A bad brand

Apparently HMRC’s lean programme, ‘PaceSetter’ (a misnomer), has become a brand and is being flogged around Whitehall as the means for efficiency savings.

Now, as regular readers know, this is the organisation that is always in the news for failing to pick up phone calls, for making shocking errors, for having staff morale in the basement. Just for starters, last year HMRC left 20m calls unanswered and it cost callers £136m – passing on failure costs to taxpayers, which ought to be outlawed.

A Mr Beggs is the new man in charge of PaceSetter. He claims it has made massive savings; but in the same breath he tells us measuring benefits has been difficult. I’m confident these ‘savings’ will be illusory, based on transaction costs and thus will have no bearing on true costs.

Beggs admits that ‘mistakes were made’ but provides no insight into what they were (employing lean tools to standardise work would have been a big one) and he tells us the next step is to be to go back to first principles, in particular to look at the end-to-end process. I expect your jaw just dropped.

In fact what Beggs ought to do first is study demand, it would give him a shock but it would open his eyes and may even get HMRC started.

Read about Beggs here: http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=22023

And a challenge to my readers: If PaceSetter is a misnomer, what should it be called? Suggestions by reply please.

It was lean what done it

There are now some 300 PaceSetter lean practitioners in HMRC, trained and accredited by Cardiff University Business School. Insiders tell me these people achieve ‘practitioner’ status by completing an improvement project using every lean tool in some shape or form; and then completing a number of mini essays on the tools/techniques used. This is signed off by the ‘Lean Expert’ and you are issued with a certificate signed by the Permanent Secretary.

I’m told the vast majority of these efforts focus on tinkering with processes and writing Standard Work Instructions – guaranteed to make performance worse because the lean numpties think (wrongly) that activity = cost and that standardising work will improve efficiency.

Apparently the practitioners have to help senior managers create charters and visions as part of their ‘lean journey’ (wretch). Advice is that visions should include the desire to improve performance by 5%. Why 5%? Apparently because it is easily achievable. I can hear Deming: ‘If you can do 5% now why didn’t you do that before? Why 5%? How do you know?

One senior management team decided they would achieve their vision of ‘extraordinary service’ by changing the HR policy. And what was this change? Removing one of the steps on the road to dismissing people for poor performance.

I know; you couldn’t make it up.

HMRC’s ‘brand’ in action

A reader writes:

‘My wife received a letter (end Feb 13) informing her that she has a gap in her NIC (she is a housewife and our youngest turned 12 mid-year) and she had the option of making this gap up but payment must be made by 5 April 13 or the cost may increase. (No problem so far). After doing some research decided it was worthwhile, but needed to wait until next payday to pay, so made contact on 29 March to make payment at which point my wife was pointed to the website as HMRC cannot take payments over the phone. Oh well this should be straightforward right, after all digital by default is the saviour of the hour, mmm.

Having navigated through the various pages was presented with a screen requesting a payment ref no. (must be the ref no. on the letter, surely). No, so we call again and enquire about the payment ref no. to be told you should find this on page 3 of the letter and which my wife replied that this is difficult when you have only been sent page 1 & 2. Anyhow, now we’re talking you can give me the number can’t you, after all I have cleared security and you are satisfied I am who I say I am. Not on your nelly, we are informed it is a different department that issues the letters and will have to send out a new one. But what about the 5 April deadline, oh that’s ok I’ll extend it by 1 month as it will take 7-10 days for the letter to arrive, Ok can I have the number of the dept. in case I have any further queries? Er no, sorry you will have to come back through us but you shouldn’t have any further problems.

On 15th April my wife phoned again as the letter has not arrived and she was told that 7 – 10 days was optimistic as this timescale is based on from when the relevant department pick up the request and this will depend on how much work they have so leave it another week. Brilliant, 3 0845 phone calls (on Virgin these calls amount to more than £5). In summary, nearly 3 weeks from first wanting to make payment and I wonder if they will equip me to comply with their timescales, I’m not holding my breath. It will probably end up costing me money.’

If only Beggs knew.

Universal shambles

Meanwhile HMRC’s sister department the DWP is in the throes of implementing the Universal Credit (‘digital by default’). The implementation plan has been radically scaled back and on April 26th the Guardian was reporting that only a few dozen claimants were expected to trial the service: only single people with no children, newly claiming a benefit, will be told to claim universal credit, stipulating that they must also be fit for work, not be claiming disability benefits, not have any caring responsibilities, must not be homeless, living in temporary accommodation, and must have a valid bank account and national insurance number. The council concerned estimated that as few as 300 people would claim in the first month. They even got Citizen’s Advice in to deal with problems of failure to get service (i.e. soak up the failure demand).

As it turned out, no claimants turned up! What can we learn from this? That no one has studied demand, so they have no idea what types of demands the UC will need to serve. Also (maybe) that DWP people are frightened of dealing with complex demand – as they should be – and are seeking to avoid it. Putting some simple cases through can be claimed as success.

What we know is that if you are designing a new service the demand you want to push through it early on is the high-frequency predictable stuff (i.e. those you know you’ll get a lot of) and we can only assume the DWP hasn’t a clue what that means for UC – after all these years in, and over �700m ‘invested’.

You can read the news stories here:

The UC ‘pilots’, where rents were paid directly to claimants instead of to landlords, showed that tenants got into arrears, clearly spending the money on other things. Unperturbed, ministers insisted claimants should learn to manage their money. Lobbying by social landlords has resulted in a kind of U-turn. Local authority benefits offices, which have been kept on to deal with UC’s failure demand (the original ‘business case’ was that they should go), have been told that if a tenant gets to two months in arrears they can switch to paying landlords directly and put people on money management courses.

Up go the costs of failure. UC is truly an omni-shambles.

Bullies at work

A shocking revelation that Cameron’s ‘behavioural insight team’ – the ‘nudge unit’ – have coerced the unemployed to complete a fake ‘strengths’ survey, presumably in the hope that it will nudge people to get a job. A nudge too far.

See more here: www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/apr/30/jobseekers-bogus-psychometric-tests-unemployed

Two readers on health

Further to my last newsletter post on health:
One reader writes:

‘I happened to be in my local A & E dept last Friday and asked one of the nurses how the target culture was impacting on the standard of service. She informed me that they were seeing a lot of patients that had been released too early because the ward had a release date target for each patient. Patients, especially the elderly, were being sent home too soon only to be readmitted through A & E within a few days of being released.’

This is something we know a lot about, people cycling through repeatedly because the system is not designed to meet their needs. Consuming massive resources and failing to help people.

And a nurse writes:

‘In response to ‘Hunt promises culture of change’ I would like to agree that a system of fear creates a culture of fear, which creates corners being cut, a lack of transparency and dangerous practice. Although I agree that nurses do not need extra training on basic care, I do believe that nurse training needs to be improved and less based on academia and more based on clinical skills. I also believe that nurses need to be empowered in some way to be able to speak out. I am a nurse who has been bullied, intimidated and made ill by the stress of trying to raise concerns. As of yet I have never succeeded in changing dangerous practices. I believe this system needs to change and it can be done within the nursing community regardless of finance directors and chief executives. I am devoted to trying to find a way of achieving this. Then I hope that nurse training will have a large part of it devoted to nurse involvement in local system design, without having to go via ‘clinical governance’. If we are trained to do it and it becomes part of the nursing role then maybe it will prevent nurses from witnessing dangerous systems and saying nothing.

I believe that the only way to truly evaluate healthcare is to use nurses, doctors and others working on the front line to design the systems that they use. This would not create nice graphs and tables for the bean counters, but would ensure, I believe, that the patient journey is improved.’

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Some good news in housing

Camden Council has been working with the Vanguard Method in their housing services. They can now proudly proclaim to their community what to expect:


And on video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXzPPY7pVHo

Kittens are evil

The next ‘Kittens are Evil’ event is filling up fast. Everything you need to know about the perils of payment by results and outcomes-based commissioning (saying these things won’t work is like saying kittens are evil).

Wednesday 10th July at the Metropole Hotel, Llandrindod Wells, Powys.
10 am – 4pm
Cost: £45 (plus VAT)
To register follow this link:

Seddon on lean

I shall be speaking at Buckingham University’s ‘lean’ event on July 11th. I’m told it features the latest lean guru from across the pond. For my part I’ll be talking about study, study, study; what Ohno did and lean don’t 😉

For information and bookings: www.buckingham.ac.uk/lean-conference

Calling Canadians

Our mail server failed. It was nice to have a few days without mail. But one sad consequence is I have lost all electronic memory of peoples’ addresses. In preparation for speaking on public-sector reform in Canada I was hoping to get the low-down on what’s been going on. Perhaps my Canadian newsletter readers can help? I want to know if Canada is doing the same stupid stuff with ‘reform’ as our ministers are: Shared services, IT-led change, commissioning, to-down targets, specifications, regulation and so on. Thanks in anticipation of your help.

For more about the event:

Call for beta-testers

We are still accepting beta-testers to help us develop the subscriber area of our new web site (vanguard-method.com). You have to be a group of people in housing, local authorities or the voluntary sector and you have to agree to work with the site to study and redesign a specified service. The object of this phase of development is to ensure the new site can do what it says on the tin.

Action-learning events

Below is the list of scheduled events. Our action-learning programme is becoming very popular; it’s a great introduction to the Vanguard Method. If you want an event to be run in a town near you or in your organisation, please contact Janice (email below). When we have sufficient demand in an area we’ll get it organised.

Forthcoming action-learning programmes on the Vanguard Method:

Birmingham: Tuesdays 18th, 25th June & 2nd, 9th July 2013

Cardiff: Tuesdays 17th, 24th September & 1st, 8th October 2013

Birmingham: Thursdays 19th, 26th September & 3rd, 10th October 2013

Note that delegates will be expected to apply what is taught between sessions.

For further information or to request a booking form email: pr@vanguardconsult.co.uk