

New Labour claims investment is evidence of improvement, the opposition parties point to increased bureaucracy. While politicians argue about how many of the 580,000 extra public servants are working in the front line or employed as bureaucrats, the big costs are actually attributable to dumb bureaucratic specifications. We need to get the politicians interested in that problem.

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Mr Flight suffered a political downfall

Mr Howard Flight was, until last week, a Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party in the UK. He was someone who knew about the extent of the problems associated with dumb bureaucratic specifications. Mr Flight was recorded speaking at a (closed) party meeting by an infiltrator. In essence he said his party’s review of the public sector had been ‘sieved’ for what was politically acceptable and there would be further scope for reducing the costs of public services. Because he was off message, and that threatens the party with being portrayed as ‘having something up their sleeve’, he was sacked. Is that the kind of politics we want? Why are we not finding out who the infiltrator was and who sent him? Why can’t we debate Mr Flight’s proposition that there is plenty of waste in the public sector?

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The reality at the coalface

A systems practitioner in a UK local authority wrote to me to share two current experiences. The first concerns benefits processing:

‘Command and control is alive and not well in benefits. For the last 6 weeks we have had three inspection regimes in our benefits service simultaneously: internal audit, external audit and the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI). All three are inspecting different parts of the service. Jokes about how many inspectors does it take to change a light bulb spring to mind. Of course it’s driving the team mad – God knows why more of them haven’t called in sick! Needless to say that during these six weeks, knowledge about the system such as purpose, demand, capability to perform, and flow have not been explored at all. As for systems conditions and management thinking, forget it. The approach has been one of box-ticking prescribed check sheets about fraud and making sure our staff aren’t paying money into their own bank accounts instead of to our customers. This last point is an interesting assumed system condition – that my staff are dishonest!

In conversation with the BFI people, I managed to get them to admit that from their perspective it is better that we pay new claims in 20 days with a 50% error rate, than in 30 days with 99% accuracy. Interesting view from a body attempting to protect the public purse. I’m interested in paying in 5-10 days with perfect accuracy, which is why we start CHECK with the team in a month or two…’

And that is, as he knows, what other authorities have achieved using the Vanguard method. It is a result that far exceeds government targets, making them look quite stupid (as they are). [And just in case you don’t know, targets are one of the ‘system conditions’ that make performance worse]

His second example is from the results of re-designing the way his authority pays invoices:

‘Yesterday we sat in the work to review this week’s invoice payment capability data with the property team. Note that property are paying their own invoices, not Finance — we have got the value work to the front of the process where the experts who know that the property work has been completed satisfactory can pay their own invoices cleanly and quickly. From a position late last year of paying invoices to terms in 24 days +/- 40 days (the old system which incidentally we claimed was paying 90% of invoices within the governments 30 day target), we are now achieving 4 days +/- 6 days. Note that we are paying to supplier terms (which funnily enough makes them very happy), not the artificial 30 day target set by the minister!’

And once again nothing they did to re-design the work could be found in a government specification. It is time we talked to ministers about just how much they are mucking up public sector performance.

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Am I a politician?

So I have to put my hand up to being political, and for very good reason: ministers came into my space (how work is designed and managed) and they have got it wrong. Not just a bit wrong, very wrong, and we taxpayers have to bear the costs of their folly.

But am I a politician? Absolutely not.

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Call centre rebellion

New research says customers are getting their own back on call centres. Customers find ways to avoid IVRs (‘press one for this…’) for example by pressing ‘0’ they find they can often get through to a real person; they cause the agent to go over their standard times by putting the agent on hold or they call the sales line because it is free and always gets picked up by a person. It tickles me that so many consumers are now familiar with the dumb design issues.

The tragedy is managers could design out their current problems by taking the systems approach. Command and control managers are unaware of just how badly their ‘factory’ service design hampers service and thus drives up their costs. To out-source to anywhere, let alone India, just locks in the costs. The systems alternative is to design against demand. Customers like systems they can ‘pull value’ from. Just doing what the customer wants, cleanly, drives out costs.

I have had my critique of the UK Call Centre Association’s ‘best practice’ guide on the shelf for some time now. Being perceived as a ‘bad boy’ by some circles can dampen your enthusiasm for being critical. But enough is enough. We could be competing on the world stage with high value, high quality call centres. Instead of ‘dumbing down’ we should be ‘smartening up’. The distinguishing feature of a service organisation is the inherent variety in customer demand. Only people can satisfactorily absorb that variety.

I have just pulled the critique off the shelf. You’ll be notified here when it becomes available. We need to stop bad practice being promulgated as best practice.