The evolution of the error

For the past two years or so you’ve been getting bills from npower for gas.
But you’ve had no gas supply in your flat for about 20 years when you had the boiler and meter taken out, and your heating and power are all electric now. No gas.

When you get these npower bills for a gas supply that you don’t have you’re assured on each occasion that they would stop – they could see that you’re not using any gas – but they keep coming. This is a real story

If this ever got so bad that you get it onto the telly, perhaps Watchdog, an icily bland spokeswoman might appear to give an apology, without apologising, and refer to it as some sort of “error”.

But what sort of error lasts for 2 years and requires a TV programme and the harsh light of executive involvement to sort out?

Here is the history of how customers rubbish service has been explained away over the decades.

The Clerical error
When did these begin to flourish? 1950s-1960s
What is blamed for rubbish service? An individual. A clerk, probably. Some lowly Bob Cratchett who added up a column of numbers incorrectly due to frozen fingers.
The assumption?. A simple person did a simple thing wrong. This is regrettable and is why we take our staff training so seriously.
The solution? More training.

The Administrative error
When did these begin to flourish? 1960s-1970s
What is blamed for rubbish service? A fault somewhere in our paper factory. The wrong form went down the wrong chute.
The assumption: In modern administration there are complex bureaucratic processes needed to deliver increasingly complex services, if something went wrong it was because the processes weren’t robust enough.
The solution? More processes.

The Computer error
When did these begin to flourish? 1980s to present
What is blamed for rubbish service? A fault “in a computer”. EVERYBODY knows just to shrug at that. Who would ask “well WHAT error and what computer?” cos nobody could ever know the answer.
The assumption? Computers are just great. So if something went wrong, we mustn’t have made them great enough.
The solution? More computers.

These are the three ways we typically explain away poor service in the modern management factory.
Underlying all three is the assumption that errors and mistakes are exceptions to the norm, that lie outside how things actually work. Like an act of God, they appear, strike and disappear. That’s why we have managers, to hold the forces of chaos at bay with more training, more processes and more computers.

It’s a cunning blind alley built so we can’t see that
1: these faults and errors are predictably happening, not randomly striking, and therefore…

Poor service and errors are usually not clerical, administrative or computer errors. They are system errors, caused by the design and management of work.

You can’t ever “only do one thing“. If you design a system to do one thing, it’ll also do a load of other things, unintended things. These unintended things will be as predictable and as built in as the things you intended it to do.

Acknowledging a system fault “there’s a fault in the way we design and manage our work” is truthful and owns the problem.
If you think you have clerical, administrative or computer errors, then you don’t. You have design and management of work problems.

What causes you to design and manage work as you do? What assumptions about work do you have that cause you to manage it the way you do?

These are the true errors that cause mistakes, errors and poor service.


Posted in command and control, systems thinking, thinking | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Hitler gets the SATS results

See, even Hitler was driven to tears by irrational target based standard setting.

Posted in all wrong, command and control, systems thinking, targets | Tagged , ,

The Spice of Life


Why your dog doesn’t like targets and neither should you.
Lovely piece by Squire To The Giants on the variation inherent even in things like walking a dog. I use “how many cups of tea do you drink a day”. Quaint and folksy I like.

Originally posted on Squire to the Giants:

spices-442726_640Variety is the spice of life. If everything were the same it would be rather boring. Happily, there is natural variety in everything.

Let me use an example to explain:

I was thinking about this as I was walking the dog the other day. I use the same route, along the beach each day, and it take me roughly the same time – about 30 minutes.

If I actually timed myself each and every day (and didn’t let this fact change my behaviour) then I would find that the walk might take me on average 30 minutes but it could range anywhere between, say, 26 and 37 minutes.

I think you would agree with me that it would be somewhat bizarre if it always took me, say, exactly 29 minutes and 41 seconds to walk the dog – that would just be weird!

You understand that there are all sorts…

View original 1,406 more words

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How your sickness policy increases sickness

I’ve been off work poorly with the norovirus or Winter vomiting bug. Not diagnosed,  just a good guess.

It’s one of the most virulent, easily transferable viruses on God’s earth. It can survive on any surface, it can’t be killed by usual alcohol hand washes, only good hot soapy water and proper hand washing, many times a day. If someone in a house gets it, they all get it. It’s closed down hospitals and cruise ships. It is the Alien of bugs.

And I’ve realised that probably most organisations sickness policies increase absenteeism if someone is off work with a vomiting bug.

I’m English, so I check the beautiful best health service in the world’s website that tells me….

If you have norovirus, you may continue to be infectious for a short period after your symptoms stop. You should therefore avoid direct contact with others for at least 48 hours after your symptoms disappear.

This tallies with my kids primary school policy which is 2 days before a kid can come back, and most childcare places in general.

It’s in my OWN best interests, according to my employers sickness policy, to return to work ASAP because each day is tallied, totaled, and 2 extra days might double a sickness absence. This is normal and usual in large organisations, and there are certain thresholds where other activities kick in. Again, normal and usual.
And because there’s this financial crises and all, especially in the public sector, the next round of redundancies may well include or solely use your sickness record to decide if you’re next.

So tomorrow, as I’m feeling better now, I will go into work.

I will touch the lift button on the way in to call the lift.
I will press the button for my floor.
I will hold my hand against the swipe pad for my floor.
I will pick up the kettle on the kitchen.
I will touch the taps on the sink.
I will touch chairs, columns, the printers, and all sorts of other shared office paraphernalia.

Each time I do that I’ll be leaving a ghostly trail of virus behind me, that will live for weeks, waiting for another person to touch and infect.

And when they do, they’ll be sick for several days too. And not just one person, each will infect another when they return to work 48 hours too early.

So, I don’t think it’s in my employers best interests that I return tomorrow, but it’s in mine because of the sickness policy, so I’m returning with some friends.

#### addendum ####
Turns out I’m not going to work tomorrow as I cant move round my own house without wheezing and leaning on things like an old man. Thus rendering this post moot. Yes, moot I tell you.

Posted in public sector, systems thinking | Tagged ,

Why I hate Ofsted

I’ve got an eleven year old in final year of primary school and Ofsted are ruining his education.

Next week is SATS week.
In that week children of the same age all around the country will be tested on how well they understand the basics of English and Maths.
There are papers to be sat, and most will be sitting just the level 5 papers, and the more able will also be sitting the level 6 papers.

What people say is happening
Level 6 testing was brought in to final year primary school stop the more able kids just cruising the final year. Says the Internet. This level is actually to be reached in 4 years time.

What is actually happening.

I’ve looked at the level 6 papers, and they’re hard. I’ve got a law degree, and write for a living and for fun, and even then I have to double check how to spell one of my most used words, bureaucracy. This is a word that 11 year olds will be tested on! It is so used and misspelled by me that I have it written on a post it and stuck up next to my desk at work.

Next year they go to high school. In their first year they’ll be tested and observed and the teachers will come to their own opinion on what level the child is working at and they’ll be placed in the class that’s right for them. What happens this year, in terms of exam results, is minor league verging on ignored.

These exams are not for the pupils. They are for the headteachers, the Local education authorities, Ofsted and ultimately the government. They are of no earthly use to an 11 year old.

If, like most things that happen in school, it floated over their heads and they didn’t notice, I wouldn’t care.
But I have a friend of my child sitting downstairs as I type this, on the verge of tears because his mum is making him work his guts out for a meaningless test that will have no effect on his education.

Both the kids downstairs are able, and have been entered for level 6 papers. For the last year they’ve been going into school 30 minutes earlier to attend a special maths class. Teachers have been handing out old papers to do at home, lists of spelling words that come up are memorised.

Like an idiot, without thinking why, and because everyone else was, I joined in.
Papers have been sat at home on a Sunday, timetables drawn up of things to do and memorise.
Thankfully, because I’m quite lacklustre at being consistent, it regularly was forgotten about.
But the SATS themselves haven’t been. They loom over all 11 year olds and ruin what should be fun, their last year of primary school, and of being young children.

According to the stats, and the stats rule all in education, between 1 and 2 children get a level 6 at my kids school each year.  I know who those will probably be, literally their names. The 8 or so others seem to have been thrown at the test paper like Field Marshall Haig throwing soldiers at the guns, and with as much chance of surviving them too. But who knows, perhaps they will. But they won’t.

I think the idea of giving kid stretching work is fine. But not to test them, not to build an entire year around it, not to create an environment where the most able are reduced to tears by their stressed parents who don’t know that this is purely for the league tables and the vultures who pick over them.

I know that really level 6 testing is NOT to stop the most able from cruising. If this were so then after next week kids wouldnt suddenly be dropping everyhting and going on holidays to London, days out to the theatre etc. This shows me that it is the TEST that level 6 is for, not the child. For the league tables.

I know that these level 6 papers are filthy. Ridiculous and appaling. But I was duped. I work in performance management and saw through it, I blog about it. But I was duped about these things along with everybody else. These papers cannot help in any way with my childs education or love of learning. They can only turn him off with a focus on test scores and on attainment, not on learning something because it is interesting or fun.

Starting right now, I’m telling him I don’t give a monkeys what he gets in the test, that he shouldn’t stress as nobody else will care either, apart from the Head and her career prospects.
I have no idea whether the teachers have similarly seen through it all. They may have done. But there is seeing through it, and then there is knowing what purpose is. There are plenty of people who work in performance management and similarly useless professions who have seen through it and know its pointless but don’t care and don’t see the moral imperative to care, the same could be so with the Head I don’t know.

What I do know is I hate Ofsted and their ongoing mission to ruin childrens education and love of learning.

Posted in all wrong, command and control, public sector, systems thinking | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

How to do a SWOT

In the most strategic of rooms in my building, I found an agenda on a flipchart. It is not exceptional, it is typical. This probably happens in your building. This is how decisions are made….

*the photo is real
**the words totes stolen from the brilliant W1a and 2012.

Posted in communication, learning, public sector, systems thinking, thinking | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

The loneliest whale in the world.

Meet the loneliest whale in the world.


She doesn’t speak the same language as other whales so they can’t hear her.

This is the same as systemsy talking.

Once your mental model changes from stupid ol’ command and control to systems thinking you start to forget what on earth you were thinking. Literally.

Although you’ve been given the privilege of learning two mental models, the one you used to have that you didnt know you had, and a newer more useful one, it’s not possible to BELIEVE in the same way that you used to.

When this happens, you can’t see how people can think the way that they do about targets, measures, work decisions, people. Anything really, because the thing that you use to make sense of things is totally changes, everything changes with it.

Not only are you now saddled with not seeing how others could possibly speak and think like they do, the dice is loaded even more against you…

A pair of loaded dice, yesterday

A pair of loaded dice, yesterday

The dice that is loaded against you is the language dice.

“there are two kinds of causation: direct and systemic. Every language in the world has direct causation in its grammar; no language has systemic causation in its grammar.”[link]

For example…

  • Was Hurrican Katrina “caused by” global warming?
  • The bad experience you had when you rang the callcentre, was it “caused by” the existence of customer service standards?
  • If you have an 11 year old child in teh UK, they’re probably spending their time at school practising sitting test papers at the moment, rather than learning. Is this “caused by” Ofsted [the school inspection body]?
  • The time your house was burgled, was this “caused by” the level of income inequality in your country?

Well probably. But this isn’t “caused by” in the sense that most people use it, which is as a direct one to one cause and effect. Like the desk toy, below.

The causal influences on the burglar deciding to enter your house and steal from it are so convoluted and distantly linked to the level of income inequality, that it’s easier to blame them as “bad” people or blame their upbringing, depending on who you vote for.
But harder than that is how you talk about it to people who prefer simpler cause/effect to just knowing that something is a predictable feature of a system, no matter how unclear the actual tangled roots of causation are.

The lack of a specific way of talking about systemic causation is an example of “hypocognition”. This is…

“missing, and being unable to communicate cognitive and linguistic representations because there are no words for particular concepts”[link]

In Tahiti a researcher found that the indigenous people had no words to describe sorrow or guilt, leading to people who had suffered personal losses describing themselves as feeling sick or strange instead of sad.
Not having a word for something means its hard to think about, to talk about, and to do something about.
For example it is easier to dislike and want to do something to reduce the “tax burden”, because it captures in two words a position. But what about people who would prefer to pay for quality public services and a consequent higher tax rate? How is it possible to talk to people about this without an equivalent phrase that means the opposite?
Having the right words makes it possible though, an example of this is “pro-choice”. Note, it is not “pro-abortion”. Just as people who are “anti abortion” are more likely to self identify as “pro-life”.

There are of course systemsy words that mean specific things, demand, flow, purpose, feedback. These are normal and won’t frighten people, but they also have other meanings. For example nobody would argue against purpose, it’s a like those hard working families or family values. Everyone likes them, even though few can agree with what they are.

The Hausa people would call the “front” of an object what we would call the back of an object, if you are standing looking at a tree you might consider the “front” of the tree to be the side facing you. But the Hausa assume that the tree is facing the same direction as you, therefore the “front” of the tree is on the other side that you cannot see, not the side facing you.

So when I say purpose outloud to a Prince2 project manager, what are the chances that they will be thinking of purpose in the same way?

Posted in command and control, communication, human brains are weird, psychology, systems thinking, thinking | Tagged , , | Leave a comment