Inspector Clouseau

inspector-clouseauSo, a bloody good mate of mine manages a team that delivers an important public service – let’s call him Charlie. We have a weekly coffee after a challenging MAMIL 1 bike ride….and we thoroughly explore our (comedic) working lives.

And so to our most recent conversation – Charlie told me that his department is due an inspection (a public sector reality)…and how much he, ahem, ‘loves’ such things! 🙂

“Oh, and why’s that?” I say.

His response2 went something like this: “Well, they come in with a standardised checklist of stuff, perform interviews and site visits to tick off against a set of targets, and then issue a report with our score, and recommendations as to what we should be doing….it’s not exactly motivational!”

“Mmm” I say…”but presumably their intent – to understand how well things are going – is good?”

Here’s the essence of Charlie’s reply: “Yep, I ‘get’ the intent behind many of the items on their checklist, and I accept that knowing how we are doing is really important…but, rather than act like robotic examiners, I want them to:

  • understand us, and our reality (what we are having to deal with3)…and I want them to focus on what really matters in respect of our service, not hide behind narrow ‘currently trendy’ targets and initiatives set from above;

  • give us the chance to demonstrate:
    • how we are doing;
    • where we know we have room for improvement; and
    • what we are doing to get better; and finally 

  • assist us, by adding value (perhaps with useful references to what they’ve seen working elsewhere) rather than be seen as ‘taking up our time’. “

“Righto”, I said ”…that sounds excellent! I’ll write a post on that lot”…so here goes:

A ‘short but sharp’ generic critique of inspections:

inspectionInspection requires someone looking for something (whether positive or negative)…and this comes from a specification as to what they believe you should be doing and/or how you should be doing it.

The ‘compliance’ word fits here.

…and, as such, the inputs, behaviours and outcomes from inspections are rather predictable. You can expect some or all of the following:

  • people, often (usually?) from outside your service, spend time writing (often inflexible) specifications as to what you should (and should not) be doing;
  • people are employed, and trained, as inspectors of those specifications;
  • you and your team spend precious time preparing before each imminent inspection:
    • running preparatory meetings to guess what might happen;
    • window-dressing solely for the benefit of ‘the inspector’ e.g. making your work space look temporarily good, filling in (and perhaps even back dating) ‘paperwork’;
    • even performing ‘dummy runs’ (rehearsals!);
  • you and your team serenade the inspector around during their visit, with everyone on their best behaviour;
  • questions are asked, careful (guarded) answers are given, and an inspection report is issued;
  • your post-inspection time is then consumed rebutting (what you consider to be) poorly drawn recommendations and/or drafting action plans, stating what is going to be implemented to comply.

…and after it’s all over, a big sigh is let out, and you go back to how you were.

Wouldn’t it be great if, rather than playing the ‘inspection game show’, you truly welcomed someone (anyone) coming in to see what you actually do and, when they arrive, you carried on as normal because you are confident that:

  • you are operating in the way that you currently believe to be the best; and
  • you want them to see and understand this, and yet provide you with feedback that you can ponder, experiment with, and get even better at delivering against your purpose4.

…so how might you get to this wonderland?

A better way:

just-one-questionI’m a huge fan of a (deceptively) simple yet (potentially) revolutionary idea put forward by John Seddon:

“Instead of being measured on compliance, people should be assessed on whether they are able to show that they are working to understand and improve the work they do.

It is to shift from ‘extrinsic’ motivation (carrot and stick) to intrinsic motivation (pride), which is a far more powerful source of motivation.”

…and to the crux of what Seddon is suggesting:

“Inspection of performance should be concerned with asking only one question of managers:

‘What measures are you using to help you understand and improve the work?’ “

This, to me, is superb – the inspector doesn’t arrive with a detailed checklist and ‘cookie cutter’ answers to be complied with; and the manager (and his/her team) has to really think about that question!

To answer it, the team must become clear on:

  • the (true) purpose of the service that they provide;
  • what measures5 would tell them how they are doing against this purpose (i.e. their capability);
  • how they are doing against purpose (i.e. as well as knowing what to measure, they must be actively, and appropriately, measuring it for themselves);
  • what they are working on to improve, and how these are affecting the performance of their system; and
  • what fresh ideas have arisen to experiment with.

You can see that this isn’t something that is simply ‘prepared in advance’ for a point-in-time inspection. It is an ongoing, and ever maturing, endeavour – a way of working.

It means that any inspector (or interested party) can arrive at any time and explore the above in use (as opposed to it being beautifully presented in ‘this years’ audit file ring-binder)

 “Are you saying that ‘specifications’ are wrong then?”

i-love-to-clarifyBefore ending this post, I’d like to clarify that:

  • No, I’m not saying that specifications are (necessarily) wrong; and
  • I’m also not saying that scientific know-how, generated from a great deal of experience over time should be ridiculed or ignored ‘just because it comes from somewhere else’.

Taking each in turn,

  • Specifications (e.g. the current best known way to perform a task) should be owned by the team that have to perform them…and these should be:
    • of adequate depth and breadth to enable anyone and everyone to professionally perform their roles;
    • suitably flexible to cater for the variety of demands placed upon them (requiring principled guidelines rather than concrete rules); and
    • ‘living’ i.e. continuously improved as new learning occurs6

  • If there is a central function, then their role should be to:

    • understand what is working ‘out there’; and
    • effectively share that information with everyone else (thus being of great value to managers)

without dictating that a specific method should be ‘complied with’.

The point being that we should not think in terms of ‘best practise’…we should be continuously looking for, and experimenting with, better practise, suited to each scenario. This is to remove the (attempted) authority from the centre, and place it as the (necessary) responsibility where the actual work is performed, by the service (manager, and team) on the front line.

In this way, ‘the centre’ can shift itself from being seen as an interfering, bureaucratic and distant police force, to a much valued support service.

To Ponder:

If you are ‘being inspected’ then, yes, I ‘get’ that you currently need to ‘tick those boxes’…but how about thinking a little bit differently:

…how would you show those ‘inspecting you’ that you truly understand, and are improving, your system against its purpose?

You could seriously surprise them!

If you can really answer that one question, then you are likely to be operating a stable, yet continually improving service within a healthy environment, both for your team and those they serve.

Who knows – ‘the inspector’ might want to share what you are doing with everyone else 🙂

And, going back to the top – i.e. Charlie’s reply as to what he really wanted out of an inspection – I reckon he was ‘right on the money’!

A final comment…for all you private sector organisations out there:

Don’t think that this post doesn’t apply to you!

If you have centralised ‘Audit’, ‘Quality Assurance’ and/or ‘Business Performance’ teams (i.e. that are separate from the actual work), then virtually everything written above applies to your organisation.

Footnotes:

1. MAMIL: Middle aged men in lycra

2. To ‘Charlie’ – Please excuse the poetic licence that I have taken in writing the above…and I hope it may be of some use (woof woof 🙂 ).

3. What we are really dealing with: I picked the ‘Inspector Clouseau’ picture to allude to the possibility (probability?) that many an inspector, stuck with their heads in their audit checklist, hasn’t a clue about what is really going on within, and/or what really matters for, the service before them….and for some, this is still true AFTER the inspection has been completed 😦

I’m not trying to ‘shoot at’ inspectors – this is a role that you have (currently) been given. You might also like to ponder the above and thereby look to re-imagine your purpose. Doing so could dramatically improve your work satisfaction…and help improve the services that you support.

4. Purpose: not to be confused with the lottery of attempting to meet a numeric target.

5. A set of Measures that uncover how the system is performing, NOT one supposedly ‘all seeing’ KPI and an associated target.

6. Living: Years of (regularly futile) experience have proven to me that ‘learning aids’ (whether they be documents, diagrams, charts, pictures….) will only ‘live’ (i.e. improve) if they are regularly (i.e. necessarily) used by the workers to do the work. An earlier post (Déjà vu) fits here.

7. I think that a couple of previous posts are foundational and/or complimentary to this one:

The Principle of Mission: That clarification of intent, and allowing flexibility in how it is achieved, is far more important than waiting for, and slavishly carrying out ‘instructions’ from above.

Rolling, rolling, rolling: The huge, and game-changing difference between rolling out and rolling in change. One is static, the other is dynamic and purpose-seeking.

Unknown…and unknowable

so much more than a bagSo it’s the beginning of an ‘Improvement through Systems Thinking’ course that I facilitate and I am asked a question from one of the attendees:

“What is the value, as in ‘return on investment’ (ROI), in me attending this training?”

Now, that’s a (sadly) all too common a question when someone working within a command-and-control environment has to guarantee a short term payback BEFORE they are authorised to spend time towards studying and improving their system.

Here’s my response:

1) It isn’t a training course. It is education, aimed at making you curious. No more and no less; and

2) The ‘value’ is unknown….and unknowable!!!

Sure, I can (and will) do my best in designing and delivering this course against its purpose but:

  • I cannot know (let alone dictate) which of you will speak to who during and afterwards, and about which bits. I cannot know when such conversation(s) will occur (tomorrow, next week, next month…or even after someone leaves for another organisation!) and I cannot know how the system will enable (or constrain) as and when these conversations eventuate; 
  • and perhaps the nub of it is that the ‘value’ is in YOUR hands to decide, not mine! YOU decide whether you will explore or ignore. YOU decide whether you are too comfortable in your current state or whether you desire growth. Not I.

…BUT that doesn’t make this a problem. It’s just ‘how it is’, whether you like it or not.

There is massive ‘organisation-changing’ value to be had…but it is for you to decide whether you pursue it.

The ‘ROI as permission to act’ view of the world is such a poor way to seek, and achieve, improvement.

I am reminded of a fabulous scene in the classic ‘Love Actually’ film between Rowan Atkinson and the late Alan Rickman: How much is that necklace there? (It’s only 3 mins. long and well worth watching 🙂 )

A course can be ‘so much more than a bag’…but that depends on you.

Crossing the Divide

Picture1Are you interested in crossing that divide?

Okay, listen up 🙂 …this post is my attempt at one of those important bringing-it-all-together ones that provide a big message (see – look at the picture!)…which means that it’s a bit longer than normal because it needs to be.

I thought about breaking it into pieces and publishing bit-by-bit but this would make it longer (each bit needing a top and a tail) and hard to mentally put back together.

So I’ve decided to keep it together and let you, the reader, decide how you consume it. You might like to read it in one; or dip in and out of it during your day; or even set yourself an alert to finish it the next day…so (as Cilla Black used to say) “the choice is yours”. Here goes…

Mike Rother wrote what I believe to be, a very important book (Toyota Kata) about how organisations can improve, and what thinking is stopping them.

In particular, Chapter 9 of the book deals with ‘Developing Improvement Kata [pattern] behaviour in your organisation’. I thought it worthwhile posting a summary of his excellent advice derived from his research….

…and I’ll start with a highly relevant quote:

“Do not create a ‘Lean’ department or group and relegate responsibility for developing improvement behaviours to it.

Such a parallel staff group will be powerless to effect change, and this approach has been proven ineffective in abundance.

Use of this tactic often indicates delegation of responsibility and lack of commitment at the senior level.” (Mike Rother)

Many an organisation has gone down the ‘Lean department’ (or some such label) route…so, given this fact, here’s what Rother goes on to say, combined with my own supporting narrative and thought:


1. Be clear on what we are trying to achieve

If you really want to cross that divide then the challenge that we should be setting ourselves is learning a new way of thinking and acting such that we:

  • get the ‘improvement behaviour’ habit into the organisation; and then
  • spread it across the organisation so that it is used by everyone, at every process, every day.

And to make it even more ‘black and white’: the challenge is NOT about implementing techniques, practices or principles on top of our existing way of managing.

It means changing how we manage. This involves a significant effort and far reaching change (particularly in respect of leadership).


2. What do we know about this challenge?

  • Toyota (from the foundational work of Taiichi Ohno) is considered the world leader in working towards this challenge…they’ve been working towards it for 60+ years;
    • We can study and learn, but should not merely copy, from them;
  • The start, and ever-continuing path, is to strive to understand the reality of your own situation, and experimenting. This is where we actually learn;
  • No one can provide you with an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution to the challenge:
    • There isn’t likely to be an approach that perfectly fits for all;
    • It is in the studying and experimenting that we gain wisdom;
    • ‘Copying’ will leave us flailing around, unknowingly blind;
    • Our path should continually be uncertain up until each ‘next step’ reveals itself to us.

Wow, so that’s quite a challenge then! Here are some words of encouragement from Rother on this:

“There is now a growing community of organisations that are working on this, whose senior leaders recognise that Toyota’s approach is more about working to change people’s behaviour patterns than about implementing techniques, practises, or principles.”


3. What won’t work?

If we wish to spread a new (improvement) behaviour pattern across an organisation then the following tactics will not be effective:

Tactic a) Classroom training:

Classroom training (even if it incorporates exercises and simulations) will not change people’s behaviours. If a person ‘goes back’ into their role after attending training and their environment remains the same, then expect minimal change from them.

“Intellectual knowledge alone generally does not lead to change in behaviour, habits or culture. Ask any smoker.”

Rother makes the useful contrast of the use of the ‘training’ word within sport:

“The concept of training in sports is quite different from what ‘training’ has come to mean in our companies. In sport it means repeatedly practicing an actual activity under the guidance of a coach. That kind of training, if applied as part of an overall strategy to develop new behaviour patterns is effective for changing behaviours.”

Classroom training (and, even better, education) has a role but this is probably limited to ‘awareness’….and even that tends to fade quickly if it is not soon followed by hands-on practising with an appropriate coach.

Tactic b) Having consultants do it ‘to people’ via projects and workshops:

Projects and workshops do not equal continuous improvement. This is merely ‘point’ improvement that will likely cease and even slip backwards once the consultant (or ‘Black Belt’) has moved on to the next area of focus.

Real continuous improvement means improving all processes every day.

Traditional thinking sees improvement as an add-on (via the likes of Lean Six Sigma projects) to daily management. Toyota/ (actual) Lean/ Systems thinking (pick your label!) is where normal daily management equals process improvement i.e. they are one and the same thing.

To achieve this isn’t about bringing experts in to manage you through projects; it is to understand how to change your management system so that people are constantly improving their processes themselves. Sure, competent coaches can help leaders through this, but they cannot ‘do it for them.’

And to be clear: it is the senior leaders that first need coaching, this can’t be delegated downwards.

“If the top does not change behaviour and lead, then the organisation will not change either.”

Tactic c) Setting objectives, metrics and incentives to bring about the desired change:

There is no combination of these things that will generate improvement behaviour and alter an organisation’s culture. In fact, much of this is the problem.

If you don’t get this HUGE constraint then here are a few posts already published that scratch the surface* as to why: D.U.M.B., The Spice of Life, and The Chasm

(* you are unlikely to fully ‘get’ the significance from simple rational explanations, but these might make you curious to explore further)

Tactic d) Reorganising:

Shuffling the organisational structure with the aim (hope) of stimulating improvement will not work. Nothing has fundamentally changed.

“As tempting as it sometimes seems, you cannot reorganise your way to continuous improvement and adaptiveness. What is decisive is not the form of your organisation, but how people act and react.”


4. How do we change?

So, if all those things don’t work then, before we jump on some other ideas, perhaps we need to remind ourselves about us (human beings) and how we function.

The science of psychology is clear that we learn habits (i.e. behaviours that occur unconsciously and become almost involuntary to us) by repeated practice and gaining periodic fulfilment from this. This builds new and ever strengthening mental circuits (neural pathways).

Put simply: we learn by doing.

We need to start by realising that what we do now is mostly habitual and therefore the only way to alter this is by personally and repeatedly practising the desired (improvement pattern) behaviours in our actual daily work.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Aristotle)

“To know and not to do is not yet to know.” (Zen saying)

Further, a coach can only properly understand a person’s true thinking and learning by observing them in their daily work.

In summary, we need to:

  • practise using actual situations in actual work processes;
  • combine training with doing, such that the coach can see in real time where the learner is at and can introduce appropriate adjustments; and
  • use the capability of the actual process as the measure of effectiveness of the coaching/ learning.

5. Where to start?

So, bearing in mind what is said above (i.e. about needing to learn for yourselves), what follows is merely about helping you do this…and not any ‘holy grail’. If there is one then it is still up to you to find it!

An experienced coach:

“Coaches should be in a position to evaluate what their students are doing and give good advice…in other words, coaches should be experienced….

…If a coach or leader does not know from personal experience how to grasp the current condition at a process, establish an appropriate challenge [towards customer purpose] and then work step by step [experiment] towards it, then she is simply not in a position to lead and teach others. All she will be able to say in response to a student’s proposals is ‘Okay’ or ‘Good job’ which is not coaching or teaching.

The catch-22 is that at the outset there are not enough people in the organisation who have enough experience with the improvement kata [pattern] to function as coaches…

…it will be imperative to develop at least a few coaches as early as possible.” (See establishing an Advance Group below)

A word of warning: Many people assume a coaching role, often without realising that they are doing so. Such a presumption seems to be something that anyone hierarchically ‘senior’ to you considers to be their right. As in “Now listen up minion, I am now going to coach you – you lucky thing!*”

(* I had a rant about this in my earlier post on ‘people and relationships’ …but I’m okay now 🙂 )

So: Before any of us assert any supposed coaching privileges, I think we should humbly reflect that:

“The beginner is entitled to a master for a teacher. A hack can do incredible damage.” (Deming)

Who practises first?

The improvement pattern is for everyone in the organisation……but it needs to start somewhere first.

“Managers and leaders at the middle and lower levels of the organisation are the people who will ultimately coach the change to the improvement kata [pattern], yet they will generally and understandably not set out in such a new direction on their own. They will wait and see, based on the actions (not the words) of senior management, what truly is the priority and what really is going to happen.”

The point being that, if the organisation wants to effect a change in culture (which is what is actually needed to make improvement part of daily management) then it requires the senior managers to go first.

This statement needs some important clarifications:

  • It isn’t saying that senior leadership need to stand up at annual road-shows or hand out some new guru-book and merely state that they are now adopting some shiny new thing. This will change nothing. Far better would be NOT to shout about it and just ‘do it’ (the changed behaviours)…the people will notice and follow for themselves;
  • It isn’t saying that all senior leaders need to master all there is to know before anyone else can become involved. But what is needed is a meaningful desire for key (influential) members of the senior team to want to learn and change such that their people believe this;
  • It isn’t saying that there aren’t and won’t be a rump of middle and lower managers who are forward thinking active participants. They exist now and are already struggling against the current – they will surge ahead when leaders turn the tide;
  • It isn’t saying that the rest of the people won’t want the change: the underlying improvement behaviours provide people with what they want (a safe, secure and stimulating environment). It is just that they have understandably adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ habit given their current position on a hierarchical ladder and the controls imposed upon them.

Establishing an Advance Group

The first thing to notice from this sub-title is that it is NOT suggesting that:

  • we should attempt to change the whole organisation at once; or that
  • we should set up some central specialist group (as in the first quote in this post)

Instead, it is suggesting that we:

  • find a suitable1 senior executive to lead (not merely sponsor!2);
  • select/ appoint an experienced coach;
  • select a specific value-adding business system3 to start with;
  • form a suitable1 group of managers (currently working in the system, not outside it);
  • provide initial ‘awareness’ education;
  • ‘go to the Gemba’ and study4 to:
    • gain knowledge about purpose, demand, capability, and flow; and then
    • derive wisdom about the system conditions and management thinking that make all this so;
  • perform a series of improvement cycles (experimenting and learning);
  • reflect on learnings about our processes, our people and our organisation…
    • …deriving feelings of success and leading to a new mindset: building a capability to habitually follow the improvement routine in their daily management;
    • …and thereby crafting a group of newly experienced managers within the organisation who can go on to coach others as and when other business systems wish to pull their help.

(for explanatory notes for superscripts 1 – 4, see bottom of post)

Caution: Don’t put a timescale on the above – it can’t be put into an ‘on time/budget/scope’ project straight jacket. The combination of business system, team and organisational environment is infinitely varied…it will take what it takes for them to perform and learn. The learning will emerge.

A number of things should be achieved from this:

  • meaningful understanding and improvement of the selected business system’s capability;
  • highly engaged people who feel valued, involved and newly fulfilled;
  • a desire to continue with, and mature the improvement cycles (i.e. a recognition that it is a never-ending journey);
  • interest from elsewhere in the organisation as they become aware of, develop curiosity and go see for themselves; and
  • A desire to ‘roll in’5 the change to their own business system.

A caveat – The big barrier:

Every system sits within (and therefore is a component of) a larger system! This will affect what can be done.

If you select a specific value-adding business system, it sits within the larger organisational system;

If you move up the ‘food chain’ to the organisational system, it potentially sits within a larger ‘parent organisation’ system

….and so on.

This is a fact of life. When studying a system it is as important (and often more so) to study the bigger system that it sits within as studying its own component parts.

It is this fact “that so often brings an expression similar to that of the Sheriff Brody in the film ‘Jaws’ when he turns from the shark and says ‘we need a bigger boat’. Indeed we do!” (Gordon Housworth, ICG blog)

If the bigger system commands down to yours (such as that you must use cascaded personal objectives, targets, contingent rewards and competitive awards) and your learning (through study and experimentation) concludes that this negatively affects your chosen business system then you need to move upstairs and work on that bigger system.

You might respond “But how can we move upstairs? They don’t want to change!”. Well, through your studying and experimentation, you now have real knowledge rather than opinions – you have a far better starting point!


…and there you have it: A summary of Mike Rother’s excellent chapter mixed with John Seddon’s thinking (along with my additional narrative) on how we might move towards a true ‘culture of improvement’.

There is no silver bullet, just good people studying their system and facilitating valuable interventions.

Notes: All quotes used above are from Mike Rother unless otherwise stated.

  1. Suitable: A person with: an open mind, a willingness to question assumptions/ conventional wisdom, and humility; a desire and aptitude for self-development, development of others and for continual improvement (derived from Liker’s book – The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership)
  2. On leading: “Being a…Sponsor is like being the Queen: you turn up to launch a ship, smash the champagne, wave goodbye and welcome it back to port six months later. This attitude is totally inappropriate for leading…in our business environment. We need ownership that is one of passion and continual involvement…” (Eddie Obeng)
  1. The business system selected needs to be a horizontal value stream (for the customer) rather than a vertical silo (organisational function) and needs to be within the remit of the senior executive.
  1. Study: Where my post is referring to Seddon’s ‘Check’ model
  1. Roll in: The opposite of roll out – pulling, instead of pushing. Please see Rolling, rolling, rolling… for an explanation of the difference.

Chalk and Cheese

Chalk-and-CheeseLet’s compare two organisations (or departments within):

In one (let’s call it Cheese – I like cheese…it matures into a lovely outcome):

The senior manager is curious as to how to get the best out of the system, for the good of the customer. She has understood that, to achieve excellent results, the organisation must continually work on the causes of those results.

She questions her own learning’s to date, always looking to expand her knowledge and amend her ‘worldview’, seeks counsel from others* and (once suitably skilled) actively coaches the people that work within the system. She has the humility to realise that her role is to lead, not to know the answer.

* such counsel comes from meeting the process rather than a reliance on the  senior management team.

This mentality has become the way that all her managers now think and operate and, because of this, they have removed all ‘management instruments’ that get in the way of collaborative system-wide thinking.

They don’t believe that the ‘answers’ are out there, to be found and copied from other organisations or consultancies selling the ‘current best practise’.

Instead:

  • they identify measures that demonstrate the system’s capability at delivering value to their customers (making these transparent to all) and they monitor these measures over time to understand variation and any progress.
  • they constantly work to understand their current condition, set themselves challenges (target conditions) that, when achieved, would be good for their customers and then move towards these goals through experimentation and learning.

They accept that their path will be unclear…but they are clear on what they want to move towards, why and how they are truly doing.

And, because of the above:

  • everyone is engaged in a collaborative effort towards a clear purpose (for the customer);
  • there is transparency for all within the system;
  • there is mutual trust and respect across the system; and as result
  • there is a high degree of commitment and engagement….dare I say ‘a thriving culture’ in which people want to come to work

BUT: it’s not perfect, it’s often rather messy…but learning is like that.

In the other (Chalk – crumbly, disintegrates…not enjoyable to consume!)

The senior manager has come across some improvement methodologies and guru books and has issued a directive that these will be implemented across the organisation.

A corporate team is set up to drive each implementation. Energy is spent developing and deploying presentations, training, tools, templates and methods of working. There is an implementation plan with activities, milestones and metrics. Benefits are to be ‘realised’.

Tweaks are made to incorporate the programme into the existing management instruments: objectives, performance appraisals, rewards, awards.

‘Operations’ (the various teams within) are then expected to enthusiastically embrace and absorb the ‘shiny new thing’ (along with the other ones that are regularly handed down from the brains above) whilst continuing to deliver against silo’d targets.

The corporate team responsible for the initiative ‘lives and breathes it’ as if its implementation is the most important thing…no surprise since their rewards are based on this.

A regular reporting mechanism is put in place to demonstrate adoption. Operations do what they can to categorise their actions as ‘evidence’ of their successful compliance, thereby pleasing those above and ‘proving that it was a good idea’.

So what’s the point?

  1. It’s not about ‘implementing’ a methodology (or two), it’s about a complete change in thinking;
  1. It about changing your management system rather than manipulating it;
  1. You can’t separate Operations from those responsible for actually managing the improvement of the system. (You have to be very careful about setting up a separate corporate team i.e. why you are doing this and how this will actually be of value!);
  1. You don’t start with an answer, you don’t ‘implement’, you never complete…it is a never ending journey with a clear purpose and an open mind.
  1. If senior management don’t truly get this, then there’s work to do – they need to understand their system for what it really is.

If you want to understand the above at a deeper level, I would recommend reading (in increasing order of length and therefore time commitment):

  • the essay ‘Modern Management vs. Lean Management’ by Jim Womack in his book Gemba Walks;
  • the prologue to John Seddon’s book called ‘Freedom from Command and Control’;
  • the book called ‘Turn your ship around’ by David Marquet

Worse than useless

ChocTeapotI’ve recently got back from visiting family in the UK. Whilst there, I noticed things that had changed since I left 7 years ago. This post is about one particular change in service businesses that stood out to me.

During my visit I travelled the length and breadth of England, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and buying items in shops – my credit card took a real hammering!

It struck me that many of these service businesses have put in place some very unhealthy practices around asking customers for feedback.

Let me explain with an example:

The hotel

We stayed a few nights in a (budget chain) hotel on the edge of London – nothing flash: A basic family room for four, breakfast included and parking for our hire car.

Overall the place was pretty good – well worth the price we had paid. However, during this stay there were the odd things that we noticed that could have been better. For instance:

  • The onsite parking was rather confusing: we had pre-paid on the internet but it wasn’t easy to show this. It took a few phone calls and some explaining to partially satisfy us that we weren’t going to get towed away for non-payment;
  • My boys complained to us that the sheets on the extra beds put into the room for them were cheap and scratchy…which they really didn’t like. I told them to ‘take a concrete pill’; and
  • The scrambled eggs at breakfast had clearly sat around at the buffet for far too long and had become a bit ‘plastic’, dare I say chewy.

At the end of our stay we went to reception to hand in our room key. A very nice chap behind reception thanked us for our stay and then told us that we would be receiving an email with a link to a survey asking us to rate our stay using scores from 1 – 10. He went on to quietly inform us (as if it was secretive information) that:

  • if we scored 9s or 10s then these counted as a positive for them;
  • if we scored 8s, these were neutral – no good to them; but
  • all scores of less than 8 would count against them. He gave us the clear impression that this would be in monetary terms (i.e. affecting their rating and therefore bonuses for this month)

Some very clever manager at head office (who had probably been to ‘management school’) had tied the collection of customer feedback with contingent rewards for the workers. Clearly a believer in the brilliance of extrinsic motivators.

Now, before I go any further, if you are a fan of contingent rewards you may cry out that the employee shouldn’t have told the customer about the scoring and its effects! But think about that for a minute – do you really expect your employees not to engage in the games that you are playing on them?

As Goldratt wrote: “Tell me how you will measure me, and I will [show] you how I will behave.”

Further, let’s just assume that the employee hadn’t told me about the scoring system: Management have shown no understanding of the variation in customer demand (one person’s 5 is another person’s 9) – meeting these targets is a lottery that the employee is, understandably, trying to influence in his favour by confiding in us.

So what do you think this scoring knowledge does to the customer, and for the company?

I can tell you three things it does to me:

  • First, given that I am a human being, it makes me feel a little bit sorry for the really nice chap behind reception who established a rapport with us and served us excellently. We understand that he probably has very little ability to improve our stay any further…and so we want to give him a good score, an 8 or 9 so that it doesn’t count against him*.

 But this isn’t what we really feel. I was thinking of a 6 or 7…along the lines of ‘it was all right but not mind-blowing’.

So the company collects distorted information telling it that it is doing better than it is…and will draw incorrect conclusions accordingly. 

  • Second, I also feel a bit used by the employee telling us about the scoring and the likely outcome. So I now think worse of the company for putting in place such a system which has ended up manipulating me. I almost feel dirty for being involved in this subterfuge!

 So I am now turned off this company for making me feel this way by their management practices. 

  • Third, I walk away without providing any verbal qualitative feedback on my stay.

So the people who need to know have gained no understanding of my three highly useful pieces of qualitative feedback (the parking, scratchy sheets and plastic eggs)

I can almost picture the confusion at the senior management team meeting where the CEO is asking his Executive team:

“But how can we be performing so poorly when our average customer feedback score at each of our hotels is 8.27?!”

In summary, the company:

  • has collected a score for my stay that is likely incorrect and misleading;
  • has annoyed me because I feel manipulated…which may lead me to look elsewhere next time (and tell my friends the same);

yet (most importantly)

  • the employees are totally blind as to what could have been better and hence cannot improve.

The customer feedback score is worse than useless!

The knowledge required to meaningfully improve is in each and every piece of qualitative customer feedback…it is not in a monthly average score.

* This behaviour has been reported in many other similar service situations. My hotel experience is but one example. Put in general terms: the employee quietly tells the customer that their feedback score will be ‘used on them’ by their company and pleads for the customer to be kind. As humans we can’t help but want to help them out yet also feel annoyed about this manipulation of us.

Just in case you hadn’t got the picture at the top: it is of a chocolate teapot…which is worse than useless…a bit like linking contingent rewards to customer feedback.

Which pill is it?

red-pill-blue-pillAt the end of the ‘Improvement through Systems Thinking’ course I run, I facilitate a conversation about going back out into the real world. I use the ‘blue pill/ red pill’ Matrix analogy.

I got talking with one of my previous course attendees the other day…and neither of us knew whether it was blue or red we should be taking!…so, after looking up the script (thanks H)…here it is:

“You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Just to confirm (in case you weren’t sure), I took the red pill some years ago!

We got to reading a few more quotes and, wow, I’d forgotten what a classic film that is, and how cool some of the quotes are.

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In respect of normative change:

“Sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

“I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

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On the dominant command-and-control management system:

“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system…you have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that corporate life and the matrix are directly comparable but I hope you see the well meaning intent in the comparison.

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And, finally, on showing people the reality of their command-and-control system, and helping them move towards a better (systems thinking) place:

“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

The ‘you’ in the above being the dominant command-and-control management system rather than any individual within.

Great film. Great quotes.

The difference between…

tree+bookA short and, hopefully, light hearted post for you:

For those of you who have been on an improvement course with me you will know that I start off by saying that it isn’t a training course, it is about education (with the same being true about this blog).

I use Deming’s quote of:

“We’re not here to learn skills; we’re here for education – to learn theory.”

If you are uncertain about the difference between training (learning skills) and education then I think Alfie Kohn (leading education psychologist) makes the distinction  really clear with the following:

“Would you want your kids to be provided with Sex Training or Sex Education?”

…I don’t think I need to say anymore to explain that!