Sheep dipping or feathering nests?

A friend of mine called Jane mentioned to me that HR have finally got their programme of courses out for the year, not bad it’s only August. Now she has the task of trying to link the results of her learning and development reviews to the courses on offer. I know that there is usually a bit of a rush on to book places on the courses as the dates are fixed for the year.  Jane admitted that if she was being honest back in February when she was doing her reviews she had no real idea of the development needs of her team because she had not finalised the business plans that had started being written back in November of last year.  Surely, it would make more sense to concentrate learning and development effort based upon the demands placed upon employees by the customer? In that way training monies would be spent at the right time on the right support.  Not on a standard set of events determined remotely by someone in HR months before they are offered.

Anyway back to the story… The Policy team had messed about with the dates for publication in previous years; leaving Jane and her colleagues in the dark about requirements and timescales. This year she told me that she had tried to get ahead and start the conversations with her team and start pulling plans together. Since last year Jane has had to enter all the plans in to an on line system. So, quite rightly she thought that her action was doing the right thing, until Policy decided that yet again they needed to change the format of the plans to make it easier for them to produce the corporate plan for the organisation. I could see by the expression that Jane gave me that she was fuming! Quite rightly so in my view. All of the work that she had already done was in the wrong format, and according to them (Policy) she had to re- enter the information in their new format. Jane admitted that she tried to ignore this requirement for a while, as her plans were already in the system.  Ironically, she said she never used the online system apart from having to enter her performance data once a month. Like most of us, Jane acknowledged that she fudged the numbers to make them look ok, and had not been caught out so far because ‘no one really looks that closely at the data’.

In the end Jane’s name came up on the naughty girls/boys list, and she got a stern email from the Chief Executive’s Office telling her to get her finger out and get her plans in the right format.  Brilliant! You cannot beat a bit of extrinsic motivation to kill morale.

Anyway, Jane decided that she could avoid the issue no longer, took the ‘bull by the horns’ and copy and pasted the detail from one part of the system to the other. A waste of time and effort! I was chatting to another friend the other day and he was telling that a similar thing happens in the organisation in which he works.

What is going on in the world? Can organisations really afford to waste resources messing about changing templates and entering plans into corporate systems? Reality proves that plans get compromised after month one and become a work of fiction as people fudge the system to show progress again objectives that have been rendered worthless in view of changing priorities. The problem is that the new priorities do not replace the last set, they get added to them.  All this planning and monitoring is little more than a smoke screen. We all know that the real work gets done off plan and often by getting around the system to make it happen in a timely fashion.

If leaders took time to understood the true purpose of their organisation in customer terms, and then designed and managed the work around that purpose they would soon learn that all this corporate business planning and performance reporting added no really value to the bottom line. In really it has the reverse impact. Money down the drain!

However, such action takes guts and determination; and too few seem prepared to do what it takes. Sad really!  Leaders are happy to feather their own nest at the expense of others. Not really leadership at all is it!

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Money for nothing!

Today I had to spend a few more quid speaking to a well known embassy to try and sort out the ongoing saga of a travel visa. For those of you unfortunate enough to have to get a visa for America will know how problematic it can be to get good advice. The web site failed to answer my basis questions, the search on the site  just lists media articles that are no use or ornament. So, off I go again spending £1.23 a minute plus network charges for the privilege of talking to a call centre operator somewhere on planet earth. The first minute is a sales pitch that you cannot bypass. I had to get to option 4 to get the access I needed, another minute gone; so £2.50 in and I had nothing to show for my efforts.

The query simple really- the travel plans had changed so what needed to happen next. Eventually I got through to a chap, we will call him Jim. I gave him a concise story and asked what needed to happen. He assured me that the visa would be ok and would stay in operation. He even suggested that provided I got into the country before the visa expired that I could stay out on the student visa until the end of my studies. Jim said he wanted to check some more info and would I hold, well what could I say-  he had me by the short and curlys really. So, off he went, eventually he came back apologising for the delay. The conversation went on a bit longer and then he said that he needed to speak to a specialist supervisor. Guess what I go on hold and he disappears to get help. Time and money is ticking away, but what can I do… Then he is back and guess what everything that he has said before is rubbish! He confirms that having taken more advice that in fact the visa will not cover the revised plans and that I will have to start from scratch. The visa that I have set up cannot be cancelled, and I cannot have a refund. Great news! Well at least I ended up getting an answer to my question, and to be honest I was not entirely surprised by the answer. However, the cost of this privilege ran to another 15 quid.

My beef is that the system, like most contact centre operations is flawed: Well at least from the customers view point. This particular contact centre is a licence to print money. Not only do you get charged a significant amount for the visa itself but you have to spend, on my count, an average of £12.50 for the privilege of speaking to someone. I have no idea what the leaders in this system get up to, well I do really, but they certainly do not understand anything about the nature of customer demand in their system. If they did they would have call handlers that were trained to answer calls against an understanding of customer demand. My question was not difficult, and yet Jim had to get help twice at my time and expense! Of course to the call centre manager it’s money in the bank –  the longer the call goes on the better. If the supervisor had answered the call I would have got an answer in less that half the time. Good news for me, but not for the business. A crazy world!

Room service

I have been using a hotel recently on business and have managed to strike up a good relationship with the local staff. My business priorities changed after I had made a booking locally at the hotel. No worries I thought I will ring them and let them know that I need to change my plans. That’s when the fun started. How hard can it be?  Well I was about to find out!

I googled the hotel to find the number and make the call. I hit an IVR system, I thought this is strange –  the hotel is not that big and an IVR system seemed a bit over the top. I started musing about the IT salesperson the had flogged them an overly specified system for the purpose. A large bonus would have resulted and you would have not seen him/her for dust. Anyway, back from my day-dream and  having chosen the bookings option I was then surprised to hear that I was 5th in the queue! It started to dawn upon me that this was not a call that was going to be answered by the hotel reception, but by a call centre somewhere in the world. To cap it all the message playing advised me that I was being charged 10 p a minute by the hotel for the call and I was still 5th in the queue. At this point I thought stuff it! I put the phone down and emailed the local sales manager at the hotel to make her aware of my experience and to change my booking. She answered first thing the following morning and all was well.

Upon my arrival at the hotel the sales manager immediately apologised for my experience and said that they had no control over the phone calls. The hotel group to which they now belonged had centralised it call handling facility some time ago and that there was nothing that she could officially  do. However, she then whispered that I could have the local number for reception which is managed about 20 hours a day and that they would be very happy to help me in future. Of course she was quick to let me know that this was against company policy,and she could be shot for giving the number to me. Shot for doing the right thing!

The conversation then went on to reveal that the centralisation of the booking system causes all sorts of problems for not only the customers, but also to the local staff. She said, Imagine trying to book a conference or a wedding through a call handler somewhere else in the world who does not understand the local hotel, its provisions etc.  It causes a lot of problems which have to be sorted out once the hotel become aware of the booking, causing duplication of effort and frustration for the customer who is keen to ensure that their event goes off well. As is always the case the local team pull together and do their best to make sure that the customer gets what they want on a way that best suits their needs, but at what cost to the business and its hard-working employees?

Another classic case of a bunch of suits in an ivory tower somewhere in the world thinking that they can save money by centralising and standardising their approach to customer enquiries. Of course they will be using a bunch of metrics that tell them that the system works wonderfully and probably also helps to justify the decision to invest in the IVR system and call centre operation. If only those guys got out of their tower and came to study and understand the reality of their decision through the yes of the customer and colleagues in the workplace they would understand that all was not what it seemed. Until then I will use the local phone number to sort out my accommodation. However, the obvious frustrations and morale of the staff will continue to suffer along with the reputation and lost business to the hotel and others in the chain until someone is brave enough to wake and realise that this does not make good business sense.

It pays to give bad service

I recently called  an embassy to fix an appointment to gain a visa for a relative  and it turned into an expense wild goose chase when the agent failed to do their job properly. Firstly, i was surprised to learn when i called the number that i would be charged £1.23 per minute plus my call rate. After all i was already paying over £100 for the privilege of a visa in the first place. A minute in to the IVR message i realised  that i needed more documentation that the web site suggested. So i hung up to get the missing information.  Then back to the phone i sat through that IVR message to get to the number i needed to set up an appointment. Fixing an appointment took a full ten minutes on the phone. I was then told that an email would be sent to me with the necessary information in it to enable me to undertake the next steps, which must be  completed before attending for the appointment.  Failure to do this would mean that entrance to the embassy would be refused.

So i waited patiently, and sure enough an email arrived but minus the all important documents that i needed to print off and complete in order to gain entry to the  embassy. Imagine my frustration when the email contained no attachments! The catch 22 – you cannot email the embassy you can only ring them on the standard number to get any help. This left only one option spend more money sorting their problem out. So i was forced to repeat the process – call the call centre explain the issue and attempt to get the all important attachments. Back through the IVR i went and eventually spoke to another agent who confirmed that the attachments were missing. She agree to send them to me again. No apology, no hint of sympathy for my inconvenience. 10 minutes and £12 poorer the documents were sent across to me. This time thankfully they arrived.

This is a system that clearly helps to cover its costs by the charging by the minute for its service. The individual agents are not to blame for this shabby approach to meeting customers expectations. The leaders who decided to to industrialse the process made the mistake. Unfortunately as the system is now a licence to print money no one will care. As customers with no choice but to respond to this dumb system we will be forced to continue to put up with poor service. Someone, somewhere clearly thinks that this service gives good value. My advice would be for a senior bod to come out of their bullet proofed glass panels and walk the workflow as a customer from start to finish. Only then could they see the broken system for themselves. As command and control thinkers they might need some help seeing the wood for the trees. Pity really as the average teenager can see what a ridiculas process has been created.

To top it all when you evenly get to enter the embassy in advance of the allotted time you find a line,   more a kin to queuing for a pop concert that a business meeting. You then find out that the time given in the original phone,  for which we paid £24, does nothing more than place you  in the very long queue. In all 2.5 hours was spent in the building mainly sitting around waiting for something to happen. Useful time spent totalled about 10 minutes max during the 2.5 hours. This ‘useful time’ was spent giving in documentation, much of which they already  had on their computer system, and answering a couple of questions. The waste , and cost, of human a time  runs to many hundred of hours a day. sadly no one cases about what matters to customers anymore we are merely numbers of a screen waiting and waiting……

Apparently we were lucky  – it can take up to FIVE hours on some days. Madness!

Data data all around, but not a bit that’s useful

It’s that busy time of the year for people in finance in local government –  ‘close down’.

A magical time when every last ounce of energy goes into the exercise.

There is a target date to meet and everything must add up, balance and be filed for inspection by the dreaded external auditor.making efficiencies

Life and death for accountants: like watching paint dry for everyone else.

During ‘close down’ it’s very difficult to get any useful information out of accountancy, as they are ‘too busy’.

So whilst the business goes on spending millions of pound a week managers run blind on what’s actually happening with cost, until they get an update at the end of the quarter. That’s when the fun starts again.

One persons view of a budget and spend profile is different to another. As the manager of the budget you often have limited say in what get reported to the many meetings that purport to scrutinize the detail only to nod it through.

It’s claimed that only the accountants really understand what the figures mean. In practice I wonder if even that it true.

The slight of hand that goes on to churn money in the system means that it’s difficult for anyone to know what the true picture is. By the time it gets reported, and audited the game has moved on.

Every year as a manager you do you best to manage and profile your spend to get value for money.

Now let’s not get started on VFM that will come up in a later blog.

A while ago in quarter two I was told that I was going to over spend by the end of the year by £2M (I was naturally quite worried) at the end of the following quarter I was going to underspend by £550K (now I was even more worried, did anyone know what was really going on?)

You could not make it up. What are you supposed to do!

Experience says keep your own information, so most of us keep our own spreadsheets just in case. They obviously sit outside of the main financial system, possibly even on memory sticks, but don’t tell IT as its against the policy to stick anything dodgy into your USB port.

At least having your own records gives you something to argue with when the accountant tries to manage your codes and your budget for you, and gets you in to hot water.

Ironically the latest accountancy system was introduced to remove the need for all those spreadsheets, but I am really glad that I secretly kept mine. It’s duplication of effort, but you cannot be too careful.

Another thing that bugs me is that fact that you are accountable for the budget and its spend, but the accountants mysteriously have secret powers to enter the system and move numbers around, seemingly at will, to balance things out for that all important financial report.

Overspends of course remain the managers problem.

This can be hugely frustrating when the overspend is cause by a cock up in accountancy when a Zero or the comma in the wrong place. Opps sorry these things happen!

Can you give me an explanation of the reasons for the overspend, and what you intend to do about it for the Management Team report. Oh and by the way the Director of Finance needs it by tonight.

The irony is that the budget is pored over and used as some amazing tool that informs our decision making.

In truth it’s a lagging measure, historical information regurgitated at various meetings to show everyone that we are in balance for the year against the agreed allocation of spend.

This whole exercise is an arbitrary judgement made largely on the basis of rolling forward previous years spent plus or minus a percentage.

It has little relationship to community or customer need, and gives us little if any information about true end to end operational cost of the services being delivered.

Why?  Because budgets are apportioned to hierarchical structures and further subdivided into functions and cost centres causing the system to sub optimise.

In practice this means that individuals manage the money that they have been allocated and spend it on the part of the organisation for which they have responsibility.

Simple really.

The issue is that each of us looks after our bit and has little, if any, focus upon the impact this has upon the customers that we are all here to serve. This in fact drives massive inefficiency and therefore cost into delivering essential services.

The result is that the organisation runs very inefficiently, but few people realise that this is the case because they are focused on their bit. The drive for efficiency only compounds the problem faced by many organisations.

Salami slicing or prioritisation of spend via a lottery causes individuals to act in a territorial way to protect spend in their area. It’s human nature.

The true cost of the system is in the flow – how things actually move around the organisation, not in unit cost.

Only by studying the organisation as a system can you begin to understand where and how to act to improve service and reduce operating cost.

Nodding dog Syndrome

I was sat in a coffee shop the other day enjoying a refreshing cuppa,  well on my way to earning my free cup, and reflecting upon what I call nodding dog syndrome.

I just have one more stamp to go and then i get a free drink.

The power to comply with the rules and win the bonus is really strong isn’t it. I know that a free cuppa is not going to change the world, but the principle is sound. Follow these rules and you can get a prize or a bonus.

I am more likely to go back to get the prize than pass over it. After all I have earned it. My behaviour has in a small way been affected by the hook of a free drink. The parallels with the working environment are strong.

Let’s take the all important performance data reporting as an example.

So the pressure is back on to make the numbers fit the plan. We are all well in to the  quarter and probably already starting to panic about what stories we can make up to cover the slippage or the short fall.

Everyone in the chain is keen to make the numbers look good, and come up with a form of words that will fit the highlight report to show that everything is on track. Doubtless some of us will also have to remember to log on and fill in the blanks in the computerised software that pulls our performance into the all important dashboard.

Now where did I put my password again?

I have to confess that  I only log in to the system once a month because I find it tedious, long winded and unhelpful.

The information does not help me or my team to learn and improve in the work, but because everyone is obliged to fill in the blanks, ( it’s in my objectives) audit, and/ or nod through the numbers it has become an inevitable routine to endure once a month.

I can see everyone pawing over the keypad dreaming up fine words, or thinking of who or what they can blame for the problem.

I have asked around and I don’t seem to be in the minority, and yet this is the core system that the organisation uses to monitor performance. I’ve been told  that it provides a good audit trail and a narrative that can be pulled out and fed in to the series of important meetings that are held each month to determine that performance is on track. Critical to business performance or so they think!

The trouble is that few people seem to acknowledge that the data keyed in to the system is manipulated to fit the target. The aim here is to make it look ok for the boss.

Bosses like green flags!

If you make it amber or red you need to write an essay on what has gone wrong and how you will put it right, and the boss will have to fill in lots of boxes and answer lots of difficult questions too. No one wants that do they?

The quarterly one to one review will be a nightmare if anything is not green. So, it’s just easier to make it look ok and nod it through. As long as the boxes are populated on time and are green then everyone is happy.

How can this be the way to do business?

The trouble is that targets  do not help us to understand how effectively we are delivering our service against customer expectation. By this I don’t mean the data from the annual customer poll or the generic customer panel that was run a few months ago.

I am thinking real-time feedback.

The other problem is that by the time the ‘big wigs’ get to view the scorecard the information, even if it was useful, is long out of date –  lagging behind what is really happening at the sharp end.

Making the whole process a massive waste of time. Time that could be spent in the work with front line colleagues understanding how to improve the system to enable a great service to be delivered every time.

I can remember a time when i had to go and explain why I was behind on a key performance indicator. The meeting took place two months after the data had been prepared rendering the cross-examination pointless.

Nevertheless the top brass took turns to ask me very detailed questions about the slippage. There was no interest in learning or improvement, just a determination to find someone to blame.

I tried to show them a control chart which ably demonstrated that the variance was normal, and therefore  to be expected, but  the meeting turned a little sour.

My hard evidence was unwelcome as it blurred the issue. Never let the facts get in the way of a good row over data! We cannot learn anything useful from such an exercise, other than to keep your head down and make the stats go green.

Make it up, do what it takes; find a way to fiddle the numbers.

We are feeding a machine with data like a hungry beast to keep it quiet, not using live data based upon what are customers are asking for in the moment to help us learn and improve at every opportunity.

So, if you want the bonus that you have ‘earned’ be a nodding dog –  better to keep your head down and make the numbers fits the plan at all costs.

Alternatively, you might be curious about using real data to help deliver excellent services, at lower cost, and to improve the mood and engagement within your team.

As a leader the choice is yours.

Welcome to themushroomfactory

I started blogging a couple of years ago as a way of expressing my views about leadership, organisations, and my experience as a consumer of services.blogging-image

My blog aims to be a reflection of what I have learned so far about leadership and management, both as an operational leaders and as a result of working with others to help them on their own journey.

I have come to realise that most of what we get up to as organisational leaders does in fact get in the way of good performance, Inhibits innovation; and adds cost to the business.

Above all it often means that the customer/service users suffers as a consequence –  not that we would ever admit it, or in some cases even realise it.

Indeed many of us would not even realise that what we do as leaders actually has a negative impact.

There will be lots of performance data around in the organisation to show how well we are doing. Such information will be used to justify our strong performance in plans and appraisals.

My blog aims to reflect upon the impact of mindsets and behaviours in the work, and expose some of the myths about the impact of leadership and management as I see them.

Hopefully, this will encourage others to comment or start to blog themselves. I am learning as I go!

We help individuals and teams to purposefully reflect upon their current challenges, and identify practical and pragmatic ways of getting balance back into the demands upon your life, and delivering positive results in life and work.puzzle solved

Our one to one support will help you to cut through to the nub of your personal, and organisational challenges and help you to facilitate a way forward that will give you: –

  • Clarity around the key business issues that you are facing and a clear plan to tackle them
  • New capabilities, and capacity to meet future challenges 
  • Greater personal job satisfaction
  • Strategies to deal more effectively with difficult people or situations in your working life

To find out more about how I work with leaders in organisations please follow this link to my websitehttp://philbadleyconsulting.com

Thanks for reading.