Stick around, you might learn something

Look at your desk. Go on.
Now look at the photo. Do they look similar? If so, congratulations! You are LEAN!

This photo tells the infamous story of how the DWP approached improving its service by putting tape on staff desks so they had a best practice set-up to achieve optimal efficiency when typing into a keyboard answering the phone and making notes on a paper pad. Oh, and stapling some papers together from time to time. With optimal efficiency!

Resulting in strikes and piss-poor service.

Poor performance is caused by a poor system, which is the consequence of thinking that is…poor! You don’t need to be Einstein, but you need to know that a problem cant be solved with the same thinking that created it. The problems in DWP are a consequence of poor command and control thinking, and leanifying in this case is more poor command and control thinking, but this time with Japanese sounding knobs on

I smell a wannabe sensei.

Why bring this sorry story back up again, eh? It’s years ago. The reason is, nobody learned. The UK public sector is several years into its austerity budgets, and in many parts has fallen for lean. It has fallen like a homely old maid for a slick fraudster sliming his way into her inheritance.

People who didn’t pay attention to “improvement methods” in fat years have ran scared into the arms of the plausible now times are lean. Pun intended. This is the very first time that a lot of them have ever heard of lean. They are not coming to it from a position of knowledge of the experience of others. For them, it’s the late nineties, that nice Mr Blair is still popular, Britpop rules and there’s an impressive sounding new method with a fancy-dan sounding name that they hope “does what it says on the tin”. No nasty initials like BPR, lean sounds like a cheetah!

People are sprinkling their Service Plans with words like “Kaizen” and “LEAN”. Note the awe-struck use of unnecessary capital letters.

Teams are set up to “drive improvements by LEANing”. An actual phrase, I promise you. Saving the world through robust project management documentation has been replaced by something verysimilar.

Saving the world through delivering efficiencies! .

Again, these are actual words. It may look like I am just taking the mickey out of a naive choice of words. Someone who’s read more books laughing at someone else’s honest attempts at dealing with a chaotic set of huge problems. And it is. But it’s more that that too, efficiencies are to be delivered just as a set of deliverables from a PRINCE2 project is to be delivered. This is a project approach by project people but work is not a project, it rarely begins and ends. It is a process.

A project focus is a command and control attitude where work starts, and then stops, and something is delivered. For example in the public sector especially there is an unstated assumption that services start afresh every 1st April with a new set of strategic priorities or service objectives, as a plan for that service will commence on that date. In reality the bin men will be collecting the bins on 31st March in the same way that they will be on the 1st April. Nobody says this outloud, as it is silly, but work continues regardless of the date on the cover of a plan. It doesnt notice any change.

A process focus is a systems thinking attitude to where work is a continuous flow, it doesn’t start and stop. The above bin-men will be doing their rounds in the same way, dealing with the same problems, until something changes in the way they actually do things. Then their work continues, a process approach understands this. A project approach doesnt have a before and an after. A process approach knows work is cyclical. It doesnt start and stop, only individual elements of it do, like a bin round or a planning application that becomes a built building. But the bin service remains and continues and so does the planning service.

The approach taken to improving services I have seen in the public sector is project focussed. A stop start approach where people enter a situation, do something, then leave. Those left still inhabit the consequences and it is they who get the learning of how well it worked. The ones who leave the situation miss out, their learning cycle is left incomplete.

Whether you use a model of learning like the Kolb cycle, the PDSA cycle or Check Plan Do, if you only do something and check the results then take action based on those results and then leave, then you’re only doing single loop learning. A longer look at the consequences of the actions doesn’t happen and there is no chance of double loop learning to enable a wider view of whether what they are doing was worth doing at all.

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One Response to Stick around, you might learn something

  1. Tobias says:

    Another awesome, and challenging post. Love this blog.

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