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Rule bound – progress limiting

Last year I needed to obtain a lasting power of attorney on behalf of an ageing relative.

The online process on the government website for creating the appropriate documentation could only be described as excellent.  It led me through the various steps, helping me select the options appropriate to the relative’s situation and telling me who should sign and witness the power of attorney. Straight forward.  Easy.  I printed out the forms and soon had all my tasks completed.

What happened next can only be described as awkward and frustrating.

A rapid change in circumstances determined that the Power of Attorney became active immediately.

Enter stage right: rigid progress defeating procedures.

The correctly completed documents sat in the Office of the Public Guardian for 5 weeks: no acknowledgment, no progress: zip all.  Oops, sorry my mistake; someone had stamped it with the date of receipt.

I phoned to investigate.  I was told there was a back log and the case would be worked the following week. So when will I receive the sanctioned copies I asked.  It takes 20 days from when we start working it, was the response.  From the way the form had been completed I knew there was no one to be contacted or notified. I explained this.  You still have to wait 20 days from when we start working it.  It’s the rules I was told.  But you’ve had it 25 days already, it says that on the file, you date stamped it, remember. No, rules are rules, that’s it.

What do we conclude?

Ineffective, inflexible procedures had been created, adding unnecessary delays. These definitely didn’t meet the customer’s purpose.  There was no benefit to the delay except possibly to protect the Office of the Public Guardian (Is it out-sourced I wonder?).  So the process was designed to meet their purpose. I suspect it’s likely to speed up the case would have distorted a service level agreement. It would be a fair bet no one reports on the backlog but only on the percentage of cases worked within 20 days of the start of their process.

Using averages is likely to give average results

Averages are used in lots of situations: batting averages in cricket, wages and salaries, road speed (er sorry, safety) cameras. They’re taught in school as basic maths. Take several measurements, add them up and divide by the number of measurements.  Mathematicians call it the mean.  For example, take a sweet manufacturer who sells boxes of chocolates.  Each box is marked ‘average contents 10’.  The manufacturer checks 10 boxes and records the contents.

Sweets per box
Total 100
Mean 10

The advantage of using the mean is its simplicity. The drawback is that this simplicity can hide knowledge from us. Take this example:

Sweets per box
Total 100
Mean 10

Here the data has the same mean, but the data points are spread very differently.  Compare the maximum and minimum values in each of the examples. Note the number of 10s in the first example and how few there are in the second.

So, in these very simple examples would you prefer to buy a box of chocolates from example 1 or 2.  In the first you will get 9, more likely 10, but may be eleven. But in example 2 you might be lucky and get more than 20 or unlucky and get only 2.  If you only got 2 sweets I suspect you wouldn’t be very happy.

Averages only tell part of the story and can hide the bigger picture.

This is the danger of using averages.

How are we doing? Shall we continue?

In many situations we need to make decisions which affect our future.  Are we doing the right thing?  Is what we are doing effective, really effective or do we just want to believe it is?  Believing it is would be good for our ego, wouldn’t it?  But would it be truly beneficial?

We all have to make decisions.  Snap decisions are rarely good decisions, especially if they have major consequences.

One way to reduce the ‘knee-jerk’ stuff is to think ahead carefully.  If we’re trying a new venture it’s useful at the beginning to think what ‘good’ might look like.  Equally important is to know what ‘bad’ might look like.  Don’t think of these as targets.  Think in terms of a safety net.

Knowing in advance what bad might look like means that we can easily spot if we are failing.  If we have to decide what our tolerance to bad is when we’re under pressure to give an answer immediately it can be difficult as no-one likes to admit they got it wrong.  If you’re deciding on the spot and it’s your pet project it’s easy to attempt justification by describing a bad outcome as acceptable.

Where groups of people are involved agreeing at the outset on the criteria means that everyone knows what good and bad look like.  Everyone can see whether the experience is a success and should be continued, or a failure and stopped.

What are they?

Each criterion is usually expressed as one or two sentences, followed by an indication of size.  Each then needs to be classified for its importance.  So for example some may be critical whilst others are merely desirable.  The failure of a critical criterion may trigger certain actions, such as stopping the experiment completely.

Why success criteria?

  • Helps prevent irrational decisions being made in the heat of the moment
  • Helps provide rigour in the decision making process
  • Helps gain consensus
  • Avoids the dangers of anecdotal evidence
  • Helps go/no go decision making



David, an engineer is made redundant and decides he’ll take the opportunity to follow his dream and passion to own a golf shop.  David enjoys golf but for the last 8 years has only played about 5 times per year.  David recognises that whilst he is enthusiastic about having his own business he has several short comings including a lack of retail experience and his golfing knowledge could be stronger. He realises there is a risk because he has to provide an income for his family, however he reasons that he could survive on a modest income and his savings for a couple of years.  It’s a now or never decision.

David finds suitable premises and plans to launch his shop.  A friend suggests that he should track his progress to determine whether his dream is working or if at some stage he needs to sell the shop and attempt to return to regular employment.  He and his friend prepare a list of things to monitor and how to use these to decide whether to continue.

Here’s an extract from the list:


David really hopes his shop provides him with an income of £20kpa. However the economy has been tough and because it will be a new shop and his lack of business knowledge it may take a long time to get to this level.  He reasons that he must make at least £5k in the first year, any less and he would need to close the shop.


The shop needs customers.  Ideally he needs a steady flow of new customers and for these same customers to return, giving him repeat business and a solid customer base.  Ideally he needs golfers to come from the local club.  He plans to monitor this.  Over the first 6 months if 100 club members visit the shop he’ll think this is satisfactory, more would be great, but less would indicate he needs to change the way he markets his business

Credibility and Knowledge

David is concerned that he may have difficulty convincing seasoned golfers when they ask for advice on purchases.  He decides to keep a check on the ratio of experienced golfers who ask for product advice and whether or not the make a purchase from him.  David thinks a one in six ratio be OK but any less would indicate a lack of credibility


Measure Success Criteria Relevance
Income £5k pa or more Essential – Close the shop if less and get a job
Marketing 100 club members in first 6 months  Desirable
Credibility and Knowledge 1 in 6 sales ratio Essential  – Close the shop if less

After a year David assesses his performance against the list and determines he has fulfilled all the criteria and continues living his dream.

Who’s leaving at 3pm?

Sir Michael Wilshaw, England’s chief inspector of schools doesn’t want teachers to leave at 3pm. (BBC,  22/9/12)  This suggests that he thinks they don’t work hard enough and long enough.  He concludes that hitting them in the pocket will produce better results – either by limiting the pay of ‘under performers’ or by (allegedly) increasing the pay of the apparently dedicated.

I suggest Sir Michael needs to think again.

If staff leave at 3pm why is this?  Is it that they are naturally idle?  Is it that they don’t like teaching?  Or some other reason?

May be it is the impact of the endless targets, imposed ‘best’ ways of doing things which I suspect in many cases are invented by ‘those who don’t teach’.

Imagine this.  A school, an education system where teachers are allowed to determine the way they teach, where they can apply methods which they know work.  They know they work because they see the results in the children.

Managers and so called leaders dictating to professionals is de-motivating them, reducing their performance and any desire to excel. That is why they (apparently) leave at 3pm.  They have no control in what they do because they are constantly adhering to the latest edict, filling in plans and forms.

They are blaming the people instead of the system.

If those in charge gave freedom back to teachers, they would be inspired to improve the quality of education and not want to leave at 3pm.  Teacher need to feel that they own teaching

The challenge is getting those in-charge to understand that some things are counter-intuitive.

A load of bull?

Chatting to farmers is not something I normally indulge in but today was an exception.

What the farmer told me, if true, shows a shocking waste of resources and an increase in costs which presumably we, the buying public pay.

The story goes something like this…   …cattle are reared in Yorkshire, specifically Aberdeen Angus cattle.  Once they have been fattened up on Yorkshire’s finest greenery, they are taken by lorry to Scotland.  When they arrive in Scotland they are Scottish (apparently).  The cattle are slaughtered and sold in England as Scottish beef.

How crazy is this?  Where’s the benefit?  Will it taste different because it’s been slaughtered in Scotland?    No.  Will it cost more?  Yes.  Will it make more profit?  Probably yes.  Is it good for the environment?

I’ll leave the systems thinkers and the lean specialists to pick the bones out of this one.         

They set targets for Personal Payment Insurance and look what happened.

The impact of mis-selling personal payments insurance rolls on, now with concerns about the activities of claims management companies. 

It started with financial services companies providing loans.  There’s nothing particularly wrong there, providing the lending is prudent and appropriate.  Let’s assume it is.

These companies wanted to increase their profit margins, as they were targeted for revenue.  Increasing the interest rate charged on the loans was difficult as this is transparent and consumers can easily compare rates between different lenders.  Adding PPI was easier.  Selling PPI where the customer was not eligible was easy too.

All this was driven by a pressure to hit targets for the financial services companies.  Targets which were not linked to their customers’ needs; just those of the finance companies.  Had the measures been put in place related to the customer the outcome would have been very different.  For example an objective to sell PPI to 80% of eligible customers may have been better.

The problem with targets is that they make people cheat.  Management pressure people to hit targets.  Sometimes factors external to the situation make it difficult or impossible to hit the target.  As more pressure is applied staff find ‘alternative ways’ of meeting them, in this case by selling PPI to people who were ineligible.

Now the Legal Ombudsman is having to intervene as claims management companies driven by targets unrelated to their customer’s purpose.  The failures of mis-selling have created an industry to sort out PPI and now that being scrutinised for its own failings.

We need to get to grips with understanding our customer’s purpose and then measuring our success against it.  This will help us build stronger and more ethical businesses.  Fulfilling true customer purpose is the key to success.

Turning Your Projects into Successes

1. Is it a project? Will this piece of work have a defined beginning and end? Yes – then it’s a project; no – then it’s not!
2. Understand what you want to achieve and why.
Try to express this in three or four short sentences.
What benefits the project will create? List the financial and non-financial benefits.
3. Estimate the costs
List all the items which will be needed. Don’t forget hidden internal costs such as your time. Some costs may occur annually, so categorise costs as once only or recurring.
Compare the estimated costs to the benefits. Calculate how long it will take for the benefits to repay the cost. Is the project really worthwhile? Are there alternative solutions which may be more cost-effective? Consider whether for every £1000 invested in this project the cash could be used more effectively elsewhere – the chances are you’ve got a shopping list of different projects you’d like to run but can only afford a limited number of them.
4. Create a timeline.
Think about what you and others will need to do to achieve success. What will be the sequence of tasks? How long will each take and what effort will be needed? Some tasks may need others to be completed in sequence; others can be completed at any time.
5. What can go wrong? What would be the consequences? All projects have risks. They need recording. Find someone to take responsibility for each one. If something goes wrong what will be done to rectify it? And who will do it? Identifying possibilities and solutions now can save a lot of heart ache later.
6. Does this project interlink with any other projects or activities in your business?
7. Who will be impacted by the project? These are your stakeholders. They may be internal or external to your business – customers, suppliers, staff etc. You need to consider their needs and expectations. Creating a good relationship with each stakeholder enhances likelihood of success. Ignoring a stakeholder’s opinion during the project may have disastrous consequences later. Their thoughts may differ from yours but their perspectives can be a key driver making the difference between success and failure.
8. Once you’ve identified your stakeholders take them on the project journey with you. No one likes surprises, so keep them up to date with your thoughts, progress and plans. Remember communicate, communicate, communicate.

Simple process change for big benefit

We’ve just wasted about 15 minutes trying to book an appointment by phone at the local branch of Santander.  OK it’s frustrating for us, the customer.  And yes, we could easily take our business elsewhere.  But that means more hassle.  And yes, perhaps we should learn to be more patient.

Err hang on a minute!

Customers who book appointments with their branches are usually doing it because they want to arrange something complex and higher value.  Surely telephoning to make an appointment should be a 3 minute job.

Ring, ring

“Hello, how can I help you?”

“I’d like to arrange to see a financial adviser please”

“OK.  When would you like to come in”

“Tuesday at 10:30?”

“I’ll just check the diary.  OK, that’s fine”

“Thank you”

“Good bye”

“Good bye”

It’s reasonable to assume that appointments are made for the more profitable business –  mortgages, loans, insurance.  If customers have to jump through hoops and endure pain to book an appointment they’re likely to take the line of least resistance – either take their business elsewhere or abandon their plans.  Putting a process in place to book appointments simply and quickly doesn’t require a huge amount of resources but the benefits would be huge.

Improving processes and customer service isn’t difficult or expensive and doesn’t necessarily need vast amounts invested in IT–   it just needs the desire to succeed and the returns are massive.

When we reduce budgets and cut costs are we doing it rationally?

I sense that many cuts are being made arbitrarily rather than in a well thought-out and planned manner. Most businesses and public sector areas carry some level of inefficiency. But to cut just for the sake of cutting is folly. No one likes reduced services. Cutting a fixed percentage of all budgets means services have to be reduced even if it’s not appropriate. Yet this is what we expect.
To use a cliché we should see our current economic situation as an opportunity. If we redesign our business operations by looking at the processes now we can reduce our cost base whilst maintaining or even improving our level of service. The added benefit is that when economic growth increases and demand for services rises the savings generated will multiply.

What takes up time in your business?

Creating a picture of your business showing the work to be done, whether ad hoc or routine will help to shape and control it.  One of the keys to managing any business area is to understand which tasks take up the most time, how much they cost and what value they add to the business.

Benefit can be achieved by understanding how the processes relate to each other.  Some may be unnecessary;  others may cause delays or lead to errors occurring.

In what proportion to each other in terms of time, cost and benefit added are management, customer facing activities and production.  How much of the time expended within your business is non-productive?

Some businesses map each of their process to improve quality, and to reduce errors and costs.  Where the processes are effective staff are usually more content than where the feel they are ineffective and wasteful.  This leads to a greater job satisfaction, reduced stress, less sickness and greater productivity.