November 2010

In my last post I mentioned an older rant about an unsolicited device that arrived through the mail purporting to help save the planet by reducing the consumption of water in my shower.

It had occurred to me that most of my stories about the private sector included a wee homily about their relevance for the public sector but the shower device story hadn’t.  I said I’d rectify that, so here goes.

Once upon a time, and it was a while ago, the NHS in part of this United Kingdom of ours decided that too many children had bad teeth (“dental caries” as the experts say).

Pondering the causes of this they decided part of the problem was that parents did not get their toddlers into the habit of brushing their teeth.  So along with a lot of other activity (workshops, postcards et al) they decided to distribute free packs of starter toothbrushes and toothpaste that would be given to parents when they had contact with the health service.

This is what happened in one area.

The manager responsible for health improvement was sitting innocently at her desk when there was a phone call from the office caretaker.

“I’m down at the loading bay,” he said “and a pallet’s just arrived for you.”

Curious at a “pallet” arriving for her that she had not been told about, she set off for the office basement to find said pallet and the caretaker saying “It can’t stay here.  There isn’t room.”

Together, they opened one corner of the shrink wrap around the pallet to find that it was full of cartons containing small toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste.  Further examination revealed a letter that said more information was on the way.

It was.  A letter arrived describing the campaign I outline above.

Caretakers are usually right but the manager craved his indulgence to keep the pallet in the basement until she could work out what to do with it.

The only answer she could think of was to divide the contents into bite-sized (sorry) chunks and distribute them throughout the area to the staff who were going to have to ensure they got to the parents of young children – public health co-ordinators, health visitors, clinics, dentists and so on.

This really only shifted the problem on as most of her colleagues also lacked storage space.  But at least they’d only have to deal with smaller parts of the overall consignment until they’d been trained and familiarised with the programme.

To cut a long story short, the brushes and tubes of toothpaste were eventually passed into the not always grateful hands of parents.

Feedback about the success of the programme started to trickle back.  The conclusions were what any parent of a small child will recognise.

  • The toothbrushes were all one type and size – not all the children could cope with them (if in doubt about this check in your local pharmacy for the packs they sell with three types of “brush” for different stages of infant development)
  • The toothpaste was all one flavour – lots of the children didn’t like it (what you might call the mint vs. strawberry dilemma).

Lots of the brushes and tubes were never used.

This is exactly like my shower attachment.

  • Someone assumed they knew what I wanted – I wasn’t asked
  • It arrived out of the blue
  • It didn’t work for me (wrong fitting).

So as I’ve said many times before there is no essential difference between work in the public and private sectors of the economy.  It’s good to know they both have the same lessons to learn.

Youngest daughter (who will not be pleased if she sees this reference to her in print) doesn’t usually take much interest in dad’s work but must have had an idle moment or three recently because she suddenly came out with

I looked at that blog thing the other day.  You don’t speak much [I’m a male remember, we communicate differently] but you must be thinking away all the time

When challenged on the import of this gnomic statement she volunteered “Well, you just take anything that happens and make something out of it”.

I thought about this.

It was true of my supermarket experiences (tedious).  It was true of my casual sighting of a bank’s customer charter on a roadside hoarding (sceptical).  And it was true of my less than grateful receipt through the mail of a device to reduce the consumption of water in my shower (unbelieving).

Given the usual father-teenager relationship my first instinct was that she was having a go.

But then – positive parent that I am – I concluded that, no, she was actually being quite complimentary, whether she knew it or not.

The truth of course is that most of our experiences are of day-to-day events, not life’s major triumphs and tragedies.  Those day-to-day events provide so many more learning opportunities than “the big ones”.

Just as I attempt to turn my daily experiences into something bigger, so should organisations in terms of their learning opportunities.  It’s not that difficult – as my own attempts show.

And just as organisations should learn from the day-to-day, so should the improvements to their work be on a day-to-day basis.  Yes, they need the occasional big breakthrough but like the best manufacturers they should be relentlessly pursuing the elimination of waste and improvement for their customers throughout their operations.

Footnote – observant public sector readers will realise that my three examples of small events I made something out of all involve private sector companies (although the UK taxpayer owns most of the bank concerned).

But if you check the rest of this blog, you’ll find that I usually draw lessons for public services from my private sector examples.  As it happens, I didn’t with the dreaded water saving device for my shower because I was in full rant mode at the time.  But hold on, NHS, I’m about to rectify that in my next post.

For various reasons, I’ve been looking a bit harder at short message site Twitter recently.  Still not tweeting as much as I should but at least looking more.

I’d been trying to see whether a particular council has a presence on Twitter. They do but it wasn’t easy to find (their fault, not Twitter’s).

So I thought I’d just check to see what use UK councils generally make of Twitter.  One thing led to another and I’ve ended up writing  a short report on the subject.

What I found was illuminating, at least for me.

  • One local government officer holder has over 100,000 Twitter followers
  • Of the largest councils in the UK one doesn’t seem to have discovered Twitter at all
  • I found some great examples of effective Tweets, and some that definitely aren’t
  • Some councils need to change their culture if they’re going to use Twitter effectively.

You can access the report through my web site, where you can also find a summary of my conclusions and recommendations for councils.

PS – Twitter are generous with the use of their name and logo but it seems fair to point out that nothing I write about them here or in my report implies any endorsement by them of HelpGov Ltd or any link between us except that I am an enthusiastic user of their service

PPS – Oh, go on.  Why not follow me on Twitter @rogerlwhite?

Press reports of a study from a company called Ovum about “call centre hell” (haven’t we all been there?) prompted some brief online research and a quick piece of memory recall.

First, the Ovum report itself.

Their author, one Daniel Hong says

There is significant customer frustration when it comes to automated self-service and voice recognition systems…in a recent Ovum survey, one third of respondents [only?!] said they found it the most challenging aspect of customer service… They are not aware of what their customers are actually experiencing because they are measuring their systems by how much money they are saving them

What Hong doesn’t deal with (at least in the press reports) is the proportion of calls that represent failure demand i.e. where the company are only getting the calls because of something they’ve done wrong.  If they didn’t get things wrong they wouldn’t receive some of the calls.

However, back to Ovum’s main thrust – automated call systems.

If you want to try and get past the frustration of the interminable If you want x press y, if you a press b you could do worse than have a look at the GetHuman web site.

GetHuman shows you how to bypass company automated call systems, if you can.  And in the best tradition of the web their information is supplemented by customer reviews.

Most of the organisations are North American but plug your way through the long alphabetical lists and you’ll find some from the UK, although only one public sector body I could find (Royal Mail – not good).  You can suggest more if you want.

The UK public sector (notwithstanding the Royal Mail example) isn’t always that bad, partly because it tends to play catch up to the private sector with the technology.  But they need to watch out – and not go down the route of using the technology to drive savings rather than improve service.

And a small confession of getting it wrong myself.

I worked with a council once that started to go down the call centre route.  The manager in charge insisted that as well as a general enquiry number a series of additional numbers (all 0845 so no cost to callers) be publicised for particular services.

I thought there should be only one number so people stood a greater chance of remembering it.

But in fact the decision my colleague made was the right one.  It gave people the option to remember either the general enquiry number or the one they really needed (housing repairs for example).  The trick was that all enquiries went to the first available operator (note – no automated options there), who could deal with any enquiry and in most cases knew the general area of concern that the caller had before they picked the phone up.

So my colleague was right and I was wrong.  You’ll not often see me write that.

The BBC’s wonderful albeit slightly grumpy old man John Humphrys is reporting from China this week.

He’s delivering some fascinating commentary every day.

One small insight came from his visit to a motorcycle company you’ve never heard of in a city you’ve probably never heard of (30 million population and growing).

Humphrys was struck by the slogans in Mandarin and English adorning the factory walls.

One especially took his fancy

To compete in price: live in shame.  To compete in quality: live in wealth

He characterised this as “very strange… and there was me thinking competing on price was exactly what got China where it is today”.


If he could (a) make allowance for the translation (how many slogans grace our productive places – there are still some left – in Mandarin?) and (b) check the background with his In Business programme colleague Peter Day he’d realise this is classic lean/systems thinking philosophy.

Perhaps if Humphrys had read

Drive up quality, drive down costs and price

he’d have got the point.

Frequent HelpGov blog readers and quality buffs generally will recognise the truth of the philosophy.

And they know it’s not for industry only.  It’s true for all work – public and voluntary sectors too.