ackoff



Part 4 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  It follows the separate topics dealt with in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Four random but related frustrations of dealing with and working in the public sector in the UK that should stop.  What are yours?

Firefighting

How we love it.  It’s what managers thrive on.  That knackered-at-the-end-of-the-day feeling, the slump into the armchair, the glass of something alcoholic to relax.  The question from the partner, “How was today, dear?”  “God,” you say, “it was hell.  Problems just came at me from left right and centre.  But do you know what?  I ran around all day like an idiot and by the time I left I’d sorted them all.”  I ran around all day like an idiot.  You certainly did my man (it usually is a male).  Like an idiot.

If it’s firefighting you want take a lesson from the fire and rescue service.  Devote your energy to fire prevention, to making sure problems don’t happen, not letting them happen and then fighting them.

Pouring cold water on new ideas

In my neck of the woods, more thoughtful Scots say it’s the bane of their country.

In central Scotland, where my partner hails from, it finds expression in the cliché “Aye, I kennt his faither” trans. “I knew his father.  He was just a miner/postman/labourer.  How dare the son get above his station in life by showing some ambition and trying to improve himself”.

I think it’s a UK-wide disease.  Not just the public sector (although that for sure) but the rest of the economy and society more generally.

For every entrepreneur (traditional, social or public sector) there are 10 naysayers who’ll tell you why you can’t do it.  Why it won’t work.  They should check out the great systems thinker Russell Ackoff who has some pertinent quotes on the subject.

Excessive bureaucracy

The litmus test at work for me is the answer to the question How do you get leave approved round here? If the answer’s

  • get your leave form out
  • write in the days you want off
  • do the sum to show how many days you’ll have left this year
  • initial your request
  • pass it to the boss’s secretary
  • she passes it to the boss
  • your boss initials the form and passes it back to the secretary
  • the secretary updates the team leave chart on the wall behind her desk and passes the form back to you
  • file your form back where it lives (This is important – in organisations like this your ability to request leave may be questioned if you lose the form – you see, you may be cheating)
  • update your paper diary

you are in bureaucracy hell.  Get out!

Getting small things wrong – because small things add up to big things

Two current public sector examples from my private life, featuring my second and third daughters (D2 and D3).

D2 was due to appear recently as a witness in a court case.  She travelled back from uni to stay overnight and attend court.  On arrival at court and after checking (“It’s not on today”) an official discovered the case had been deferred to autumn, over a year after the alleged minor offence she witnessed.

No one had told the witnesses but they said she could claim expenses.  They mailed her a claim form.  She claimed travel and subsistence.  Three/four weeks later a cheque arrived for travel costs only.  No subsistence and no explanation.  Current state of play – pondering whether it’s worth the hassle of getting the subsistence.

COST TO THE PUBLIC PURSE

  • Staff time at court to establish case deferred and when to – 10/15 minutes
  • Cost of sending out claim form, processing returned claim, raising and posting cheque – £50? (some considerable time ago I remember reading the real cost of  even a standard letter cost a company about £10)
  • Potential cost of round 2 (the subsistence element of the claim) – another £50?
  • Wasted cost of travel and subsistence (which will have to be claimed again in autumn) – c. £20
  • Add in similar costs for other witnesses in the case.

D3, living in Scotland, may attend a university outwith Scotland next year.  The Scottish Government will give a loan for fees incurred elsewhere in EU.  D3 finds web site to establish ground rules.  There’s a note that the deadline for applications has passed but the online form still works so nothing ventured nothing gained she completes the form and presses the Send button.  The completed form is accepted.  Two weeks later a snail mail letter arrives saying “Sorry.  Form on web site was last year’s.  This year’s process isn’t opened yet.”

COST TO THE PUBLIC PURSE

  • Staff time to intercept the mistakenly submitted application and generate a presumably standard response to it – 15/20 minutes?
  • Cost of sending letter – £10+? (see above)
  • Multiplied by the number of times potential students make the same mistake per year – 10?  100? 1000?
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When I wrote about Russ Ackoff as one of my lesser known heroes of improvement I contrasted his relative obscurity with that of W Edwards Deming.

Interesting that the Top 10 searches leading people to this blog include Ackoff but not Deming.  In fact not one of all the many searches mentioned Deming.  Perhaps those interested in systems thinking – because that’s what they’re both about – already know what they need to about Deming but somehow, somewhere are having their interest in Ackoff stimulated and are looking to learn more about him.

Like all these Top 10 hits people searched for a number of related terms including, in this case, girlslink + ackoff; youtube + russell ackoff on health care; russell ackoff right thing; there’s no bigger waste than doing well that shouldn’t be done at all ackoff; and russell ackoff justice talk.

Some of those search terms look a bit off the wall (“girlslink”?) but a quick read of my earlier post on Ackoff will explain.  And they hint quite nicely at some of the big issues that concerned him (he died in 2009 aged 90).

The earlier post includes a YouTube video of an Ackoff interview which I think is just great in both content and style.  Search for him further on YouTube and you’ll find other talks by and about him.

If you haven’t heard much about Ackoff before here are just a few quotes from that interview.  All well worth thinking about in the context of public services.

Information knowledge and understanding are all concerned with improving efficiency…wisdom is concerned with effectiveness

Doing the right thing is wisdom, effectiveness.  Doing things right is efficiency

The righter you do the wrong thing the wronger you become

It’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right

Almost every major social problem confronting us today is a consequence of trying to do the wrong things righter

We never learn by doing something right…you only learn from mistakes

There are two kinds of mistakes…[errors of commission and errors of omission]  Errors of omission are much more important than errors of commission

Now you’re in an organisation that says making a mistake is a bad thing…if you’re a manager [somewhere like that] you minimise the chance of doing something you shouldn’t have done by doing nothing.

I mentioned Deming above.  I have huge admiration for both him and Ackoff.  But Ackoff addresses wider social issues than Deming and for that I especially value him.


This one’ll upset some folks since Russell Ackoff will be very well known to them.

But I justify my inclusion of him as a lesser known hero on the basis of that modern litmus test (forget academic citations) of the number of Google hits on his name.

A search today threw up:

  • Deming – 2,780,000 hits
  • Ackoff – 121,000.

So on that facile basis he’s about 4% as well known as W Edwards Deming.

I suppose my other – entirely subjective – criterion is that Ackoff was unknown to me until a year or so ago.  When I discovered him I was bowled over by the sheer humanity of the man.

I first came across Ackoff through an archived webcast of a talk he’d given back in 2000 on systems thinking and youth justice to a workshop associated with the improbably-named Girls Link group at the Kent College of Law in Chicago.  The video’s not brilliant technically.  But it’s worth viewing.  It covers many of the ideas he developed over a lifetime (he sadly passed away in 2009 aged 90).

Ackoff began his working life as an architect and said that architects were – had to be – systems thinkers.  They don’t design, say, houses by starting with individual rooms, designing each perfectly and then finding a way to join them together.  They start with the building and then find out how to fit the rooms into the overall space and shape.  They use (my words) an iterative process to get the best fit of the different elements.

That’s systems thinking – and systems design. 

He was interesting on the difference between errors of commission and omission – how the former were easy to know (and assign causes to or, too often, blame for) whereas the latter were unknowable and therefore unmeasurable.  In typical organisations managers avoid being blamed by avoiding errors of commission.

 And the easiest way not to make errors?  Do nothing.  Yet we only learn by our mistakes.  So how can such organisations learn?

He also said there are five types of “content” – data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.  The first four are all concerned with increasing efficiency, only the last is concerned with effectiveness.

Efficiency is about doing things right.  Wisdom is about doing the right thing.  “The righter you do the wrong thing the wronger it becomes.  It’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right.”

One of Ackoff’s major insights for me was his use of systems thinking to throw light on social issues wider than how any single organisation works. 

He said that almost every major social problem is the consequence of doing the wrong things righter, in his own country (the USA) citing the health (sickness) care system and education – “teaching is a major obstruction to learning”.  These are major social systems “pursuing objectives contrary to their intention”.

He wrote extensively about his idea of idealised design – that in improving a system you should start from first principles, work out what your idealised design would be and then take steps towards it.

Much of this, plus a sense of what the man was like can also be seen in a brief video on YouTube (you can find many more talks by or about him on the web)

Video by PhyllisHaynes on YouTube

As always with these pen portraits, there’s a lot more that could be written and I’d love those who understand Ackoff better than me to add their own thoughts.

The other thing I’ve discovered is the love and affection Russell (“Russ”) Ackoff inspired amongst his many colleagues, students and clients.  That doesn’t happen by chance.  I wish I’d had an opportunity to know him.

My thanks to Susan Ciccantelli for commenting on a draft of this post.  Her kindness reflects that of Dr Ackoff.  The conclusions are of course mine.