Why do managers plan?

In response to my question last month about what stops managers acting, one correspondent reflected on something he hears managers say: ‘The problem with good advice is that it interferes with your plans.’

It made me think why do managers plan? Consider the hours of time wasted in meetings made up from people who know little or nothing about the work – the natural consequence of traditional measures. Managers argue about differences in performance that are no more than common cause variation. The waste is incredible. And if they act with edicts, they are only likely to make it worse.

But it is better to ask ‘how do managers plan’? Usually against targets. It is nonsense. It is better to plan with knowledge of the ‘what and why’ of current performance as a system. Of course this exposes things you should be doing urgently, but they are not in the current plans. And boy do departments have complicated procedures for getting stuff in to their plans.

Situations like this require leaders. The way we plan is part of the problem. We need action over planning. We need knowledge over decision-making.

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Sick Sigma

A systems thinker I respect wrote to me:

‘I’ve been reading the reviews of Jack Welch’s book; look at the rave reviews from managers on Amazon. It makes dismal reading. How about (as was reported in the Telegraph) Jack’s policy of getting his managers to sack their bottom 10% performers each year? Managers resorted to hiring dummies a few months before ‘sacking time’ each year and then sacking them when the time came. Very clever, Jack!’

I can see how Jack got to it. The Six Sigma crowd use probability statistics. So to get to Six Sigma with HR policies, cut off the tail. Very dumb and it wouldn’t pass the Human Rights Act.

One of my consultants just had the privilege of watching the start of a Six Sigma programme in a client whose system we know. The initiative had been sent down by head office. It began with the training of many ‘black belts’. Three weeks training on tools for improving performance. Then the consultants talked to managers for four weeks (imagine the cost) about their ideas for improvement. The results were brought to a decision-making forum, the priorities were identified and people were sent forth to apply their tools. Just before they went they were given the project reporting requirements and told now the responsibility was theirs.

So now the managers were responsible for executing what the consultants had helped them to come up with. But how had they conceptualised their problems? From their current (traditional) point of view. Six Sigma had not changed their thinking about the design and management of work. The tools will not do much for them. They needed to think about their business from a different point of view – as a system. The consultants didn’t help them do that but will ensure that whatever gets done is subject to strong project management. They are on the road to confusion.

I’m going to talk about this case at the Edinburgh conference. It has important lessons for all of us.

For information about the Edinburgh conference, see below.

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How much time in the classroom?

A story told about UK professor inviting leading systems thinkers to teach in the UK. The Japanese guru had agreed to teach four classes. The professor asked, for clarification, whether this meant four days teaching. ‘Oh no’ replied the guru, ‘only one hour in the classroom. You cannot learn this in the classroom’.

Pause for reflection – six sigma, three weeks in class, systems thinking four hours over four weeks.

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Will the minister call?

Last month I joined a radio programme (‘You and Yours’ – BBC Radio 4) discussing the value of targets in improving public sector performance. During the programme I described how targets had, in practical and detailed terms, worsened performance in the Police and Fire services. The government representative – pro targets of course – is the man responsible for scrutiny of the public purse.

So I got to thinking. I just told the man how we currently waste millions and I indicated – again with examples – how there was a better way. Yes, we could reduce the costs of public services and at the same time improve them. Do you think the minister called?