The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

This post is in response to a suggestion made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  Part 1 is here.  Part 2 – how to avoid these mistakes in the public sector – is here.  You can also find it a couple of posts above this if you’re on the home page.

What a cracker of a subject.  Not customer issues or care – customer chaos.

A few weeks ago I’d have struggled to do anything but weave some minor inconveniences into a story (my BT broadband saga is too old to qualify).

Then the bad weather hits northern Europe before Christmas.  Heathrow collapses under the weight of snow and ice.  I’m stranded in Madrid for three days.  This is chaos.  This is what happens.

Day 1 (Sunday)

My pal delivers me to Madrid airport’s swish new terminal 5 (designer, Richard Rogers – more of this building later) with plenty of time to spare.

Problem No. 1 – my flight isn’t on the departure board.  Earlier Heathrow flights are all coming up cancelled.  My brain signals a need for information.

Problem No. 2 – no information.  No general notices about the situation.  Nothing at the airport information desk about individual flights, only “Heathrow’s closed”.  No airline information desks, only Iberia customer assistance (sic) kiosks (more of them later too) with long barely moving queues of weary resigned passengers snaking through the terminal.  One or two Iberia staff in red jackets out and about.  True to stereotype and passenger prejudice they disappear after an hour or two.  I don’t see them again in three days.  Every now and then a computer generated voice on the PA announces that due to weather conditions in northern Europe passengers may (ha!) experience delay or cancellation to Heathrow/Paris/Frankfurt flights (the combination of destinations varies over three days) and to “enquire the latest situation of your airline”.

Problem No. 3 – where’s BA, who I’ve booked my Madrid-Heathrow-Aberdeen flight with?  Even before their merger with the Spanish airline they’ve abandoned any presence at the airport to Iberia.  So it’s a tactical retreat to what looks like the shortest Iberia queue.

Problem No. 4 – with hundreds of passengers waiting Iberia has only two customer service assistance kiosks open (ambiguity surrounds a third with the legend “Unaccompanied children only”, which doesn’t seem to stop some apparently unaccompanied adults from queuing there in the vain hope of getting early attention).  Each kiosk has five positions.  So at most ten staff are available at any time.  One position in each kiosk is labelled “Excess baggage only”.  The staff there seem to take different views on whether they’ll serve anyone who doesn’t have excess baggage.  At times only three or four positions in each kiosk are occupied.  A knowing Spaniard next to me volunteers “They’ve probably gone for lunch”.

Problem No. 5 – some staff are great.  It isn’t easy.  All they can do is try to rebook people to other flights.  This typically takes 15-20 minutes.  But a few staff are just plain objectionable.  A young woman in front of me is trying for the third day to transfer from a Continental flight from Colombia.  The clerk – “I can’t help you.  You’ll have to go back to Continental.”   “I was told to line up here by Continental,” the young woman says, almost in tears.  My “You can’t just send her away after she’s been queuing for over three hours” draws a scowl and a reluctant offer of a hotel voucher and the instruction to come back tomorrow morning.  The clerk disappears for ten minutes in what looks suspiciously like a huff.

Problem No. 6 – back at my pal’s house I go online for airline enquiry numbers.  Hopeless.  Iberia engaged.  BA’s UK helpline only apparently accessible from a UK freephone number.  Their Spanish number only staffed 0900-1800 Monday-Friday.

Day 1 bottom line.  After nearly four hours I have a ticket for a rerouted Air France flight via Paris Monday afternoon.

Day 2 (Monday)

To terminal 2 for check in.

Problem No. 7 – no Air France queues.  Great.  “Oh,” says helpful clerk “Your flight’s been cancelled.  There’s an earlier one just about to leave.  I’ll phone to see if the gate’s still open”.  It isn’t.  Me – “Can you rebook me?”  Her – “I’m sorry, you’ll have to go back to your own airline”.  I decide to see if I can abandon BA/Iberia (and any refund) and just pay for a separate flight home.  I navigate a crowded terminal 2 to see if other airlines have seats on any route to the UK today.  The only likely option is Easyjet.  A 20 minute queue to be told “Sorry flights all full”.  Back to terminal 5 by airport transfer bus.

Problem No. 8 – just re-run Problems No. 1 – 5.  When I get to the head of my new queue after another three hours I’m beginning to feel I’m trapped in a hispanic version of Groundhog Day.  Rebooked on Iberia/BA flights for 24+ hours later.

Problem No. 9 – having been surrounded by people being offered hotel vouchers I ask for one.  “No,” is the answer “Transfer passengers only” (I later find that under EU regulations this is wrong).  But I can check in my bag for my new flight.  Rather than drag it all the way back across Madrid to my friend’s place for another night (thanks C for the extended accommodation and patience) I queue another 20-25 minutes to check in.  Goodbye bag.  I hope we see each other again (yes, that’s right, more to come on this too).

Problem No. 10 – in the absence of hard fact rumours abound all day.  “They put on an unscheduled Jumbo late last night to clear the backlog and took anyone who was here”.  “We’ve been waiting three days.  There’s people who’ve just turned up and got on”.  “If you team up with someone else it cuts the delays” and so on.

Day 2 bottom line.  Another long day spent queuing.

Day 3 (Tuesday)

Decide to get to the airport early to monitor the situation as far as I can from departure screens and general PA announcements to see if my flight’s likely to go.  If not, I’ll get in another queue a.s.a.p to try and arrange Day 4’s attempt.

Problem No. 11 – hours to spare so I decide to settle down with a book.  I walk the length of the sleek Richard Rogers building.  At a brisk pace it takes 10 minutes so it’s probably about ½ mile long.  With the exception of bars and restaurants I can find only a few seats, all hard metal (don’t encourage them to linger), most at the deserted far ends of the building.

Heathrow flights keep coming up on the departures board.  All seem to be taking off, although some quite late.  When my flight appears, hours into my day, I take the risk and go through security.

Problem No. 12 – security fine.  When I make the long trek to the departure gate, tense conversation amongst the waiting hordes reveals 30+ passengers must have been allowed through on standby.  I check my ticket.  Yes, I have a seat.  On Iberia’s track record so far this could mean zilch.  Unease is not assuaged by the sudden simultaneous announcement on a crackly circuit of boarding and a much louder update for the umpteenth time in three days of the general delays being experienced, enquire of your airline etc etc.  No attempt to maintain the orderly queue by Iberia staff.  It disintegrates into a shuffling crowd, sceptical about what’s going to happen but too weary for aggression.

Day 3 bottom line.  Everyone in the crowd seems to get on the plane.  We depart over an hour late.  No apology from Iberia.  No complimentary anything on the flight, just the usual tired selection of snacks for sale.

Amazingly at Heathrow I make my BA connection with time to spare.  On the hour-and-a-bit’s hop to Aberdeen we get a free drink and snack.  The pilot and co-pilot apologise at least three times for all the problems at Heathrow that have delayed many of us.  They even ask us to be careful getting off the plane into a bitterly cold Scottish night.

I’m name checked on arrival and told my bag’s stuck at Heathrow.  They’ll deliver it as soon as they can.  I can check its progress online.  It turns up at home five days later.  Because of the time of year and continued appalling weather I forgive them.

What lessons can the public sector learn from this private sector chaos?…to be continued

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.

What a wide and wonderful world is systems thinking even in a relatively small country like Scotland.

The brand new Institute for Socio Technical Complex Systems at Strathclyde Uni hosted an open and exploratory workshop on the subject on Friday 23rd.  Coming up for 30 delegates gave their own take on what systems thinking means to them.

And what a diverse bunch we were. They will forgive me if my list of their interests and projects does scant justice to what was clearly often a lifetime of commitment and understanding. They included

  • our world as a system and what we need to do to make it sustainable
  • radical new financial mechanisms with the potential to make the traditional banking system redundant
  • systems thinking and national regeneration
  • the failure of education and how systems thinking could transform it
  • systems thinking as a means of improving work (my interest)
  • the application of systems thinking to drugs and alcohol policy
  • designing and manufacturing better ships though systems engineering
  • the interface of art and science as a system
  • systems thinking and IT
  • psychology and systems thinking
  • the application of systems thinking to contact centres.

There was a will amongst at least some of those present to continue to talk and meet. Whether that adds value depends on two things

  1. the old question of ensuring communication and discussion is based on a common understanding of the meaning of words (if I had a £, even a $, for every time I’ve seen people rage at each other on the assumption they had different points of view when in fact they were talking about different things…)
  2. agreeing a purpose for those exchanges.

So no difference there between a wide ranging discussion on systems and any other area of life!

My thanks to the civil servant who brought this letter about his annual leave to my attention…

I am pleased to be able to advise you that you will be paid for 19 hours 44 minutes in your May salary for additional annual leave credit.

For those with deficit hours at the end of April, this figure represents the 20 hours 17 minutes payable less those deficit hours credited to the system, which will show on your May end of month report as an MU input for 0 hours 33 minutes.

Payment for annual leave is related to the guaranteed hour’s [sic] element of pay and is evened out over the year regardless of when leave is taken.  Once you have worked all the guaranteed hours for the year, an additional credit for annual leave is made once the guaranteed hours worked for the year is known.

I’d love to be able to convert this gobbledygook into plain language as an adroit demonstration of one of the services HelpGov Ltd offers.

Unfortunately the lucky recipient hasn’t got a clue what it means.


Yes, it’s a hung Westminster parliament – maybe.

You have to sympathise with politicians and what they need to do.  In an election, of course, you have to say your aim is to win.  But since the first UK leaders’ debate poll after poll puts the three big parties at (roughly) 33% -33% – 33% each.

Even if the parties find it difficult to talk of a hung parliament (Lib Dems and minority parties of course prefer “balanced”) just about anyone else who’s interested is.

It’s a bad thing.  Unstable government.  An inevitable second general election.  Who will get into Downing Street?  How will the existing incumbent be got out?  The money markets won’t take it.  The economy is doomed…and so it goes.

Well, look North, West or North West – to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Or East to our  European neighbours.  Or further East and South to Australasia.  They all seem to be able to cope with this supposedly disastrous electoral arithmetic.

Take the instructive case of Scotland.  Not total harmony of course, but very workable government in ten and more years of devolution, first in a coalition and then with a minority administration.  It works, and so much better than the old Lib-Lab pact at Westminster decades ago.

And while we’re at it let’s remember many councils across the UK where joint or minority administrations work without the world collapsing in on them

The reality of course concentrates the mind.  Politicians do what they must – set out their position, make it clear what their bottom line is if they’re in the frame for government, negotiate their interests on an issue by issue basis if they’re not, remain aware of public opprobrium if they don’t make it work.

There seems to be something uniquely confrontational about Westminster, bolstered by tradition and even the shape of the chamber that makes it difficult to contemplate what happens routinely in many other stable democracies.  Let’s hope our new MPs learn the lessons from those other places if they’re “hung”.

The one difference of course, is that those other places have some form of proportional representation which makes it unlikely that one party will ever have a built-in majority.  Now will that be the Lib Dems’ bottom line if they’re in the frame for government?