This morning's short essay is inspired by two comments on my first post of the new year, The error fallacy.
I concluded that post by arguing that improvement would not come from aspirational reports such as that by Mr McTernan on public sector improvement. It came through the sheer hard grind of thousands of workers trying to fix things now. Within their human limits, people cared They tried do a better job.
The real challenge for any organisation, I suggested, was to find the best way of giving people the freedom they need to do their jobs. That was actually bloody hard, for it conflicted with the command and control mode of modern management.
Given freedom, people would make mistakes. But they would also achieve great things. I finished with this challenge:
What do you want? Do you want to avoid error, or do you want to achieve success? You can't have the second if you want the first.
In response, Ramana summarised elements of my argument in another way:
It is my experience that for any business to survive successfully, I use the word deliberately, it has to innovate constantly. Innovation not necessarily huge big shifts, but in the delivery of whatever it is offering its customers, be it quality, quantity, place or service. This process can only happen when mistakes are made and the opportunity is taken to take such steps as necessary to not make those mistakes again. It is a never ending process and if one condemns making mistakes, the uniqueness of the enterprise will suffer. Sadly, condemning is easier than treating those as opportunities to innovate.
For his part, Rod expressed another set of frustrations:
As for management generally, I'd like to say that our illustrious leaders seem to think managing is doing. Managing needs to be kept to a minimum because managing can actually stop other people from working.
The extreme nature of OHS and environmental regulation is an example of this. In my view adhering to the legislation is the minimum standard. But what happens when the legislation goes beyond OHS an environmental regulation and instead is all about paper work? We need to complete masses of paper work to demonstrate we are meeting the legislation... it is no longer good enough to meet (or even exceed) it.
I observe this situation in a couple of big consultancies that I've worked for as well as local and state governments. I'll provide a good local government example:
When testing potable water the testing tap needs to be 'flamed' to kill any bacteria on the end of a tap that might be a source of a false positive. Now, this hot work. So potentially a hot work permit needs to be filled out each time you do this, then you need a second person to watch the site for an hour after you've finished to make sure no fires start. Don't get me started on days where there is a total fire ban.
Of course practically, we need to create written standard work procedures and risk assessments to demonstrate that if you flooded the area with water from the tap before 'flaming' it. The risk is so low it is not worth noting... again this seems not to be enough on days of total fire ban. These risk assessments and procedures need to be signed off before work is done at every site.
Legislation has become too much aligned with recording what you are doing rather than just telling you what you need to be doing.
Shall I tell you about the time I needed to relocate a threatened species plant that was planted by one of my staff before the threatened species legislation came in force? This small thorny bush was next to a disabled foot path and because of the species being listed we needed a permit from National Parks each time we wanted to prune it. It took two years of planning to be able to relocate it!
The examples could go on for as many years as I've been working in NSW.
In considering these comments, I start with a very simple basic proposition: it is easier to get a small improvement in productivity than a large one. I think that most people would simply nod their heads at this. Surely it's self evident? So what? Now let me extend it.
It's easier to get a significant improvement in performance through a combination of small changes than it is to achieve the same gain through a single or small number of major changes. This may still seem self-evident, yet it runs counter to modern management approaches. To extend my argument, let me go to Ramana's stress on the importance of innovation.
All organisations whether big or small, private or public, have to deal with an ever-changing external world. In the short term, most of these changes are small, but they can have a significant impact. A simple change in personnel may destroy a carefully built relationship or derail or at least slow a long planned initiative. An almost casual change in a rule or a law may require significant action in response. Rain or a cool spell at the wrong time may leave stock on the shelves. To survive, organisations rely on their people to adjust, to respond, to innovate. Note I say people.
Internally, all organisations develop what we might think of as grit in the wheels. Old ways of doing things no longer work quite as well. Existing structures no longer quite match the pattern of activities. Old rules and ways of operating survive despite declining relevance. Organisations also have to manage internal change: people leave, old systems have to be replaced, new ways of doing things have to be introduced. All this requires change, innovation. To a degree, we are rats on the treadmill. We have to run hard, too innovate, just to stay on the same spot. Again, people and their responses are critical.
For much of the last twenty five years I have worked as a management or strategic consultant with a special focus on business improvement and change management. I am not practicing actively at present because I want to meet my writing objectives, but the experience is still relevant.
In carrying out my role, the first thing I did was to ask questions, to listen. As part of this, I tried to speak to junior staff. I knew the views and perceptions of the executives who had commissioned me, but I needed to check those views against on-ground realities. Time after time, I found that staff had their own views, they knew of changes that should be made, but they were frustrated at their inability to get things done. Often, they had tried to work their way around problems, creating informal working solutions that in some cases were critical to the delivery of services. Too often, their work was not recognised or even countermanded. A few had given up. A remarkable number had continued to strive. They were, in fact, trying to oil the treadmill even while running on it!
If innovation is critical, if a series of small changes can create major improvements, if the ideas are there, why don't things happen, why do staff get so frustrated? Here we need to look at the nature of management, bringing in ideas from Ramana and Rod.
Rod wrote: "As for management generally, I'd like to say that our illustrious leaders seem to think managing is doing. Managing needs to be kept to a minimum because managing can actually stop other people from working."
I don't quite agree with Rod's formulation. Managing is doing. However, the key point is that the role of the manager is to facilitate.
In teaching management, I tried to make the point that all staff were in fact managers and had management responsibilities: staff have to manage their own work; they have to manage up; they have to manage their relationships with their peers; increasingly with project based approaches, staff at all levels have specific project based responsibilities that vary over time and have to be managed.
Constantly, in the training room as well as on the shop floor, the standard refrain was the difficulty they experienced in actually doing their jobs.
The concept of the inverted pyramid was popularised SAS's Young Karlsson. In it, the senior manager was at the bottom of the pyramid, front line staff at the top. The aim of all the lower levels was to support those who actually delivered, the front line staff. Karlsson's aim was to give greater power and support to those who do, what is in the end, the critical work. Everything else exists to facilitate that.
Modern approaches to management are very different from Karlsson's concept. Here Rod's comment on the importance of rules and compliance and the problems this creates provides an entry point.
Modern approaches to management suffer from a number of fundamental problems. One is the point made by Rod, the application of rules and compliance based approaches. This links to two further problems. The first is reliance on systems rather than people, the second the misapplication of standards based approaches.
Systems are important, as are standards. You can't run any organisation without systems. None of us would want to fly in an aeroplane that was not built and operated to a certain standard. Further, and at a very simple level, the existence of standards is absolutely critical in our day to day life in activities such as putting together furniture or inserting the right light fitting. Here the international standard movement has been one of the great success stories, not just in economic but in human terms as well. Our life depends on standards.
But when we go beyond this, we find a poisonous mix.
In the modern command and control organisation, management starts at the top with things such as vision. mission, objectives and targets. Those visions etc are increasingly determined externally: we play the markets; we have to meet the demands of the central coordinating agencies; we have to fit in with the public performance indicators as set out in the state plan; and so it goes on. Then, too, we have to meet all the increasingly complexities of a rules based society. This requires the imposition of central controls, central procedures, central reporting requirements.
All these things are meant to cascade down through the organisation. Here computing systems are critical. IT is used to enforce compliance. Without it, our current management systems would not be possible. One side effect of all this is that there are probably as many if not more people in Australia employed to report to the Commonwealth on its programs, to enforce compliance with rules, than were required to run the entire British Empire at its peak!
As you drill down through the organisation things get worse. The further down you go, the harder it is to do new things, the less freedom you have. Of course, this has always been true to a degree. But it's just got worse.
Governance is a very popular topic today. Why? There are just so many more things requiring some form of formal government!
If we now return to the concept of innovation, you can see why there is a problem.
When I worked in Canberra, there were two or perhaps three decision lines and the Minister. In my current contract work in NSW there are seven! When I worked in Canberra, I did not have a single staff member fully involved in reporting, compliance or risk management; these things were done as a by-blow of our normal work. Today, with 37 staff and a multi million dollar program budget I would need at least three!
Real innovation depends upon the freedom of people to do new things. It also depends upon the capacity to actually find resources. In a tightly stretched command and control organisation with its multiple systems, neither freedom nor resources are available; responsibility for innovation actually gets pushed up the line to people who have neither the time nor the knowledge to look at the small incremental changes required to maintain continuous improvement.
I have used public sector examples, but the same issues arise elsewhere.
The problem is most acute in the important but not yet urgent category. This is the category that drives longer term change. We can see a problem coming, let's do something about it now. I think that we can do some new things important to our objectives. Let's test this. In a world where everything is controlled or specified however badly, it's hard to do this stuff.
The remarkable thing to my mind in all this is that people still try. They really do. They keep thing going, But we won't get real change, we won't get innovation or broad productivity improvement, until we simplify and return to management basics. Then we will see improvement.