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.


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