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Dyson excels in service design

A reader writes:

‘My vacuum cleaner was not in a good way and was making an awful sound. I had not been able to diagnose the problem but noticed they had a free-phone helpline on their website. I gave them a call and the call was answered almost immediately. The first person to answer took me though a diagnosis over the phone, asking me to switch the vacuum on and off, having removed various bits and pieces (one of the good things about Dyson is that it is designed to be easy to disassemble). As a result of this we isolated that it was the rotary-head and he asked whether I would like to buy a replacement (having first checked that one was available). The phone call lasted less than 10 minutes and the part arrived three days later.

After I had put the phone down I remember thinking what a pleasure the whole experience had been: no endless wait or automatic call handling service, no ‘I need to pass you on to a technician’, no ‘I think we need to call out a field rep to visit you’ (at £65 plus parts). I wish only wish more companies could be more efficient in dealing with customers.’

Here here. And that’s something the leaders at Dyson must get: better service is more efficient. I saw something similar years ago at Mira showers. Customers with shower problems would be helped by people (mostly ladies) who knew everything. They even impressed the plumbers. It is amazing what people can learn to do if you design a system that makes solving customer problems their purpose.

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Still no service from HMRC

Meanwhile, back to HMRC, the archetypically bad service design where managers believe its better to solve customer problems by chunking service up into bits… Regular readers will recall the problem a small firm was having, trying to pay the right VAT to HMRC. The reader wrote to up-date us:

‘A response from the VAT Written Enquiries Team (pretty much a giveaway in the name, obviously we wouldn’t want the same people giving a joined-up service to the same tax payers via letters AND telephone). The letter is almost two pages long, and takes all that verbiage to say (I paraphrase slightly) ‘we can’t give you any written advice because we already publish written advice on this subject. If we didn’t already publish written advice, we’d be able to give you written advice’.

Of course, the letter does also point us to the ‘Complaints and putting things right fact-sheet’ should we need it…’

And what confidence would one have that filing a complaint will lead to solving the problem?

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Only in America

I don’t like going to America, mostly because the service organisations over there seem to assume that having polite but useless service agents is what service is all about. When the service agent cannot help you solve your problem (which is often) and you get cross, they treat your behaviour as a signal to cease serving you. It is as though smiling is the new substitute for service. On top of that it is ‘IVR-land’. You spend forever pressing buttons, trying to get through to someone who can help.

So it was with incredulity that I learned of a new service being developed by techies: Computer software that will navigate through an IVR on your behalf. Attractive to the customer because you can let the computer do your walking, but piling waste upon waste. Could only happen in America.

It reminds me of Deming’s little joke: ‘Let’s make toast the American way, I’ll burn, you scrape!’

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Audit Commission gives SW1 thumbs up

I noticed a report in the local government press that the Audit Commission has given South West One (joint-venture service factory, newsletters passim) the thumbs up. So I read the report (easy to find via Google). All it says is the procurement process was properly managed and if the new venture remains properly managed things will be fine. It is an audit of compliance with current management beliefs and ideological dogma. Perhaps the audit was triggered by the rousing chorus of criticism and concern, an opportunity for the regime to paint a patina of respectability, for SW1 represents their vision of the future, more public sector service factories.

The procurement of these out-sourced factory deals has been professionalized, procurement officers are taught how to get the best deal and write contracts that can be enforced with penalties. Procurement has become a vehicle for insuring managers against risk and in this case the Audit Commission thinks they did a good job. But the risks are in the design. It is a contract based on transaction volumes and regular readers will know what is wrong with that (if you don’t you’ll find all the answers in my latest book!). SW1 also has housing benefits in the factory, something that works best as a front-office-only design (that’s in the book too!). So we know it is at best a sub-optimal solution and at worst will be a massive waste of taxpayers’ money.

If the Audit Commission were truly independent, it would surely be keen to know more about why many similar out-sourced arrangements are exhibiting higher than anticipated costs and whether SW1 might fall into the same traps. But that wasn’t the purpose. The Audit Commission is an instrument of the regime.

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More support for the ideology

Another report from the Audit Commission this month: ‘Back to front; efficiency of back office functions in local authorities’. And it opens with bold claims for efficiencies being realised through back office savings but fails to provide any evidence at the necessary level of detail to make the case. Indeed, when the report gets into the detail, we learn that some achieve efficiency gains with LESS back office work (putting the right expertise at the front end, the right answer) while others achieve efficiency gains with variations on the back office factory theme (sharing services, out-sourcing, etc.) This is generally the wrong answer although it is supported by reports of lower transaction costs (illusory, for the true costs are in flow, not function). Of course in some cases you can’t argue, if a local council has out-sourced all of its administration to a private-sector provider and gained efficiencies (and can show no increases in its own administration, often a consequence) then it worked, but are they now locked into a contract that either obviates further gains or ensures gains go the provider rather than the taxpayer?

More of the detail shows a variety of bureaucratic means (star chambers, budget reviews, service reviews etc), grist to the inspector’s mill, but we learn nothing about the why of efficiency gains. Tables illustrating techniques (process improvement, ICT, procurement, outsourcing etc) with the money saved tell us only what we know: local authority services can be improved. The report is littered with case studies of efficiency gains which make interesting reading and the conclusion: that local authorities ought best decide for themselves (the right answer) does not support the report’s main thrust: that back office efficiency is the way to go and not an oxymoron.

So it all comes down to ‘we can report there have been efficiency gains, but we don’t really know enough about why’. But that doesn’t stop the authors and the Audit Commissions press-relations people putting the required spin on things.

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Don’t get on the wrong side of the Audit Commission

Many senior leaders successfully pursuing Systems Thinking (and getting results that put targets in the shade) find themselves being cautioned by their colleagues against being critical of the Audit Commission’s star ratings (which are always found to be completely unreliable) and recommendations (usually based on received wisdom, not knowledge). They are told not to be open with criticism as it may prove costly for the organisation moving forward.

People fear the Audit Commission, even to the point of knowingly doing the wrong things. It is a tragic feature of the ‘reform’ landscape. We have to stand up to the Audit Commission.

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NI 14: The Petard

Thanks to the readers who sent in suggestions for naming NI 14 (the government target for ‘avoidable contact’). The one I liked the most was The Petard – the regime will be hoisted by its own petard as people learn that the primary cause of failure demand (for that is what they refer to) is targets! The regime will become a victim of its own malodorous scheme. (From pèter, to break wind!)

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Tools for fools

Genchi Genbutsu is a Toyota principle meaning ‘go and see for yourself, in the work, to thoroughly understand’. Usually in response to a problem; so a worker pulls the andon cord, the line stops and managers turn up to study the problem. The assumption is there is a problem in the work, not a problem with the worker.

I have just come across the most horrendous misappropriation of the concept. Tool-heads distorting Genchi Genbutsi into something palatable to command and control thinkers. Their poor clients will be duped into believing they are ‘doing Toyota’ when nothing could be further from the truth.

Having first standardised the work (wrong thing to do in a service organisation), the standard operating procedures are subjected to audits. Any non-compliance will generate a report and then a manager will turn up. Amazingly dumb. The signal that something is wrong is created through an audit, not the worker putting his/her hand up. Non-compliance with operating procedures is assumed to be the problem (studying the work would help them see that the big problems lie in standardisation) and how much would you bet that the managers will assume the problem is the worker? Oh and by the way, team leaders respond to audit reports daily, managers turn up to do their bit weekly and directors monthly. You couldn’t make it up!