Is anyone listening?

Following my last newsletter, a reader wrote:

‘The theme of this newsletter, as so many others, is that you are full of transforming ideas of great benefit to society, but no-one is listening.’ Another reader described what I had to say as ‘suicidal’. I have been told in the past I am ‘angry’. It fascinates me to see how people react to the newsletter. Let me assure all my readers I am happy, enthused about what I do for a living and I look forward to writing the newsletter every month.

I guess I made a choice not to publicise what we do for a living – I read other newsletters that are full of ‘people we helped’ and ‘how good our services’ are etc and I could do that sort of stuff – we have clients with great results and better cultures from taking a systems view. But I think the market needs stirring, systems thinking is not what people want, it is what they need. People want junk like ‘people programmes’ and any number of fads promoted by those who have little knowledge and lots of hype. Part of my mission is to educate those who ‘know’ there must be a better way. If it takes scratching an itch to do this, all to the better. So I write about stuff that makes me think how could we be so dumb?

Of course I get angry about it, but I think we all should.

If you – the reader – want to read different stuff, let me know. After all, this is a service business!

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Lets make more sales!Lets make more sales!

Managers of a financial services organisation took the view they were losing sales opportunities in their branches – industry data showed a rise

in sales of a particular kind of product and, they assumed, branch staff were not equipped to service it. So they built a new service centre, a central function (call centre) for servicing this business.

People were taken off the street, trained in the product characteristics, given scripts to work to when customers called and managers sat back waiting to be delighted with their work.

The first problem they had was the anticipated level of demand did not occur. So, in their wisdom they gave the branch staff an incentive for passing leads for the product. Demand went up, but sales did not.

While those in management land argued about who was to blame and what should be done, a systems-thinker mole found the following: The majority of the ‘leads’ from branches were ‘dirty’ – people who had little need for the product, but the incentive drove people in the branches to send anything that looked remotely like an opportunity. The customers were appalled at the experience of being called by someone with a script, so even those who might have bought were put off – no one could actually talk knowledgably to the customer about their circumstances and a solution. The service centre staff were pre-occupied with meeting their activity targets, regardless of the impact on customers. The paperwork sent to the customer following the call was confusing and led many customers to give up.

The net result: a whole brigade of customers – current and potential – who would never talk to those arseholes again about any kind of service.

Just in case you wonder if there is a better way – and in respect of the first item in this newsletter – we have been working with a financial services organisation whose sales are massively ahead of plan. What do the leaders work on? How to design their services against customer demands. If you can understand why customers call in from their point of view, you can design a system that gives them what they want. Service improves, costs fall and revenue grows. Of course that means getting down to understand the work where it happens, something financial services managers are generally loath to do. It seems managers generally prefer to build new ‘factories’ and shout at each other.

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Crime detection rates worsen – who is to blame?

The newspapers report a ‘record number of crimes going unsolved’. Police spokesmen blame it on a rise in street crime and, in particular, mobile phone thefts. It is reported that in some areas people who steal from cars have a 10% chance of getting caught. The Chief Constable of Manchester blames pressure of work: ‘I am committed to improving detection rates_ the main problem is the volume of crime’. Officers blame the courts for releasing offenders too quickly.

Amongst the reporting I saw that someone had something sensible to say. Barry Irving of the Police Federation remarks that the targets themselves are part of the problem: ‘While the Soviet bloc was doing it, target-setting was a joke, but people seem to have forgotten about that_ constantly chasing artificial targets was seen as a fairly idiotic way to spend your time’. Quite so.

So why have crime detection rates worsened? Well, of course we don’t know that they have. The procedures for counting have changed and are not applied consistently, furthermore no police force to my knowledge reports data over time in capability charts so we cannot be confident this is a real ‘signal’ and not just noise – normal variation.

Aside from the problems of measurement, we have seen the following causes of waste in the police: Centralised call handling, functional specialisation of work (using civilians to do ‘non police’ work) and measuring and reporting the wrong things. And waste means a worsening capability to achieve purpose – catch criminals and prevent crime. Who is responsible more than anyone else for these ‘system conditions’? Step forward Home Secretary_ yes the fish rots from the head_ every time.

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What is the purpose?

A reader writes:

‘A friend has recently become an ambulance paramedic. She told me that they have a target to be at the scene within 8 minutes tops (fine, I suppose, but the quicker the better, as the crew have no way of changing any of the circumstances that stop them from getting to a scene on time, i.e. traffic). Worse, however, is that they are required to get to the scene and have the patient back to A&E within 30 minutes! Why?

As my friend points out, it is often more beneficial to take your time and treat and stabilise the patient at the scene, i.e. heart attack victims. She gave me a wonderful example of them asking an elderly lady ‘when did your husband start having the chest pains?’, the answer being, ‘…mmmm, let me think. Well last Thursday he was doing the garden and I called him in for dinner – boiled fish. We always have boiled fish on Thursday, he loves cod. Anyway, he said his chest felt a bit tight then, but put it down to the high pollen, because he has asthma you know……..’ and so on!

The 30 minute target causes the ambulance crew to potentially rush treatment and be impatient themselves with those at the scene who can help the diagnosis. Great!

Speaking of diagnosis, once they get the patient back to A&E, that’s it. Unless the ambulance crew enquire themselves they get little or no feedback as to the future well-being of the patient, so they do not even know if they’ve made the right diagnosis at the scene. The reason for this lack of feedback? Patient confidentiality.’ Of course the ambulance service, like so many other public services, would learn more from capability measures. What will it take to educate those who damage these systems with targets?

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What is a capability measure?

Following the last newsletter I got a number of e-mails asking me to explain more about capability measures. In short, a capability measure is a measure that tells you what you are currently achieving and how predictable that achievement is. It is a measure derived from your purpose, and purpose is thought about in customer terms. So, for example, if you are in the ambulance service, you want to know how many people you save, don’t you? Time to respond is clearly not all that matters.

A capability measure is used where the work happens. Because it is a measure taken over time it shows variation. This naturally invites the people who do the work to discuss the causes of variation. By acting on the causes of variation, variation is reduced, predictability is increased and overall capability improves. Moreover, because all of this involves those who do the work, morale improves significantly.

So the bottom line, as they say, is a self-adapting system run by motivated people. Who could wish for anything more?

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Egan and the Housing Sector

John Egan, the man behind the housing sector reform programme, said:

‘We have learnt that continuous and sustained improvement is achievable if we focus all our efforts on delivering the value that our customers need, and if we are prepared to challenge the waste and poor quality arising from our existing structures and working practices.’

He is right. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, the plethora of advice and institutional activity that goes under the Egan banner (self-assessment, benchmarking, training, partnering workshops and so on) will, in my humble opinion, not deliver Egan’s ambitions.

On the other hand, systems thinking will. We (Vanguard) are going to put out a special Newsletter on Egan matters. It will talk about what is wrong with some of the current initiatives, from a systems perspective and how systems methods would provide better solutions – in fact will deliver what Egan stands for. We are also going to invite readers to contribute their thoughts and experiences – people are currently doing things in order to become Egan compliant and they, no doubt, will have thoughts about the efficacy of what they are being told to do etc.