Two times three or six?

I was looking for a bulb for the kitchen recently. The pack of six looked a bargain, until I saw the price of a pack of three! It’s the system stupid!

IMG_2092 IMG_2093

Advertisements

Money down the drain

You may recall that on the 3rd Sept I reported a fault through my local county council web site. The issue resulted from poor workmanship. A resurfacing job had been undertaken on a road close to my house which had resulted in surface dressing blocking a series of drains on the road.

Well  I recently noticed that a few of the drains had been cleared. Good news, I hear you cry! Guess what,  they missed the key drain on the entrance to a side road joining a main road. How could they miss it? After all the note from the council advised me that the referral would need to be inspected before any action would be taken. Well a few weeks passed before the drains were cleared. So, what did the inspector actually do on the site I wonder? Did he/she even get out of their car?

Remember that this is all additional cost. If the job had been done correctly in the first place then no follow up would have been necessary.  The inspection has clearly added no value, and the rework to return yet again to the site will add further cost. Believe me it will be necessary for the inspector to return to site and inspect the drain that he/she missed the last time. The rate we are going the road will need resurfacing before the drain gets unblocked. All we have to do is hope that in he meantime an accident does not arise as a result of the eater that will run on the main road. The season suggests that standing water will freeze leaving.

Functionalisation, and the separation of decision making from the work is costing the council a packet. Maybe even enough to fix the generally poor state of the roads in the county.

I feel duty bound to let them know that they have failed yet again to do the job properly. I bet nothing happen this side of the festive break.

What would the boss say?

I have been involved in a few conversations in recent days where the subject of what the boss would say came up in conversation. It’s fascinating  that employees  fuss over what the boss will think. It shows a lot about the culture that operates within such organisations. In some cases careers may rest upon pitching it right. Is this what the boss will want to hear? Atfer all bosses only want to hear good news don’t they!

In the instances discussed it appeared to make doing the right thing impossible, or at least as far as that employee was concerned. The shadow left by the leader lasts long after they have moved on. In one of the discussions the leader was no longer even in the business, but their image left a lasting legacy and this was having a material impact upon current operational performance.

When I delved deeper into the conversations I find that the truth is that many people do not actually know what there boss would actually say or do. Folklore makes up the gap. People exaggerate experiences to warn others off from crossing the line and questioning the bosses thinking. Hierarchy plays its part. Looking down  its can be in the best interests of bosses to allow the myths to prevail because its suits their purpose. Possibly to climb the greasy pole, or perhaps to keep others in check. ‘I know the boss well – she would not like to hear that’. Like gossip this is passed on and embellished along the way for effect. The truth becomes distorted and if we are not careful everyone believes the rhetoric –  sometimes even the boss! Looking up the hierarchy all you see is a metaphorical brick wall.  It’s easier to follow the crowd, keep your head down, and do as you are told. Conformity is the name of the game.

Then you get to meet the boss in question, and they are nothing like the character portrayed by the stories that you have heard. They are keen to learn; to engage; to understand how the business works; and how things might be improved.

The problem in todays corporate world is that it is too easy for leaders to become detached from the real operation. In their place comes stories generated by others in the hierarchy often to suit their own purposes that cause the leaders messages to get distorted, or even replaced with the words of others.

The way for a leader to resolve this is simple.  Get out in the work as a routine part of your day, build trust and confidence, and find out what is really going on out there. When you find things that are getting in the way, or that others cannot sort or fix act to resolve the issue. Generate a true image of who you are and what you stand for. If you have the customer at the heart of your thinking and understand what matters to them you will not go far wrong.

Get started tomorrow by blocking time out and go and do some action research. You will be amazed what is really going on outside your glass box.

Boys from the black stuff the story goes on..

Well it’s now twelve days since the saga started. You will recall that the local county council had resurfaced a road. In the process local residents had fallen and injured themselves due to the delay in scrapping the top surface off and truing up to resurface the road. The local paper picked this up and gave it publicity. In the process of finishing the job the road worked managed to fill six drains with a mix of the old top surface and the new black top.

Job creation

Well, the drains remain blocked. I have heard nothing from the council, other than an acknowledgement to my email. ( No real surprise there!) The autumn is upon us and the rainy season has returned.

I am wondering how long it will take the council to clear the drains. I am also wondering what the next issue will be, if they don’t pull their finger out. Flooding is on my list. A road traffic collision is not beyond the realm of possibility as the road in question adjoins a busy route. All addition costs and potential distress that could have been avoided if the job had been done properly in the first place. Better still that the inspector that visited the job afterwards had done their job properly and got the rework undertaken quickly. Of course if  inspection was built-in to the work on the ground then the job would have been left in a good shape. However, because management believe that you need to separate inspection from the job it causes sloppy behaviour on the ground, as no one accepts responsibility for the job. Every one blames someone else. Driving costs up and customer satisfaction down.

In the meantime the resurfacing work goes on elsewhere in the town. Guess what the drains are also being filled with debris. A systemic fault with the way that the work is being undertaken. Adding more costs for a council that claims to be hard presses for cash. Getting the job done right first time would be a start. I am guessing that the ‘chaps’ in their ivory tower over in Preston have not been out of the office to see what is really going on across the patch. If they did they would learn how to design and manage the work in a different way, producing better outcomes for everyone. The balanced score card that they rely upon is telling lies, but no one can see beyond the fiction created by made up numbers.

Watch this space….

Boys from the black stuff

Good job well done?

I have been walking a long a road on my way in to my local town for a few years now. The surface has been getting worse over time. The occasional botch job has put ‘chewing gum’ in a couple of holes, but as we all know this does not last a winter. A waste of time and money: a temporary fix that ought to fixed properly the first time. The madness of inspection and scheduling of work on the basis of arbitrary priorities made against a limted budget.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived home one day recently to find a road  machine ripping the surface off the road for a stretch of about 200 metres. So far so good. Obviously the road then lay in its temporary state for a week with raised inspection covers and signage on the pavements, blocking access and causing confusion for road users. Organising the job as a continuous flow would make a lot more sense.

Then it was all systems go! The road workers and machinery arrived and by the end of the day the road was complete. Bingo! At face value the job looked a good one. The resurface was well finished sealed to the existing surface. But then oh no! I walked down the road a few days later and happened to look down a drain cover. I was shocked to find it full of road chippings. On my way back I decided to look at all the drains on the road, and guess what all of them were full/blocked by road dressing. So a great job on the face of it had turned in to rework. A further job for a different team to return to site and unblock each drain. More inspection, rescheduling and prioritisation; not to mention cost.

Given the weather this year I decided to take action and logged on to my local county council web site to see how good their on line service was. It took me a while. I decided not to ring the hot line number as the council has decided to charge me for the priviledge. So, having navigated the web site I found the section I needed. Not that easy to do. I have an advantage because I know what I am looking for because I understand how council departments organise themselves. I started to enter the detail in to the web site: a tedious process. I got an acknowledgment on the site and advised that I would get a response within 10 days! This was followed a few minutes later by a standard email saying my request would be dealt with soon! More duplication, and a confusing series of messages.

Let’s hope that it does not rain too hard before the work is scheduled. The damage caused by blocked mains drains is obvious; and all caused because the job was not done correctly at the time. Bad system or sloppy workers? Ironic really that the council faces a financial crisis, and by taking sort cuts based upon unit cost it has increased its costs! Madness.

As I write the saga goes on. Watch this space.

Money down the drain!

Can you spot the problem here? The team on the job left the site after a job well done!

Is this good work? Time, money and effort go into resurfacing a road that creates more work for another team to fix the failure. There is not one, but six drains like this!

Time pressure, unit costing and specification all got in the way of a job done right first time. I assume that the road has been not yet been inspected. This is another function that is better built into the role of those doing the work.

Do councils really have money to pour down the drain?

A change of leadership thinking is required, but are they up for it?

How many plates can you spin at a time?

I have been working with a client recently who was very keen to progress a piece of work. Four weeks ago we set up a phone call. I made sure that it was arranged to suit his diary. An hour before the scheduled time I get an email to say that he needs to rearrange as sometime urgent had come up. I thought fair enough, issues crop up from time to time that need urgent attention.  So off we started again to find a date and time to suit. Again I shuffled my diary to make the appointment. Guess what a few days later another email arrives to rearrange the phone call! Is this a pattern I wondered?

Sure enough the answer was yes. This saga happens on four occasions in the period. Then to cap it all on the day of the last appointment I get an email to say that he is running late and will call me as soon as possible.

Well the clear message to me is that this individual either had an acute problem  with time management, or did not see the piece of work that he was so  desperate to progress with me as a priority after all. In the event the phone call did go ahead, but he had not really had time to think through what he wanted to achieve and we ended up having a faltering discussion almost off the cuff. Is this really the way to make effective use of time in organisations.

The pressure to fill the diary up with meetings, fiddle with smart phones (often in meetings) and farm emails occupies far too much time for the average employee. It seems that there is no time to think in organisations today.

A quick piece of analysis on the email account and the diary would reveal a lot about the organisation and its culture, along with the preoccupations of the employee in question. If managers studied their work and it’s impact they would learn that  in practice much of the time spent in meetings has no productive impact upon meeting customer demand, if anything it is likely to make things worst.

Email trails often reveal the games played in organisations to shuffle responsibility and protect ones back from criticism. The .cc culture, and check with mentality causes a lot of wasted time. Time that could be better spent  in the work fixing issues that stop employees from delivering excellent service to customers. Perhaps If only there were not so many plates spinning managers would have time to do more of the right thing. I wonder who started all those plates spinning in the first place? Well managers of course! What else would they do if they did not have to run around spinning all those plates!

It’s a pity that managers have no time to stop and think about the true impact of their actions in the work. If they did they would be horrified to find that the outcome of their labours invariably made matters worse!

The lesson is that in practice if you focus upon one plate at a time you will end up spinning more plates in the long run. Counter intuitive it may be, but try it for yourself. You would be wise to take a hard look at what clutters your diary and email whilst you are on. You will be amazed at how much time you can create. The challenge then is to use the time to study and understand how the current system works, before trying to change it, rather than tinker and make it worse.

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.