Only bullies, cowards or fools set targets

This is the story of a teacher in a UK school who was set a target of 75% exam pass rate.

This summer the pass rate was 65%.

If we ignore all the things we know about measures and targets (common cause variation, arbitrary nature of targets, no method etc) there still was something meaningless in this particular cruelty.

“the truth is that eight of our students missed their C grade by one mark, and they did this because the exam board shifted the grade boundaries for controlled assessments up, which pushed students who had worked hard to achieve a mid-to-high level C into D territory. The fact of the matter is, my department’s teaching was good enough to meet the target, but we were at the mercy of exam boards and their arbitrary decision-making.”

The teacher in question is resigning as head of department and probably leave teaching altogether. The people who set the target of 75%?

They’ve set the target for next year to be 93%.

So here’s a simple heuristic…
If a manager sets a numeric target, they’re a bully, coward or a fool. Or combinations thereof.

Posted in systems thinking, targets | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

I’m not touching that, it’ll do me back in!


This settee is crucial to this post , so take a good look at it.

Go on, put your nose right up to it.

This nasty looking thing used to be in my living room, there’s paint on it because at some point in decorating I decided I didn’t care because I’d be buying a new one soon. And I did, it’s lovely and in the living room.

This one, as you can see, it’s on my drive.
It shouldn’t be though. It should have been picked up by the Council and disposed of as I’d paid them to do.

This is the story of what happens when purpose is lost to terms and conditions.

I rang the Council last week…


Hmm, that last bit. Pay attention to it, because it becomes important later on. At the time though, it just concerned me in a nagging back of my head type way.
It HAS been raining really heavy, for weeks now. But I don’t keep a roll of PVC covering in the house just on the offchance that I have to gift wrap an entire 3 piece suite. Who does?




I didn’t say anything though. It made me feel guilty , like I was sneaking something bad.
On the night before the pick up, I took the chairs out of the garage, left them on the drive, and sat and listened to the driving rain beating down on the windows and thought fondly of my chairs sitting on the drive.

The next morning I woke up at 7:10am to the sound of men scraping chairs around my drive.
I looked out the window to see them put the two armchairs on the back of a flatbed truck, close the gate on it, and start to climb in the van and reverse out my street.

Without my settee.

I ran down stairs and they stopped when they saw me coming.
I asked them,


And with that, they drove off….
When my settee arrived at my house many years ago, it was lowered out of the van on an electronic platform that acted as a mini lift that helped transfer the very heavy thing from up high inside the van. But this van didn’t have that. It was very high off the ground, the bed of the truck being about shoulder height. And crucially it didn’t have one of those tail lifts to get it onto the van.


“YES! That’s it! One of them. “

So these people had to hoist my two armchairs on their shoulders and onto the truck without the aid of any lifting device. Just pure brute strength.

Which they did not appear to have, due to fear of “doing backs” in.

I don’t blame them, I wouldn’t want to hoist heavy weights over my head without the right tools. It IS dangerous. But I didn’t design this foolish process where settees that get wet cannot be taken away, but settees that are bone dry CAN be taken away.

So I ring up to complain…

So I made a complaint. As you do, hammering away at the keyboard. In the complaint I said “I just want the settee taken away“.


nice and dry

And a few days later, Saturday morning, two men turned up to do just that.

They lifted the nice and dry settee from within the garage where it had been returned to, and put it on the back of a van, and asked me if there was any rubbish I also wanted taken away whilst they were here. For free.
During all this, one of the men, clearly some kind of supervisor, was telling me about how staff are told not to lift things that are too heavy and the settee itself was very heavy.
Which it was, it’s a heavy settee. But that’s settees for you.
They carried the settee at waist height, all the way to a different van this time with the handy and capable tail lift, which then did the hard work of lifting it upwards onto the back of the van.


“YES! That’s it! One of them. “

The man asked whether I was happy with the outcome. I said yes, embarrassed about the surfeit of garage rubbish they’d taken away with them.

I told someone at work this story, and thisis what happened…

I instinctively knew I wouldn’t, but the reasons were long and complicated to relate out loud to the lady in front of me, and would require me to explain customer purpose, demand, systems conditions etc AND THERE’S NO POINT IN THAT, that’s what this blog is for.
So here’s why I wouldn’t tell them anything, and the actual point of this whole post.

The conventional view on this story

The customer did not comply with the terms and conditions of the service as stated to them in the recorded call to the Call Centre.  As a consequence of this, they left the settee to become sodden and too heavy for our staff to lift. Our staff followed their instructions on lifting heavy weights and informed the customer why they were leaving the settee. The customer contacted the Call Centre and were informed that they would not be refunded part of the cost. They made a complaint and in the course of handling the complaint it was decided, as a gesture of goodwill, to send out the larger truck with a tail-lift, to take away the settee.

The systems thinking view on this story


No charge for comedy items

A predictable demand on the bulky collection service is the collection of large items of furniture such as settees. Customer purpose is “take my bulky item away“. What matters is that it is taken away without any fuss or bother or outlandish terms and conditions.
There are several system conditions built into the design and management of the work that stops this from happening.


System conditions that hinder meeting customer purpose

1: Sorting
When I rang the callcentre the very first time, to book the collection, they asked me what I wanted collecting and quoted a cost according to their schedule. There are three costs, based on the size, with examples given on the website, with the cost increasing according to the size. Chairs are classed in the middle price range, along with a mattress or a single bed. The largest items cost more to collect and the examples given are piano or full size snooker table.
Based on this selection a different van is chosen for collection.
This sorting put waste in the system by allocating a large slightly damp settee to choosing an inappropriate van without a tail-lift that means it cannot pick it up.

2: Asset utilisation
They choose to send out smaller vans without the appropriate tail lift for some reason based on the thinking that the most expensive vans should be rationed. This drives waste into the system as the cheapest thing to do is not to send out the cheapest van but the most appropriate van at meeting customer purpose. This is the Taguchi loss function in action. get it exactly right, and its the cheapest thing you can do.

3: Contractual relationship
The relationship between the council and the customer is a contractual one. WE will do this, if YOU do that, with terms and conditions to govern the relationship. Putting the settee out at night time to meet the 6:30am van pick up is a good example. It doesnt meet what matters to the customer ( “no fuss”) as suddenly the onus is on me to locate several metres of waterproof wrapping and wrap a THREE-PIECE SUITE UP in it. How ludicrous is that?
When the terms and conditions were not met by me waste was created as customer purpose was not met because I contacted the council again, raised a complaint, they came out again and took a large amount of my waste that I could have taken to the tip myself. Again, waste. The contractual relationship created more waste and cost than a “what matters” relationship would have.
When I rang the call centre after they failed to pick up my settee the response of the manager was to say they would locate the recorded call and see if the advisor had told me about covering the settee, this is an adversarial relationship. Recording calls to show that a process had been followed, not that a process was right.

4: A complaints handling process, not a management learning process
The purpose of a complaints process is to protect the organisation from the customer.

It is for judging whether the process and rules have been followed, not whether the rules are correct in themselves. Complaints processes are for judging when the organisation doesn’t play by its rules. NOT for judging the rules they play by.
The purpose of a complaints system should be to protect the customer from the failures of the organisation, meet customer purpose where it hasn’t been met and to learn what system conditions need to change to better meet customer purpose. Ultimately the test of a working complaints system is “does this change management thinking?“.
If not, it is a paper exercise to protect the organisation from change.

This is why I kept schtum and didnt tell them “the good news story”. A simple pick up of 3 items of furniture that should only involve one phone call and two men in a van, THAT would be a good news story.

Two vans, four men, three phone calls, one complaint and a tedious and overlong blog post are not a good news story.

Posted in command and control, public sector, purpose, systems thinking, systemz comix, vanguard method | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Systems Thinking Drinking Game


If you’ve been trying to introduce systems thinking into your organisation for a bit,  you’ll have heard the same things trotted out as excuses reasons why not give it a go.
So here’s The Systems Thinking Drinking Game! It will help turn the pointless grind into a drunken jamboree of control charts and vomiting.

To play the game ensure you have a bottle of hard liquor with you at all times, and take a swig when you hear the following.

A sip
-“I don’t have time to write down what customers are ringing up for, I’ve got loads of phonecalls from customers to answer.”

-“Ok, just tell me what to measure and I’ll get it to you on a monthly basis, if it’s got to be in the scorecard, so be it.”

-“We’ve done a big customer satisfaction survey, so we can use that.”

A big gulp
-“I consider improvement a priority, so I’ll get my deputy to work with you on it. ”

-“So if I just add the target onto the control chart like this I think it’ll work much better for everyone”

-“Yes, systems are important, which is why we’ve bought a new IT system to handle it all.”

-“What our customers want is all on our CRM system. I’ll get our performance people to print the monthly report for you. ”

Down the bottle in one
-“We’ve already done Lean.”

Posted in command and control, lean thinking, systems thinking, vanguard method, very short posts | Tagged | 3 Comments

“I’m sorry, but we are a big company” – a fragment about scale


Brilliant post about how scaling an organisation up seems to hard wire failure demand into their very organisational structure. VgVg.

Originally posted on Matt Edgar writes here:

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about scale…

Trello blog post backlog… but I struggle to get it all out as a single coherent narrative…

… so instead I want to tell a short story. It goes like this…

In order to supply my services to a large public organisation, I find my little company as a sub-sub-contractor in a Byzantine procurement framework. Anyone who believes the dogma that the private sector is inherently more efficient than public enterprise need only look at the outsourcing giants that squat in this space for empirical evidence that it is just as often the exact opposite.

A few weeks into my new contract, it becomes clear that the bureaucracy is incapable of paying the correct amount for work done. They ignore my suggestion that their timesheet system is treating half days…

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When I hear the word “values”… I reach for my gin


That man was a Nazi, and this blog has no truck with that, but I have a similar reaction to talk of organisational culture, in particular, values

I don’t get values.

I think they’ve been spoiled for me by too much optimistic starry eyed HR-driven guff, generally part of a corporate wide transformation effort, where some Values merchant will trundle out their  wheelbarrow of soft skills, simply laden with this year’s new values.

Here are 4 reasons why I reach for my gin whenever I hear the word “values”.

1 It’s all for the pens

I’ve seen several packs (communes? cuddles?) of values come and go, and they’re always inscribed on office giveaways, free tat handed out to replace the old mouse mats or pens. The values have generally disappeared before the pens run out of ink.  But I’ve never witnessed a transformational effort that actually does change values, because the point of intervention seems to be mainly paper based. Lots of new posters, mentions of these new values on appraisal forms, linking of plans etc to this new values. The intervention is aimed at making the pieces of paper link to each other using different words. And pens, lots of pens.
I reckon there is a values-and-office-tat cartel somewhere making a fortune off of this.

2 Paddling in the shallows

Culture and values seem the prerogative of people who want to change them to something else, crucially without any talk of what the current ones already are.
Anybody can do that! Here, have some values. Pretty!

Ever in your real life wanted to change something about yourself, a habit, behaviour etc?
If it worked, I bet it involved some sort of introspection, thinking and that, about what is currently going wrong and why. Your thought processes that are creating your current situation. Finding out what is happening right now, and why.
Well you did it wrong, loser.
What you should have done is shortcut right to the good bit where you pick some nice words and scatter them hither and thither. And get them printed onto pens. Lots of pens.

3 Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

There are some values on the American Declaration of Independence, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But what’s freedom eh? Is it freedom to do something, or is it freedom FROM something? Is it freedom to own a gun, or freedom to be able to walk around without fear of people who own guns? That’s philosopy for you, but if one word can have two opposite meanings, and in a proper document to boot, what chance do the following “values” have?



They are more brightly coloured than the Declaration of Independence, so they’ll live at least 3 or 4 years before a new set are graphic designed. And put on pens.

4 Culture is read only

Wossat, I hear you say. Culture. It’s read only.
That means you can look at it, pick it up, investigate it, but you can’t go directly at it and change the blighter. Oh but people try though, as if the sheer power of nagging will break through the inertia of the thing. Like Mrs Doyle offering a cup of tea.

“But whats it mean “culture is read only” ?”

It means culture is the result of something else. You can see it, but you can’t change it. That would be like thinking you can stop the sun shining by rubbing sun tan cream on yourself.
Culture, and those associated values, can change. But culture does not change through the strategic use of pens.


Pencils however…

To change culture and whatever these value things are requires more than pens, look to see what this man says here

How can we change the organisation’s culture?

You can’t. Culture is read-only. A manifestation and a reflection of the underlying, collective assumptions and beliefs of all the folks working in the organisation. To see any cultural changes, you have to work on – by which I mean work towards a wholesale replacement of – this underlying collective memeplex. And that involves working with peoples’ heads, and in particular, collective headspaces. You can’t change other people’s assumptions and beliefs – only they can do that.

How can we change the mindset of managers?

You can’t. Managers – anyone, really – will only change their mindset when they see how their present mindset is ineffective at getting their needs – and the needs of others – met. Change (of mindset) is a normative process – it emerges from direct personal experiences of e.g. the way the work works now – and the problems inherent therein. You can’t change someone else’s mindset – only they can do that.



Posted in change, public sector, systems thinking, thinking, vanguard method | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A manager’s guide to good and bad measures

How can you tell if you’ve been sold a pup?
If some performance spod is fobbing you off with nonsense instead of good sound performance information?

Just check what’s put in front of you against this 5 point guide to good and bad measures.


(Click here to see larger version of the above pic)


(Click here to see larger version of the above pic).


If you’re handed something like the bad measures example when you actually want to understand what’s happening in your work, just hand it right back.

Print the above pics out, stick them on your wall, hand them to anybody with the word “performance” in their job title.
Stop accepting dross, cos otherwise they’ll keep on giving it to you.

NB Of course all this is, as per usual, me copying stuff from Vanguard, just with much better words and pictures. Not got an original idea in my head, but I make original ones pretty.

Posted in measures, systems thinking, targets, vanguard method | Tagged , ,

Slurs: Who Can Say Them, When, and Why


Who can say what to who and why.
It’s really very simple, and just takes a modicum of decency.

Originally posted on The Weekly Sift:

Why President Obama can say “nigger” and I can’t (except when I can)

Maybe the best treatment of racial slurs ever to appear in a movie was this scene from the 2006 film Clerks 2. Randall, a fast-food worker, can’t understand why porch monkey is racist: When his non-racist grandmother used to say it, he claims, she just meant “a lazy person” not “a lazy black person”. After a black customer (played by Wanda Sykes) freaks, Randall’s friend Dante finally convinces him that porch monkey really is a racial slur (and maybe Randall’s grandmother had more racial prejudice than he remembered). But then Randall decides he’s going to “take it back”; he’s going to keep saying porch monkey, but reclaim it by using it in a non-racist way. A frustrated Dante explains to Randall that he can’t reclaim porch monkey, “because you’re not black!”

“Well listen to…

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