Shared services – what works and what does not work?

We ran an event with this title during September and not only did it sell out it was incredibly well received. Two quotes will give a flavour:

‘Inspiring and enjoyable. The case studies were fascinating’ Kevin Smith, Monmouthshire County Council

“A day full of outcome based common sense thinking. It was really refreshing.” Cy Baker, Southampton City Council

As the public sector press is full of hype about shared services, and I mean hype – no theory, no knowledge, just opinion from the great and good and journalistic rubbish, we have decided to run the event again. So if you want to know why Benefits Processing should NOT be shared (yes the one service that leads in the sharing stakes), and if you want to know which other services should NOT be shared, and if you want to know which services COULD be shared but how many have gone about sharing in ways that drive costs up and worsen service, and if you want to know how the private sector out-sourcing sharks are writing contracts for sharing services which lead to them being the only party that wins (citizens and local authorities lose), then you will want to be there.

Edinburgh, November 22nd; London, December 7th. For tickets call

IT does not compute

One of the problems with out-sourcing shared services is that the out-source provider makes Information Technology the driver of change. The latest example of the folly of that idea is the DWP’s abandoning a computer system after spending £140m. It is just part of the money wasted this year by the DWP on IT projects. Apparently the total write-off by the DWP is in excess of £650m. Once the IT provider has control of your IT platform you can expect to get stealthily robbed.

IT should never be the driver of change; it should follow good re-design and be ‘pulled’ not ‘pushed’. As I have mentioned before we now have an IT partner who will work this way, so if you are looking for a new IT solution and you want to spend less on your IT and get more from it, give us a call.

Benchmarking: a waste of time

I was speaking at a call centre conference last month. The organisers asked me to get there early to appear on a panel discussing a call centre ‘Benchmarking’ report. I listened to the presentation thinking it was completely useless and misleading information. Then the moment came when I was asked to contribute.

I started by asking if I was the only person in the room wondering where the value was in this exercise. About half the audience indicated they felt the way I did so I pitched in. To know how you compare to others on staff attrition, abandoned calls, speed to answer and so on is to know nothing of value and might lead you to complacency. To know how many organisations are out-sourcing work to other countries might lead you to follow and make the same mistakes.

The man presenting the findings said Benchmarking provides a baseline for your own improvement and enables you to compare your organisation to others. But if you use misleading measures, as this study does, neither argument holds. He said Benchmarking is something that everyone knows they should do and the reasons people don’t are: they don’t want to know or they suffer from blind apathy.

I think he and the others involved in this nonsense suffer from a different kind of blindness; they are blind to knowledge about what truly governs performance, they are myopically stuck to things that pre-occupy call centre managers. So for example, the benchmarks for time in training were reported with the spin that more training for call centre agents is better. Actually Vanguard clients find that less training is better, because they have learned to train against demand. If they used this benchmark they might feel they were among the worst. Not that I worry about that, for they would not waste their money on this stuff; they know that the only benchmarks they need are in their own system, and they know how to find them.

Is there a call centre ‘industry’?

The benchmarking man talked, as others do, about a call centre ‘industry’. It is a silly idea. There is no such thing. The fact of a technology that allows calls to be distributed amongst people and geographies does not mean that this is an industry. It is no more than a feature that might be employed in organisation design. Different designs might employ the feature in different ways. To treat call centres as an industry can only be in the interests of providers to call centres, which is why when you look into who is behind the various associations, you find ‘industry vendors’.

The ASBO line

For some time ministers have had the view that call centres equals service. The latest nutty idea is for local communities to have an ‘ASBO line’ – a call centre for people to complain about anti-social behaviour. We have studied the demand that comes in on 999 lines and ‘switchboard’ lines in police forces, and we find the demands to be the same. So what would you anticipate coming through on the ASBO line? You get my drift.

The civil servants who are responsible for this initiative are telling people they should decide what to do with ‘out-of-spec’ calls; a stupid idea. The solution is and was to design policing against demand (as our police clients do).

In one of the experimental sites the people taking calls in the ASBO call centre create a log that gets sent in an overnight ‘batched’ process to the police. What do you suppose the caller does during the time that takes? Yes, they call the police. More logs for the same incident. Brilliant.

Those of you that have the DVD will know of the example where the police work was designed against demand: their highest demands were for anti-social behaviour but their system was deigned for emergency crime work. When they changed the system, designing it to deal with the demand, they had a massive impact on their community, dealing quickly with offenders and building a far better relationship with law-abiding people. This latest initiative won’t change anything, except the costs.

Having written this piece I read in the newspapers that the police are saying this new line has not reduced the volume of calls to the ‘999’ line. Instead it is increasing the total volume of calls. Have to say I told you so. This is a classic example of civil servants trying to ‘do something’ to fulfil the Prime Minister’s latest ‘big idea’. The Prime Minister gets the headlines and we carry the costs.

Your doctor is not immune

A reader writes:

“My neighbour is a GP working in the family planning clinic. They have learned that when you fit an IUD you check on it after a short period of time and then it is OK for 5 years. Meanwhile the GPs practices are phoning these people up every year because the phone call counts as ‘contraceptive advice’ for which they get a fee. The patient then phones the clinic to ask what’s going on. Meanwhile the fee for fitting an IUD is so low that GPs pass patients on to the, now overloaded, clinic. Can’t wait for more of King Tony’s reforms.”

It is testament to the power of targets creating ‘gaming’ or ‘cheating’ that even people with professional status find themselves bound to ‘play the game’.

Do Targets Help Or Hinder?

On October 23rd I shall be speaking in Edinburgh at “Scotland’s Public Productivity Conference”. I have twenty minutes to show how targets hinder (and never help), how measures derived from the work lead to improvements you never would have set as targets and what that suggests you need to do about regulation. I guess I’ll have to talk fast.

‘Lifting burdens’ task force

Ruth Kelly, the minister for communities and local government, has appointed a ‘lifting burdens’ task force. I shall be lobbying the members suggesting that ALL targets should be dumped, for it is in the nature of an arbitrary measure to make things worse. Those of you who have read my latest book will know the solution is to have inspectors ask only one question: “What measures are you using to help you understand and improve the work?”

At a stroke this would enable all those who know the problems with arbitrary measures to stop using them; it would put the locus of control where it needs to be – with the people who need to change and improve (not the specifiers and inspectors). Think of the money it would save and the good it would do.

But I’m not holding my breath. They are more likely to do the wrong thing righter than do the right thing.

The Toyota System for service organisations

There are still a few seats remaining for this event, October 17 and 18 in Oxfordshire. It is packed with clients talking about what they have achieved using the Vanguard Method; you will learn about the ‘warts and all’ reality of taking this route, but the difficulties encountered should not let you back down from wanting such outstanding results.