Scottish Power to your elbow

I took advantage of the energy deals that were around in the autumn of last year and switched supplier to cap my rate.

All went smoothly until this week.

Out of the blue I recieved an email from Scottish Power telling me that they had increased my direct debit by 50%.

To say that I was surprised was an understatement! How could this be I wondered, I took time to calcuate my last years consumption to make the transfer.

The Scottish Power computer told us how much we needed to pay. A good deal, and the job done. making efficiencies

So, I thought that I would make a call to express my surprise and find a solution that suited me.

I waded my way through the usual obstacles of the call routing system that did its best to pursuade me that I did not need to speak to a person and ended up speaking to an unhelpful agent.

Not her fault you understand she had an impossible job in a crap system. No the less her manner left a lot to be desired, and only served to make me more determined to escalate that issue.

She was adamant that the computer said that I owed money and that the direct debit could not be changed.

I quietly explained to her that this was the winter quarter and that I was a new customer, and that as a result the calculation that had been made not three months previously was correct .

She was robust in her view that I had no option but to pay the revised amount.

Now at this point some people would have checked out and put the phone down believing that they had no option ( I bet a lot do, as this is the game that the company want to play afterall its better to have the cash in the company’s account than the customers.You have to keep the shareholders happy).

However, I was quick to advise the agent that I was not taking no for an answer. After a pause, she said that she would log my concerns on the system as a complaint.

Further intransigence on my part finally got her to put the call through to customer services.

The music played out for a good five minutes, and I wondered what was going to happen. Then, all at once the tone of the call changed completely.

At last I was talking to someone with a bit of common sense. The Superviser immediately said that she understood my issue and would withdraw the revised direct debit straight away. Hooray! A victory for common sense.

I asked her if this happened often, oh yes she said it happens when new customers transfer accounts during the winter period.

The computer automatically calculates based upon useage and sends out automatic changes to direct debits and even automates the email to the customer.

I asked if she thought that this might be a training issue for the front line so that they understood this and could respond more effectively to customers in the first place.

Her enthusiastic reply was that there were a number of issues that had to be taken into account with the customer and that the agents did not have all the answers.

She missed my point completely!

However, I did get my problem fixed.

So what did I learn from this experience?

  • They have an IT system that automatically upsets customers on a regular basis, because it cannot cope with complexity. It causes frustrated customers to have to wait in a queue to sort out mistakes at their own time and expense. It drives costs in to their system.
  • They have a call handling system that is not designed against the demands placed upon it from their customers.
  • They have call agents who are not trained to deal with frequent calls.

Now commercially you might think that this makes sense.  How many poor unsuspecting customers will just follow what the computer says?

But what does this do for customer relations and customer loyalty? (Scottish Power proudly boasted in an email to me the following day that they had a 91% customer satisfaction rate, and are in the top 50 most improved contact centres).

What are they rating and measuring I wonder to benchmark themselves with others?

Notwithstanding the impact upon the customer the current system drives lots of waste in to their organisation, driving up their costs.

The system generates a change to a direct debit to my bank, and all the accounting activity that goes on behind the scenes, it generates an email to me.

I phone them and they spend 20 mins on the phone, they update and record info in their systems, and pass calls around to supervisors and other departments whilst I wait on the phone.

The result is that all the automatic actions made by the computer have to be manually corrected, and my bank notified of the change. I wonder how much that cost?

The chances are that they will not even see this as an issue.

The waste is hidden in the flow of work around their system and will be owned and managed by different managers. Each will in turn have a focus upon a target to manage their bit.

No one will have their eye on the bigger picture because they are too far removed from understanding the end to end workflow in practice. If they did they would be very interested to listen back to my call and follow the issue back to its root within the business.

Perhaps if a few more leaders got back into the work and understood the true what and why of performance they would begin to focus upon acting on the system and improving outcomes for customers and share holders.

Until then keep an eye on your utility bills and challenge the providers all the way.

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48 ways to save!

making efficienciesHere is an interesting blog about the focus of the government upon shared services in local government, and the belief that it will save billions of pounds for the tax payer. Evidence from practice highlights the fact that sharing services is more likely to add cost in whole system terms than reduce it. The current rhetoric only measures certain parts of the process to make it look successful. Be careful what you wish for Mr Pickles.

Pickle’s pamphlet ‘Now only 48 ways to save’?.

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.

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.

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!

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!

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.