Bicycle Shaped Object

This is not a bicycle.

This is a BSO or “bicycle shaped object”.  It looks like a bike, it’s shaped like a bike. But it is not a bike. It is something made to look like a bike, so someone will buy it at a very low price, usually from a supermarket or toy shop, Argos even. It fools you into thinking it is a bike by having a wheel at either end, a saddle in the middle and some multicoloured crap sprayed all over it, like “suspension” or springs as they are also called, silly logos and shiny bits.

They are dangerous as the components are cheaply made and badly assembled. Plastic brake handles that flex like drinking straws, front forks assembled backwards, gears that won’t work after a few weeks.

BSOs cost very little but do not confuse them with cheap bikes. You can buy a cheap bike, like you can buy a cheap car or a cheap computer, people buy BSOs thinking they are buying a cheap bike. They are not. These BSOs are unpleasant to ride, made of cheap crap that will soon break and prove unrepairable so they will spend a short time on the road, a longer time in a shed or garage and then even longer in landfill. Don’t believe me, go have a look in a skip at a council recycling centre. They are full of new BSOs, but never old bicycles.

What’s all this got to do with systems thinking then?

Customer-service Shaped Object
It looks like customer service but it isn’t, it’s merely shaped like a customer service.

Your phone call was answered within a stated target time. The agent answered the phone with her name, and asked you how you wanted to be referred to as. They were friendly helpful and conscientious.  Your call has been added to a list of numbers somewhere showing a successfully handled query. It looks like customer service.
Except you have ring back again as you didn’t get what you needed. Your problem was not addressed and solved, instead they dealt with the “customer service aspect” of it. I.e. they ignored your problem and substituted their own. Their problem is meeting their targets and that means answering phones quickly and putting the phone down again quickly. Your problem wasn’t solved by answering your phone call quickly

You are a customer who rings up a customer service centre who does not receive a service. But it appears as if you did.

Customer-satisfaction Shaped Object
You  are asked if you will fill in a customer satisfaction questionnaire before you  leave. You are asked questions about how you would rate the attentiveness of the assistant,1 very attentive, 2 slightly attentive, 3 neither attentive nor inattentive, 4 slightly inattentive or 5 very inattentive. You grab at a number, no number can describe how the nice person who dealt with you politely asked you the wrong questions from a script they couldn’t deviate from. They ask some more questions, how you rate the letter you received, or the forms they give you. You give more numbers, 2 and 3 perhaps.

Your answers and other peoples answers are combined by a data analyst into an average of other different persons experiences, benchmarked with a different service dealing with different people with different problems from different parts of the country, compared with last years performance and finally put in a powerpoint and shown at a senior management meeting as an annual customer experience summary.

 The organisation knows nothing about yours and others experience of their service. But it appears as if they do.


These are only two examples, there are plenty others. This is cargo cult management. Making something look like the real thing does not make it real. A cheap tangle of metal and plastic does not make an object into a bike, and a tangle of targets, forms and scripts cannot create a good service no matter how it looks or is labelled.

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9 Responses to Bicycle Shaped Object

  1. Tobias says:

    Brilliant post. Very enlightening. I’ll be looking out for other X-shaped-objects. I know I’ve seen many.

  2. “cargo-cult management” – what a great term, so apt. I know I’ve seen this before but hadn’t heard this term used for it.

  3. ThinkPurpose says:

    The very first thing i ever wrote was on cargo cult stuff. It wasn’t on internet, but it’s stuck in my head since as it’s a very common thing to observe people doing, to see the surface and not see the substance so they do the surface and not notice that the substance is missing.

  4. Jeff says:

    Good, concise article. The BSO definition is great. However, what is really brilliant is how the BSO object becomes twisted, then lost for another BSO in the CRM/call center example. Well done.

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