Milking turnips

Firefighter, School Crossing Patrol, Police Officer, Ambulance Paramedic.  You can tell from the uniforms.

Go into any workplace and see if by standing at the door you can tell what it is that happens there.

If you are at the farm gate you will see cows, tractors, bales of hay and the like. You’d see corn or turnips or lambs being grown from scratch.

At a factory you would see, if you took a wide enough view, objects going in one end, and coming out the other as something else, something that people would need or want. If you looked closer you would see machines doing this act of transformation and people standing there helping them do it.

Walk into a shop, it has sawdust on the floor and the sound of blades being sharpened briskly. It’s a butchers. Go the next shop, a big empty room with men milling around dropping pieces of crumpled paper on the floor angrily before going to a wall of the shop and staring blankly at a sheet of numbers. It’s a betting shop of course.

What happens if you go to an ordinary office? Could you tell what happened there and what they did? What you will probably see is a lot of people sitting at desks typing. Is it ICT, HR, design or marketing? You can’t tell. The work is invisible and formless. It mainly involves typing.

If you started milking a turnip, or tried to plant a cow, it would be very easy to spot how wrong it was. But think how easy it would be to be typing the wrong things? Not mis-spelled, or the wrong codes, but completely the wrong things. So wrong that they are doing exactly what is asked of them, what they are paid for, but they are being asked to do the wrong things. Could anyone ever notice?

The same applies with any service sector job, where the work produced by the system is less tangible, where you can’t pick it up and hold it. If purpose isn’t very clear, explicit and a shared purpose, then it is very easy for something else to become a de facto purpose. Any time the most important thing to do is not the actual purpose of the work, it transplants it and becomes the purpose of the work. This is why managers and leaders are important. Not necessarily because there is a need for them but because they exist at all. Because they exist, they have power. What managers pay attention to matters to staff, and consequently staff pay attention to that too.  If management thinking is concentrated on the mechanics of work, how to do it, then that trumps everything.

This is when HOW to do a job trumps WHY to do a job and produces “de facto” purposes, the real things that staff and managers pursue. These are not written down as the purpose. There will be some vision or mission statements stuffed in a drawer somewhere, but the following are examples of the factors known by all as the really important things to pay attention to:

  • when a target is introduced to the work, it becomes the most important thing to do
  • when an inspection system is introduced into the work, it becomes the most important thing to comply with
  • when standardised procedures are introduced into the work, they become the most important thing to follow.

It is hard to acknowledge that a mechanism has superseded something else as the real purpose. Saying it out loud sounds cynical. But to an outsider, especially a customer, it is very clear when people are doing something as silly as milking turnips.

The following people looked at their work very carefully and asked the right questions. It is from the introduction to Delivering Public Services That Work (Vol 2) , a set of case studies written by people who found they were milking turnips, discovered their real  purpose and stopped looking very silly indeed.

System Old de facto purpose New purpose
Local Authority Development Control Meet 8 week target for minor development applications and meet the 13 week target for major development applications Ensure that development is acceptable
Local Authority Food safety Meet inspection targets Ensure food for public consumption is safe
Police Force Give a pre-determined level of service based on the categorisation of a call to comply with national inspection regimes Address requests for service, the needs of the public, keep the peace and protect the public
Fire & Rescue Help partners achieve their outcomes; Perform against indicator sets; Support the work of department at headquarters; fulfill the requirements of the National Framework  Put out fires and rescue people and do sensible things to prevent fires and other incidents occurring.

The de facto purposes above all look inward to the manager, the real new purposes were arrived at by looking to the customer, listening to what they were saying through demand on their system and establishing the real problem that they had to solve.

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