Sunday, January 06, 2013

Sunday Essay - constipated modern management & what to do about it

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.   


Anonymous said...

Good clear essay Jim, thank you.

A couple of other things I've seen in my travels within large firms, just for interest's sake:

The first probably has a name, but I've always called in 'peripherals to task' - by which I mean it is amazing just how easy it is for an employee engaged for a specific role to end up being distracted by duties which are either not his, or are necessary to the role but not attended to by other staff.

And the second is something Winton referred to in his book: how the accumulation of statistics for a report or evaluation base somehow 'bleeds' into the objectives themselves, and thus work becomes 'aimed' at the statistical model, rather than at whatever really should be the output in prospect. He said it better, so maybe read the book for a clearer idea of something I saw time and again in large law offices.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, kvd. Interesting points. I have actually written on both.

On the first, peripherals to task is an accurate description, but we need a snappier name! We do live in the current world! Still, until I think of a better one I am happy to pinch it!

We all know this one. It's especially a problem for part time or contract staff whose time is limited.

You put the second very well. I have yet to read Winton's book, I hope to do so in January. The two main aspects that I have written are the fallacy of number, the second the way we get what we measure.

The fallacy of number simply means that if we attach a number to something, that very act suggest that the number has meaning. The second is the way that a focus on the measurable crowds out other options. You see this in law or accounting firms where the conventional time based performance
measures twist what people do.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

A hot day, too hot for 'real' work, so let me bore you with some anecdotes - because I much enjoyed Rod's.

My brother spent his working life in the Army, rising to the position of senior Warrant Officer (for the Army) in the last few years before retirement. He had trained at Balcome in electrical engineering, but late in his career this became electronics, and he spent time 'working up' the electronics of various Army acquisitions - to the extent that at retirement he had three of his testing units patented by the Army for general use.

An example of innovation being possible within a quite rigid command structure?

Second. At one point I was engaged by the RAN Air Arm at Albatross to assist with production of their maintenance manuals. Think of a Sea King helicopter, and the detailed instruction manuals to disassemble, reassemble - complete with inspection points; "the turnbuckle of this sized shackle will be tightened with a torque of xx with a tolerance of yy", sort of stuff. Beats Monty Python's Flower Arranging instructions hands down!

But then, following a dreadful crash on Nias, I followed the ensuing investigation very closely - because it turned upon the possible missed replacement of a securing pin on a control rod - and how could that happen, given the helicopter model had been in service for 30-odd years?

It was found that the dismantling of the control rod in question was not covered in the maintenance manuals as to the particular, but only as ancillary to a larger component. And further, the illustration of the part in question was in fact mirror-reversed in all manuals produced over the entire service life of over 30 years!

The technicians, of course, knew this - and simply (generations of them!) worked around this bit of system failure...


Anonymous said...

Carried away by personal memories, let me just add an anecdote illustrating a point - to be found in Sun Tzu's Art of War:

A particularly bold soldier crept into the enemy camp at night, performed some heroic deed or other, then returned triumphant to his encampment.

The general immediately had him beheaded. When asked why by a protesting commander he said "I have no doubt he is a good soldier, but he disobeyed explicit instructions".

And if you think that's irrelevant, then ....


Jim Belshaw said...

Actually, kvd, some modern management structures make the Army look remarkably flexible. And, that is the point of your next anecdote too.

Interesting to know of your helicopter connection, though. Since this is a hot Sunday afternoon, during the period covered by that cabinet submission, I visited Westland. I flew back to London low across the West Country in one of their copters.

Your second anecdote is a bit too close to the truth to be comfortable.

But we got x out! It doesn't matter. You didn't deliver on performance indicator y. But I couldn't do both! We had to achieve x! I't doesn't matter. You didn't do what you were told. And there we have it.

Anonymous said...

Maybe last comment, but an echo of what Ramana was saying about the benefit of mistakes:

My partner of 30 odd years had the annoying (to me) habit of fossicking out the root cause (i.e. person responsible) for any error/defect reported in our software, before actually addressing it.

I 'solved' this (emotionally at least, at a particularly torrid time) by broadcasting an email to all staff that henceforth all errors/defects "were to be considered entirely my fault alone. So now could we all just stop p*ssing around, assigning blame, and actually concentrate on fixing the f*king problem."

Worked a treat for morale. But much binding in the marsh between we principals :)


Jim Belshaw said...

I could imagine, kvd!

Rummuser said...

Let me share something that happened just an hour ago. I dropped by a neighbourhood cafe for a chat with a friend who was already there and ordered a coffee each for both of us. Both of us are regulars there and well known to the proprietress. It was 35 minutes before the coffee came and it was cold. I insisted on the Steward taking down my complaint and the proprietress herself came over to apologise. She told me that there was some problem with the location of the coffee machine and she was unable to shift it to a more accessible location as there was always customers in the cafe. Since new plumbing would have to be installed, she was finding it difficult. I asked her why she could not get it done in the night when the cafe is closed. She went quiet for a moment, lit up and said, why, it never occurred to me!

Another factor in innovation is in talking to people not directly in the operations. Often customers can come up with ideas worth their weight in gold.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting, Ramana. Presumably the problem was worse than normal that day or you would actually be regulars. I certainly agree with your point re the importance of customer feedback.