June 2010

At the moment we’re all suffering from the collective amnesia of a few years ago about the economy.  That it actually works in cycles.  It goes up.  It goes down.

As ex-UK prime minister Gordon Brown said on various occasions in various versions “There will be no return to boom and bust”.

The relationship between pay and conditions in the public and private sectors in the UK is pretty much the same.

At the moment all the talk is of the conditions public sector workers enjoy.  Fat cat senior managers.  Annual salary increases.  Generous pensions.  Longer holidays.  And so on and so on.

Of course in the present downturn of the economic cycle much of this is true if you just take a snap shot today.

But if you take a longer view the picture’s not so simple.

I remember many times when public sector pay and conditions have fallen way behind the private sector.  It is sometimes well nigh impossible to recruit and retain skills of all sorts – from teachers to nurses, quantity surveyors to social workers, police officers to soldiers.

Friends working in the private sector even urged you to get out and join them before you fell irredeemably and permanently behind.

And I remember another friend who worked for a major oil company saying “There’s hardly anyone around the place over 50, the pension scheme’s so generous.  You can retire on 60% of your salary after 30 years.”  Phew, I could have done with that when I worked in the public sector.

The truth of course is that like other aspects of the economy these things work in cycles.

It’s just that the cycles don’t move in the same direction at the same time.

  • Economy booms, private sector pay rates increase.  Public sector pay falls behind
  • To get and keep workers, public sector pay improves
  • Economy falters, private sector sheds workers (which it does much more easily than the public sector) and pegs pay rates
  • Public outrage at perceived higher public sector pay – economic downturn drives public sector pay down
  • Economy recovers…

And so on in a perpetual opposing dance.

As in so much else collective amnesia affects politicians, business people and the media.

Welcome to new readers.  Loyal existing readers have probably been re-directed here from my HelpGov and more… blog which is now closed.

The name HelpGov’s helpful blog reflects more accurately what this blog is about (see the About page).  For the tecchies amongst you there’s a new URL address to go with it – https://helpgov.wordpress.com/ which again reflects more accurately what we’re about.

Normal service continues…enjoy!

Praise where it’s due – the UK government have today announced that a limited range of centrally-imposed targets for the English NHS [non-UK readers = National Health Service] are being scrapped or amended.

To those who’ve grasped the point about “how work works” this is good news.  Targets are counter-productive and have adverse unintended consequences.  People can always achieve them – at best by distorting other priorities, at worst by sleight of hand.

It would be nice to think the health secretary Andrew Lansley had been reading the “bad effects of targets” file on my PC but I’m not paranoid enough to think he’s had time to dip into it.  However, his decisions uncannily provide direct answers to some of the examples I’ve collected over the years.

The Government now say – Patients in England will no longer be guaranteed a GP appointment within 48 hours under a scaling back of NHS targets.  Instead, doctors will be allowed to prioritise patients.

The BBC News said (on 23 September 2004) – GPs’ patients are not receiving the best care they could be because of a new government target, a report [by the NHS Alliance and Royal College of GPs] says.   Patients should only have to wait 48 hours for an appointment under a target which must be met this year.  The report said it was “too simplistic” and should be scrapped.  A professor of general practice said “In my experience it’s very easy to massage the figures.”  Messages posted on the BBC News web site added:

  • Is mine the only GP practice that achieves the target by refusing to make an appointment if there are no doctors free within 48 hours?
  • Having chronic conditions – heart and lungs – I have been assigned TWO doctors. I can see either one whenever necessary. And guess what? I cannot see either within 48 hours.  I need to ‘predict ‘ my illness and make appointments accordingly
  • My doctors’ surgery won’t see anyone unless you phone at 8 in the morning.  If you phone at some other time they tell you to call back tomorrow.

The Government now say – changes will be made to the 18-week hospital treatment waiting time target.

The Financial Times said (on 16 September 2006) – a hospital trust apologised yesterday after it emerged that its waiting lists had been “mismanaged” to meet government targets.  An investigation found patients of the United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust were given appointments even when medics could not honour them.  The appointments were subsequently recorded as if patients had cancelled.

Sadly both these examples show how long it can take to fix something that was plainly wrong so long ago.

New governments always promise a bonfire of the quangoes.  Can we now expect a bonfire of the targets?

…well I hope they do because it’s a fantastic institution and they’re fighting the biggest budget cut in their history – $37 million.

Map courtesy of Pontus Edenberg on stock.xchng

I was there two weeks ago and saw a wonderful exhibition in their main building about Mapping New York’s Shoreline, 1609-2009 – a whole social history of the City brought alive by maps and other graphic material.

I suppose the “realistic” part of me says that notwithstanding what looks like a very effective campaign (see their web site) they’re going to take a hit of some sort in these hard times.  But they do so much good work you can only hope it’s as small a cut as possible – over 120,000 New Yorkers have written to their council member to support their library system.

Anyone with a view can contact their representative (or the mayor/speaker if you’re not a New Yorker) here – but do it quickly.  The decision’s being made this week.

This is about shoes (sort of) – but fashionistas needn’t get excited.

Tomas Bata

It’s about a man born in 1876 in Zlin in what was Austro-Hungary at the time whose family were shoemakers – Tomas Bata.

In 1894 he started a company to produce shoes on a more modern basis than the old craft of the traditional cobbler. The company still exists as the Bata Shoe Organization, headquartered in Toronto, and does business in five continents.

I first became aware of Bata Shoes when I lived in pre-independence Singapore.  Strange that a mere lad should remember that but they had very clean, modern (for their time) shops and my parents were certainly aware of them from their earlier lives in the UK.

Fast forward many years and it’s only a relatively short time ago that I became conscious of Tomas Bata for another reason.  In an earlier blog on Some Random Quotes I listed one of his sayings:

Do not pursue money. He who pursues money will never achieve it. Serve! If you serve as best you can, you will not be able to escape money

It was an intriguing quote to stumble across at random and led me to hunt around to find out more.

It turned out that Bata was a pioneer in many things, for example

  • customer focus – he said “the customer is our master”
  • control of the supply chain to ensure quality and efficiency (at one stage Bata not only owned its shoe shops but controlled the source of its raw materials, and made and distributed the shoes – and much more)
  • he understood what is still for many the perverse relationship between improving conditions and pay for workers in order to lower costs, and even
  • town planning – through the development of modern company towns to house his workers as well as locate his factories (there is an interesting example in East Tilbury in the UK).

Something he said to his workers is worth quoting in full:

…the chances to multiply wealth are unlimited. All people can become rich. There is an error in our understandings – that all people cannot become equally rich. Wealth can not exist where the people are busy with mutual cheating, have no time for creating values and wealth. It is remarkable that we can find the greatest number of wealthy tradesmen and a population on a high standard of living in countries with a high level of business morality. On the other hand, we can find poor tradesmen and entrepreneurs and an impoverished population in countries with a low standard of business morality. This is natural because these people concentrate on cheating one another instead of trying to create value.

We are granting you the profit share not because we feel a need to give money to the people just out of the goodness of the heart. No, we are aiming at other goals by this step. By this measure we want to reach a further decrease of production costs. We want to reach the situation that the shoes are cheaper and workers earn even more. We think that our products are still too expensive and worker’s salary too low (Zdenek Rybka: Principles of the Bata Management System)

Well, the rhetoric may seem grandiloquent now and the run of the mill shoe is an un-glamorous item we take for granted. But when Bata began his business, even in Europe many children went bare-footed.

I can think of no single UK business person who combines the qualities of the man – perhaps the 19th century Quaker confectioners, or John Spedan Lewis the founder of the eponymous John Lewis Partnership (another lesser known hero of improvement? – we shall see). But it was the combination of beliefs and actions that seem to me to make Bata unique for his era.

If I revert to my interest in lean or systems thinking for work it sometimes feels that there is a single great river where tributaries join to form one approach. Certainly there are zealots who will claim there is only one way and it is the philosophy of guru x or teacher y. Yet as Bata shows there are other separate rivers that never seem to join the mainstream.

Bata died tragically in an air crash in 1932 when he was 56.

Interestingly, one of the great modern thinkers in this whole area, Myron Tribus, who is often associated with the Deming approach, wrote a fascinating paper about Bata almost 70 years later in 2001 – Tribus on Bata. Well worth study and explains Bata’s significance much better than I can convey.

I came across a great post by Jon Harvey on his blog which included the statement:

There seems to be a link between how successful a person is and how successful they expected (or were expected) to be…But the importance of expectation, self belief and the confidence in oneself which go hand in hand is there, it seems to me.

He related that to managers who say they haven’t thanked their staff since none of them had done anything extraordinary that, in their view, deserved a thank you.  Haven’t we all met (been managed by) them?

Oh yes, absolutely. 

His comments brought NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) to my mind – crudely put, perhaps, what the brain receives happens.

I’m old enough to remember when Muhammad Ali used to shout “I am the greatest!”.  How we Brits laughed.

But of course he did become the greatest heavy weight boxer of his era.  In later years (before his medical problems) I remember he was asked why he said that and he replied “I was creating my own future history”.  What a great line – I was creating my own future history.  If he’d gone around mumbling “Oh, God, I’m useless, I’ll never get anywhere” that’s exactly where he’d have got.

Transferring that to the work situation, if managers (I couldn’t call them leaders if they do this) go around moaning “What a bunch of *****” about their staff that’s what they’ll get – a bunch of *****. 

If they think their people are amazing and reinforce that at every opportunity, that’s what they’ll be – amazing.

It always stuns me that the managers Jon describes (“…he had not thanked any of his staff of late since none of them had done anything extraordinary”) have working for them people who in their private lives:

  • take on the responsibility of bringing up children
  • purchase an asset (a house) worth well into six figures
  • look after aged relatives
  • give time and money to charity
  • devote themselves to the most unexpected and challenging interests and hobbies.

Done nothing extraordinary?

Statue of Liberty – thanks to Gayle Lindgren on stock.xchng

No blogging for a week or more.  Reason? – a family holiday to New York (see my earlier posts about the trials and tribulations of BA – in the event they turned up trumps and even managed to reinstate their strike-cancelled flights for the day we flew).

I promised some “off the wall stuff” in this blog so here it is from someone who last visited NYC more years ago than you want to know.

New Yorkers are robust in how they speak but kind too.  In a week I heard not one profanity nor felt unsafe once but received unsought advice on subway and pedestrian navigation.  An Amtrak clerk spent a disproportionate amount of his time explaining the fare options for a day trip to Washington DC to a family that decided that they’d left it too late to get a good deal.

In an hour back at Heathrow two casual “f***ing”s were uttered in my hearing by fellow citizens, one by someone getting stuck into at least his second pint at 8 a.m.  In many ways we are a coarsened society.

But different culture, same challenges.  Notices on bus stops advising of cancelled routes due to funding  constraints.  Staff in the fantastic New York Public Library warning of cuts to come if the mayor’s budget proposals go through.  The five borough district attorneys complaining that proposed cuts made their role untenable (join the club guys).

Notwithstanding public budget problems, a week’s unlimited travel on the subway cost $27 (about £18.40) with a Metro Card.  Nearest Transport for London equivalent? – £67.70 (about $99.70).  Incidentally, for a lesson on how not to make public transport fares simple see the Transport for London web page on Tube, DLR and London Overground fares – no fewer than 3,900 different fare combinations for six different categories of passengers.

There could be much more – and may be…

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