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.


On 19 August research by Knox D’Arcy Ltd claiming that UK local government could lose 500,000 jobs and still provide the same services was publicised on the Conservative Home web site.

Within a day or two the claim had been picked up across the UK media and reported from BBC’s Radio 4 to The Belfast Telegraph to the local government trade press.

I blogged about the claims on 20 August under the title The curious case of council productivity and then again on 24 August reporting the responses of readers to my previous summary.

It appeared that media reports were based on a press release and from the scant information available I summarised my reaction to the research as

the best you could say about it is that pending further information, the jury has to be out on its conclusions.

Overnight on 20/21 August a note appeared on the company’s web site that said

The research into public sector productivity will be available as a down load from this site when the report is released at the end of August.

I said that I would return to the subject once the report was available.

The end of August passed.  No download on the web site.

Sometime between the close of play on 2 September and the morning of 3 September a revamped version of the web site appeared with a News page.

The one item on the page is headed Two-thirds of each worker’s day is ‘lost’ in Local Government and leads to a pdf file (downloadable for sure) which is actually a press release not a “report” as previously promised.

So my eagerly awaited copy of a full report explaining how the conclusions were reached is still not available as a download although there is now a further statement that the research…is to be published in September.

Once again I am in waiting mode.

But in view of the publicity the topic has already received it seems not unreasonable to comment on the further information that is available.

The press release itself is well worth perusing in full.

I previously expressed scepticism about the scope of this work – its conclusions were said to be based on 1,855 surveys of managers and supervisors, of which only 173 were local government officers.  It was claimed from these surveys that UK private sector staff are productive on average 44% of the time and local government staff 32% of the time.

The press release raises two further issues

  • It says the research was conducted while undertaking assignments in private and public sector organisations, and draws on 20 years of data – but we do not know when the various elements of the data were collected over that long period.  We do not know who the comparators were or, since Knox D’Arcy work in other countries, whether they were all UK-based
  • while there is confirmation of the 1,855 surveys on which their conclusions are based there is the additional information that the research included 376 day-long observations, comprised of a minute by minute categorisation of how the manager in question spent his (sic) time, of which 36 were from local government (my emphasis).

A respondent to my previous post commented that

If this was some sort of random survey, and we don’t know, the confidence levels for a value of 32% (local government productive time) from a sub sample of 173 is about +/- 7 per centage points i.e. 25% to 39%.

A similar but lesser range (I haven’t calculated it) would apply to the private sector 44% so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that even if the data were from a random sample (but one company’s clients won’t be) there is actually no significant difference between the private and local government samples.

If you then factor in that a significant but unknown part of the detailed conclusions derived from only 36 of 376 day-long observations you really get to the point at which you question the statistical validity of the whole exercise.

In addition, I had said before that we did not know which or how many local authorities had been involved in the research.  That remains the case.

Knox D’Arcy’s web site lists local government amongst the Types of organisation that are their clients.  But the only public sector client named is the Royal Mint.

A search on Google for knox d’arcy + council returns only two examples of the company’s work for UK local authority clients in the first 200 hits (of course that does not mean there are not more).

King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council

The council used the company in 2003/4 to carry out a diagnostic survey for a service and establishment review.  The results were considered by their cabinet scrutiny committee on 10 and 14 June 2004.

A number of concerns were expressed on 10 June including the fact that the company had not previously worked for a local authority… whether they fully understand the context in which councils operate, particularly the role of Members… had spent little time in discussions with Heads of Service…in some cases appeared to have used information that could not be verified and seemed to be inaccurate…[and]… there appeared to have been some misunderstanding by the consultants about the designation and role of manager.

On 14 June the committee recommended to council that the consultants be requested to hand over their working papers and steps should be taken to ensure that their obligations under the contract have been met.

Finally, on 24 June the council endorsed the first part of that recommendation and resolved that the consultants be requested to hand over their working papers.

London Borough of Hounslow

Hounslow’s cabinet accepted a preliminary issues report on their performance improvement programme from Knox D’Arcy on 12 December 2006 and agreed to go to tender to procure consultants to undertake the performance improvement programme itself.

Their overview and scrutiny committee called in the recommendation and on 12 January 2007 had what looks like a long and political debate on the report which raised a number of issues about the work undertaken including …the Consultants undertaking the preliminary study did not have sufficient knowledge of Local Government…they had never implemented a full business transformation programme in Local Government. ..the[ir] report included no proper costings and no breakdown of figures…[and]…a lack of understanding of basic health and safety issues when visiting a Council Depot. The committee resolved that the proposed programme not be implemented but be referred to full council for consideration, albeit because of the lack of budget provision.

Scroll on to the overview and scrutiny committee meeting of 16 July 2007 and it is clear that KPMG won the contract to carry out the performance improvement programme.  Asked to comment on the earlier work KPMG said that they had not disagreed with its findings. They felt that they would have written it differently and perhaps addressed some of the difficult issues more sensitively.

So on the basis of the information available it is possible (I stress possible) that the conclusion local government could shed 500,000 jobs and still provide the same level of service is based on 173 interviews and 36 day long observations in two councils in 2003 and 2006, in both of which at least some councillors disputed the conclusions they were given.

I would love to be proved wrong.

As a footnote, I should say I do believe there is scope for major improved efficiency and effectiveness in local government specifically and the wider public sector more generally.

But the way to identify those improvements is detailed work and prioritisation by each council.  An extrapolation of what in all honesty is a tiny survey to a conclusion that half a million jobs are dispensable across hundreds of councils helps no one.

Five days ago I posted an item called The curious case of council productivity about a claim that

The UK’s councils could do the same amount of work with 500,000 fewer staff if they matched the productivity of private firms.

It has sparked a lot of comment on a subscription-only forum I also posted it to – the excellent Local Government Improvement and Development Communities of Practice for Public Service web site.

In the interests of broadening understanding and debate I re-post those comments below for a wider audience.  This makes for a longer than usual post.  My apologies to anyone used to much shorter sound bites.

They are mainly from English local authorities with a scattering from people in national agencies, academia and the private sector.  I have edited them to

  • retain anonymity as the contributors concerned had not made their comments in public
  • remove acronyms
  • improve the flow between contributions and
  • correct any typos (we all pepretrate them).

In every case the original sense remains the same.

My thanks to all who have commented so far.  If more comments emerge I’ll add them to the end of this list.


Comments are listed in the order they were posted, the first in normal typeface, the second in italics and so on.

I saw this and commented on the Local Government Chronicle’s web site, where I pointed out that lean/systems thinking practitioners would easily work out ways of more than bridging that gap.  I’d estimate that BBC production time would show most people little more than 10% productive… so what would they do?

Then in Parliament, there often is only one person talking and 100 listening, so how will we work on that efficiency rating?

Going over to some of my favourite places in the world, high street shops, (no I’m not a shopping addict), most people are active for a small percentage of the day, and car salesmen earn from a sale every so many days?  Then estate agents…

If we are to discuss active time per day, my guess is that the public sector is actually doing work more hours per week than those we are compared with.. but that’s all statistics and …

Productivity observed – I take Roger’s original point and the contributor above makes his comparisons well.

However, I have one observation.

I do not work in a Council, although I have in the past.

What is seen is important.

We went to France on holiday last year. There were very few roadworks.

Of those that were observed, people were working flat out. One guy was even running between cars to mark the spot where the white line should be in the middle of the road.

There were no cones. In the heat of the day, it was quite a sight.

We came back through Ireland – Southern Ireland was much the same as France.

Then we hit the border.  The minute we entered the UK again, we knew about it.

There were road works everywhere.

But having become used to the French pace, we started to count how many men were actually working at the scene.

It was astonishingly low.  Men were walking, talking, hiding, having cups of tea, sleeping: but we could only find about one in ten actually working.

Ever since last year, we have been doing a similar exercise.  We have passed mile after mile of “coned off” section of road to find not one man working.

Now I don’t know if this is Council work or contracted out – but it creates a very bad impression.

Because at the end of the day, Government is paying.

Re the point about road works.

First, if you were on a main (trunk) road the government rather than a council would not be responsible.  So if your observation is correct and if both Highways Agency (England – other agencies in devolved parts of the UK) and council road works display similar characteristics it looks as if there’s something technical (“we do it differently but just as efficiently here”) or cultural going on.  Perhaps there’s a highways engineer out there in cyberspace who could comment?

Second, an entirely different point, the original blog was really trying to see if there was any validity in the Knox D’Arcy claims. It was not at all clear how they reached their conclusions from the evidence they published.  There is now a footnote on the blog that says “This post refers to the apparent unavailability of the report on which the conclusions reported above are based.  Overnight a note has appeared on the Knox D’Arcy web site saying “The research into public sector productivity will be available as a down load from this site when the report is released at the end of August.  I will return to the subject once it is available.”

What strikes me about this is how wooly all of the analysis is as presented in the news.  How are we to measure productivity?  How does this Report measure it?  We could look at professional sports and note how “inefficient” or “Unproductive” cricket teams are each match.  I am very dubious of any of these reports because the methodology is usually weak and the sample size is usually small.  What needs to be remembered is that private sector and public sector have different ethos and different relationships with their respective “customers”.  The public sector cannot choose its customers.  Who, for example, in the private sector, is going to pick up the work of handling civil burials?  At the same time, the focus of the work is different.  Service provision in the public sector is different from the public.  One only need to compare the financial regulations covering local government finance and the private sector.  The rules governing each create the opportunities and constraints that differentiate them.  As to the highway workers, different industries have different requirements.  Being active or busy is not always a sign of efficiency or effectiveness.  To be sure, it can be annoying from a certain perspective, but that does not mean it is inefficient or ineffective.  A final consideration is the need for “slack” so as to accommodate new projects or new emergencies.  To put it directly, no one can run a marathon at the pace used to run the 100 metres.  One could look at the marathon runner as being inefficient for not running faster but that misses the difference between the two runners.  The public sector has different requirements and different legislation each year and it cannot ignore any of it.  It has to be a full spectrum organisation while the private sector can specialise and focus.

I understand that you are awaiting the Knox D’Arcy report…

However, does the previous contributor not address the question himself at the end of his comment by informing us that the “public sector has different requirements and different legislation each year and it cannot ignore any of it…It has to be a full spectrum organisation while the private sector can specialise and focus.”

How effective and efficient is such practice?  How many people does it take to address the new rules in their entirety yearly?  Would any private sector industry put up with it?

Do these rules foster independence, leadership, creative thinking, innovation or autonomy by the Council?  Do they promote intelligent and credible workforces?

To return to roads very briefly – we had a pothole outside our house.

The Council sent workmen to repair it last month.  My husband was so astonished at their efforts, that he took photographic evidence.

Guess what?  Less than six weeks later, the pot hole is back in its full glory.  So, if the Council repaired it, why didn’t it last?  Who checks?

Efficient and effective practice must run alongside productivity.

I have just finished my dissertation on the subject of whether we are spending money wisely as applied to the NHS and social services.

Perhaps that would be a research topic for someone to undertake for councils?

After all, should we not remember that culture is to systems what behaviour is to values?

If your values are non-existent, your behaviour will follow suit: if the systems don’t work, the whole culture will fall into disrepair.

This massive collapse of culture is what I believe we are witnessing at present.

Who has the ability and courage to tear the system apart?

I heard these guys talk – they were inspirational. They didn’t spend Health Service money on more managers or business consultants. They simply ripped the whole thing apart and started again.

The original release of this research seems to come from the Conservative Party webiste [actually Conservative Home a related but independent site] or at least many of the media outlets were linking it from there.  Although I expect they would be the first to welcome this report, this seems to suggest prior knowledge at least.

I applaud Roger’s concerns about the state of statistical reporting as this is generally awful in our media, bordering on fraudulent in some cases.

However, whatever the motives, or dubious justifications, I think the essence of the report is fairly accurate.  Despite the defensive comments, I think we all know that local government could be better value for money. 400-odd separate organisations all paying for their own corporate/support services?  Surely there’s a way in which to streamline this without detracting from the public service culture, and local political control?

It is right that we should defend the great works that local government officers do, but we should also demonstrate what we’re doing to address the issues.

“readers may not always have the necessary skills to look critically at the report” – here is an article discussing another measure of productivity.

“I applaud Roger’s concerns about the state of statistical reporting as this is generally awful in our media, bordering on fraudulent in some cases”

Well said – it is often difficult to pick out the facts from media reports incorporating statistics, as they provide so little background detail, and even if enough detail is provided, readers may not always have the necessary skills to look critically at the report so may accept it at face value (whatever the particular ‘spin’ on it is).

In this case, the calculation they used is that to achieve a rate of 44%, there would need to be 27% fewer staff because 32/44 = 0.73 (but also 44 = 32 x 1.375).

This is how one of the public sector unions responded…

UNISON hits back at ”misleading” local government productivity claims

UNISON, the UK’s leading public sector trade union, today hit back at aKnow D’ Arcy  report on productivity in local government, calling the study misleading, unrepresentative and unhelpful.

Far from low productivity, comprehensive, independent studies show that public sector productivity has been rising since 2006 and recent job losses have left workers under huge pressure.  Further cuts would not only turn back the clock, but would lead to vital local services shutting their doors.

Dave Prentis, UNISON General Secretary, said:

“This small survey flies in the face of evidence on public sector productivity, which, thanks to investment under Labour, has been rising since 2006.  The real danger is that huge cuts now will turn back the clock, causing productivity to plummet, and a return to the dark days of Tory underfunding that ran local council services into the ground.

“The situation in Local Government now is more work on less shoulders. Council workers have delivered over and above targets for efficiency savings every year they have been set.  UNISON’s latest independent staff survey shows 31% of council staff regularly putting in extra hours without pay or time off in lieu.  Two thirds said that their workload had gone up from the previous year.  This is even before the latest round of job cuts hit home.

“The public cannot be fooled into thinking that job cuts will not have a devastating impact on local services. 500,000 job cuts would decimate local services.  Care homes, day centres, libraries and children’s homes are already shutting their doors.  Charges for services like home care, meals on wheels, or nursery places are on the up.  Serious shortages in social work and social care already exist, any more cuts will leave vulnerable people without the support they need.

“It is a red herring to compare private and public sector productivity.  How can you measure the productivity of a care worker, and compare it with a car worker on a production line?  Public services are labour intensive, and do not have the same scope for replacing people with technology.

“Instead of constantly running local government workers down, we should be focussing on boosting morale, which would also have a knock on effect to productivity.”

UNISON represents more than 850,000 local government workers, who work in libraries, care homes, as home carers, in parks and gardens, leisure centres, as social workers, teaching assistants, housing officers, in environmental health, as dinner ladies, school caretakers, meals on wheels staff and in local authority nurseries.

Well said

I think a previous contributor is right that it is the Highways Agency who do major road works who are coning off miles of road with little activity.  I found too that in France road works rarely last for more than a few days and there is a flurry of activity whilst they are in place.

I certainly think there is a lot of room for improvement on how they operate.

There used to be a Cones Hotline telephone number that allowed members of the Public to report inactivity on road works.  Unfortunately, most complaints were fobbed off and only a few percent of cones were actually removed.  It became known as the “Con” hotline because of this.

Councils are funded via tax payers.  But private sectors firms are funded through their customers.  The funding process is fundamentally the same, the only difference, I suppose, is one of choice.  You can choose where to spend you £$£$, but can’t choose to not be taxed (except you can – leave the country).  So if the funds come from the same place (my/ours/your pocket) why is it that a public sector body is held to a higher moral/ethical/efficiency standard than a private equivalent? Take the banking crisis.  This exposed the corrupt and wastage across the entire financial system.  People were, quite rightly, angry with the banks.  The banks were bailed out.  Now the public sector has to cut back drastically to pay for the bail outs, and the anger has transferred to the pubic sector because it is ‘bloated’ and ‘inefficient’, but the large deficit wasn’t caused by excess in the public sector.  It was caused by excess in the private sector.

It’s frankly ridiculous to presume that the private sector is super efficient and council workers sit around idly.  This is a fantasy built on an aspiration to pay less tax.  When you think about it, our everyday experiences of dealing with private sector firms (insurance, utilities, retail, banks, supermarkets, parking etc etc) tell a different story.

I was arguing the case for Lean Systems Thinking in a LinkedIn group, when the relevance of this discussion took a new turn.

The main difference between the private sector and the public sector is the adverse affect the Government have on the public sector.  They continue to gerrymander even when they say they will interfere less. (i.e. publishing all transactions over £xx,xxx)

The public sector must comply with EU and UK laws, thus we must be ‘open and accountable’ for all that we do.  We must comply with so many overlapping and sometime contradictory aspects, that either we could freeze in the uncertainty or risk scrutiny.

We must deal with the press, pressure groups, MP’s etc. in a way that no private sector firm would consider.  The new consultation initiative could have unforeseen affects, in that any nimby [non-UK readers – Not In My Back Yard] based group of people could stop any new development basically for ever.

So, if the Government require the public sector to be as efficient and effective as the private sector, perhaps the Government need to interfere far less?

If you will forgive me for saying so, some of the contributions appear to be missing the point.  Let me quote from a different set of research data, with just a few headlines and the source for those who wish to check for themselves.

First the source – Flow – The psychology of optimal performance – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Harper and Row – 1990.

The headlines:

  1. About 25% of ‘paid for time’ people at work are not working at all.
  2. About 40% of the time they are in top quartile flow (that is 30% of paid for time) – in other words, they are heavily engaged with their work
  3. About 16% of the time at work is in apathy
  4. About 18% of leisure time is in top and second quartile flow
  5. At leisure, about 52% of time is spent in apathy
  6. A majority wish to spend more time at leisure and less at work

There are two implications of this, that are germane to the current discussion.  The first is that for about 45% of the time at work people are either not contributing or contributing well below their optimal level. By any standard, that is or should be a major concern.

The second implication is speculation.  Being in flow is highly satisfying to people – they and their skills are being challenged, and the results they achieve are a reward in themselves.  Perhaps the reason why people wish to have more time in apathy and less in flow – check the figures – is that the ‘flow satisfaction’ comes from the work itself and the desire for flight arises through the nature of the organisation in which the work is done. “I really enjoy the work I do, but when I pop up my head, I really dislike the organisational environment in which I do it.”

If the speculation is right, then it is a heavy responsibility on all management teams to ensure that the work environment is both supportive of all employees, and that it maximises their opportunities to operate in flow – for their own sake and for the benefit of suppliers and customers alike.

By the way, the Flow data did not differentiate in any way at all between public and private sectors.  The challenge appears to be more about how large organisations are managed, and, as it happens, there are many, many large organisations in the private sector.  Added to all the other constraints that apply to the public sector, self-imposed or not, as the case may be, that all means a significant challenge for public sector management.

Hope this helps.

All very interesting I must say.  My own highly unscientific take on this is that, on average, the report is probably about right.  I’m now 61 and I’ve spent 26 years in the army (logistics and IT, often with civilian colleagues); 12 years in industry (excellent Dutch multi-national Akzo Nobel); 10 years in the public sector (traditional county council, dynamic unitary, NDPB).

Sweeping generalisations are:

More effective operational management in the private makes people work harder:  more results driven, harsher penalties for failure, clearer targets, fear of dismissal

Its harder to get rid of passengers in the public sector.  If they’re managers they drag a team down with them

There are lots of very effective, highly committed folk in the public sector (many of them on these communities of practice because they’re proactive).  But the weaker elements, again especially if they’re managers, drag down the overall productivy.

My solution?  Much greater emphasis on promoting the best and getting rid of the worst.


One may argue whether local government should deliver its services, but it cannot avoid the fact that it has to be done.  Yes, it may appear inefficient, but who else is going to do it?  At the moment, I cannot see the upside for Capita or any other private sector organisation taking over civil burials.  To be sure, there are third sector organisations that might do it and have done it (the church for one.)

As to the quality of road repair, is that an issue of efficiency?  Perhaps the road has substructural issues.  Perhaps the hole was filled as a patch because they had targets to meet and they wanted to be efficient in meeting them.  Perhaps, the hole was filled as a temporary measure because the road will be resurfaced in 6 months.

The problem with potholes is that are are not amenable to repairs or patches.  Much like a tire, you cannot keep patching them because the orginal weakness remains.  In effect, the road has to be resurfaced and the underlying flaws and problems removed.  However, that only works until the next freeze and thaw and 10 tonne lorry comes along or 300 1 tonne cars pass over it per day.

As to the idea of Flow, it fits my wider point that lean thinking is nonsense for local government or any government.  Governement needs slack time, it needs time to sharpen the saw, so that it can be effective.  No one runs a marathon at sprinter speeds.  Organisations, need flab, they need fat so that they can deal with crises and extra demands.  To be sure, we want governments to have efficiency within their structures, but they are not, almost by definition, lean organisations nor are they created to be lean organisations.  If a flood happens in a local authority, they have to deal with it with what they have, they cannot say, come back in a week, if three months later, there is a massive gas outage, all of those people need to be rehoused.  In both instances, the first responder will be the Council.  They have to be able to meet those events and pick up the bins every day and process thousands of benefit and housing claims.  Government does nto stop and it does not go out of business. It has to meet the needs of anyone eligible to its services. To put it directly, McDonalds could choose to stop selling hamburgers on Tuesdays.  Local government cannot choose to stop processing benefits or accepting new claimants.

Governments have a role because of market failures, not their only role and not a very important one, but it is a well known and understood role.  As the point of last resort, which the public has agreed in that welfare system was agreed by and continues to be supported by all parliaments, government has a role that no one private sector organisation could or should fulfil.  If private sector organisations were to take over these roles, it would undermine the idea of a political democracy and democratically accountable governments.

As to Flow and efficiency, the relationship has not been proven.  Moreover, the relationship does not scale in that flow for an individual does not translate into flow within an organisation.  Flow is more about how engaged people are in their work rather than if they are efficient.  To be sure, one is usually, but not always, more efficient when one is engaged. However, the psychological argument is about indivduals and not about organisations.  Organisations, by definition, are not psychological individuals so they cannot experience Flow.

Finally, a small aside but an important one, culture and values are one and the same.  The modern idea that facts and values are separate does not hold up.  We live by principles and ideas.  These ideas and principles are products of our culture. The original idea of culture is the culture of the mind and was indivisible.  All could, through proper exercise of reason, share in that culture.  That process of enculturation was (and is?) called education.  However, today we talk of culture as if it was divisible and there are cultures of all organisations.  What we are talking about, in that we live in the modern world, is the public culture of the country.  The public culture reflects the political regime (to borrow an idea from Aristotle).  In much the same way that New Labour was about trying to create a middle class through its reforms and focus on education, education, education, the new coalition government is reshaping society (the culture) through its Big Society programme.  Within that programme is an agenda to transform the relationship between the individual and the state by focusing on localism, localism, localism.

In effect, the Big Society is about what it means to be a citizen and what local government and by extension government means.  The more these issues are raised and discussed, the focus on localism and on individuals empowering themselves, the less reliant we are on the previous political regime (constitutional monarchy) and the closer we become towards an idea of a republic.  The more that is asked of the individual and the community the less will need to be asked of the government.

In effect, the discussions of lean, or systems thinking, efficient or inefficient government are second or third order issues as they only make sense when understood against the fundamental issues of what is a citizen in this regime and what is this regime.  For us to understand whether we are spending money wisely or unwisely creates huge methodological issues.  First, there is a delay factor.  Any public spending now will not have its effect understood or seen for at least 2-5 years depending on the level (neighbourood or national).  Second, the alternatives are rarely understood or considered.  For example, in how many cases can no spend be an option?  Third, the spending consideration, whether it is wise or not, has to be set against the outcomes that it was designed to achieve.  Whether the money is spent wisely depends as much on the allocation on the agreed targets or goals as it is on the process that sets or creates those targets or goals.  Finally, can money be said to be spent wisely at the local level when the goals are set by a different level, the funding level is determined elsewhere, and less “profitable” lines of “products” such as civil burials cannot be redirected to more “profitable” lines such as economic development?

Just some thoughts, I hope they help as they came from the flow but they may not be very lean.

The Local Government Chronicle (LGC) on 19 August carries more details of the Knox D’Arcy report. It is apparently based on ethnographic research — 376 days in total — and looked at how managers spent their time, minute by minute.  The report concluded that public sector managers spend just 3% of their time on what they called ‘active’ management, but private sector managers were not much better, spending just 5% on active management. One observation was that “much time is spent waiting for work, information or instructions, as well as taking breaks, arriving late or socialising.” (LGC, 19.8.2010: 14). However, private sector managers were found to spend more time being productive, 44% against 30% for public sector managers.

The survey is of a small number of managers (30) so it could be argued that it is not representative.  However, my view is that there is a kernal of truth in this research but that it misses the point a bit too.  In my experience, managers spend way too little time on being in the work; understanding the causes of waste and variation and acting on the system to change it.  In short, they need to get out of the office more and go to Gemba.  [Note for readers unfamiliar with Gemba –  the place where value is created at work, in manufacturing the factory floor, and hence the idea that managers need to go there to look for waste and opportunities for improvement]

For hitting the nail on the head, you have my vote.

What I would add, is that people who are Council workers, are not, as another contributor pointed out, sitting idly by. But they are asked to complete a staggering amount of paperwork – and they get bogged down.

It is not an efficient use of time.

I offer this example

I worked for a severely disabled man who was extremely competent, and knew exactly what he wanted.   If there was a problem with hoists, wheelchair etc., he would phone the firm directly, discuss the problem, and the part  or someone to fix it, would appear the next day.  Compare this to the approach of a Day Centre where I worked.  I was astounded at the forms that had to be filled in – at the length of time clients had to wait – at the general inefficiency that was imposed on the Management.

They were “not allowed” to contact a firm directly. When the due slips had been filled in and sent off, someone else had to assess it for importance. (How is this done, when the person doing the assessing is not using the equipment?) I’m afraid I nicknamed this system: “Send to the Clueless.”

I commented to the Supervisor:

” As a Personal Assistant in the Community, I don’t have all these staff, but problems are solved a lot faster.”  She looked perplexed.

“I don’t understand that,” she said.  “You have to get permission to spend money.”

There is no argument from me on that point.  But when something that is vital is broken, when it is necessary for the smooth running of a facility, why can it not be repaired with due alacrity?

In the months that I worked there, I did not observe a problem being resolved in less than three weeks.

When a disabled person, working alone, could achieve a result in 24 hours, the system must be questioned.

The perplexity of the Supervisor is what is what I am attempting to reflect here.

Everyone is working flat out – but how fast can they travel because of regulations?  And are these regulations ever questioned?  Is there ever an effort to simply take responsibility and change a light bulb, rather than have three separate pieces of paper and two workmen arrive a week later?

When we have an efficient system, we’ll have an effective and efficient workforce.

The two are interdependent.

I argue that we are grown up, and we know our competencies. We should be allowed to take responsibility and work within them.

I agree totally that so often it is the ‘rules and regulations’ that get in the way.  Here is a good example:

In one large organisation we know, the procedures for getting any engineering design/work approved are silly – burdensome.  I found one case where more than 140 signatures were needed to approve a particular document.  Inevitably, several of the signatures did not get affixed and changes were demanded.  Equally inevitably, after the changes were made, other signatures were then refused and yet more, often contradictory changes were demanded. And so on, and so on … Needless to say project time frames and budgets were often exceeded.

There was also a ‘tick the box’ mentality, where observing the form of the procedures counted for more than the actual quality of the work. Performance was, not surprisingly, not excellent – in spite of people drowning in all sorts KPIs [key performance indicators] – and in spite of financial incentives, and all the many progress meetings.

One sad side effect of all the excessively bureaucratic procedures was the state of near warfare that existed between the organisation and its key suppliers. As one of them pointed out, the cost of transacting business with the organisation was more than three times greater than for any other, similar-sized organisation in the same sector.

This was a very good example of the old lesson of ‘form follows function’ not being applied. (It was an American architect, Louis Sullivan who coined the phrase, in 1896).  When form precedes function, what you get is lots of formal structures and processes, and not a lot of real worth happening on the ground – except that, so often, there are many heroes delivering in spite of working in broken systems.

So, instead of arguing about the validity of the report, and whether or not the measures used were proper or not, why not get on with locating and fixing broken systems?  Customers and employees alike will love you for it.

The Institute for Government report Performance Art is a good place to look for some solid ideas on the changes needed to manage improved performance.

Oh, and by the way, that example quoted above is of a private sector company.

Having reviewed this thread, I have a couple of questions and comments that I would be interested in hearing from others.

First, what is the most efficient organisation that you are aware of?  We seem quite capable of pointing out the inefficiencies, but which organisations are efficient?  I would suggest that by its nature any organisation over 50 people begins to have inefficiencies either by design or human nature.

Second, any system that seeks to be fair will be complex.  This is inescapable.  If you want something efficient, ie not complex, then you will have to accept a degree of inequality.

Third, the initial post was about productivity while the thread has focused on efficiency.  Efficiency and productivity are not the same although they are related.

Fourth, what are the upsides to changing this or the downsides to challenging it?  To be sure it is incredibly difficult to be the socratic “gadfly” constantly questioning why something is done a certain way and is there not a better way to do it.  The challenge, as outlined by Machiavelli, is that the people who benefit from the change (the new way of working) are fewer than those who don’t (the status quo) and those who benefit have a lower commitment level than those who don’t.  Are the organisations we discussing amenable to change and willing to unlearn the inefficiencies and learn the efficiencies (i.e. are they open to change?).

The most efficient large organisation that I am aware of is Toyota. I disagree that wanting something efficient means you will have to accept a degree of inequality. Equality and equity need to be defined as part of the fitness measure. As efficient as possible, but no more.  I agree that efficiency and productivity are not the same although they are related. The upsides to changing this is the ability to have more satisfying useful work done and less upsetting make-work noise done. The biggest downside to challenging it is probably what kills it – that if efficiency improves, people might be asked to do the same work with even fewer resources, as other, less efficient groups that compete for the same budget fall further behind. There is sometimes a political advantage in appearing to be measurably in crisis.

Toyota has some serious issues related to its growth.  Productivity and quality control were weakened when it grew larger.  I wonder how efficient they are if they have to recall millions of cars.  Efficiency did not lead to quality control success.  The other issue with this thread is that private sector organisations have, usually, a single focus, (pace Drucker) while public sector have the full spectrum from birth to death and all in between and none of it can be outsourced, i.e. it cannot stop serving adults or children and focus on one customer base.  A final point to consider is that this is based upon an ethnographical study which is data rich but not amenable to deep analysis or easily expandable.  I have doubts about so little time In “productive” work.  As Drucker pointed out any discussion in a work place is a de facto meeting. It does not need an agenda but it does lead to productive work unless it is not work related. In the end anyone can “work harder” but for how long and to what end.  Is a life guard not working if they are not rescuing?

If this was some sort of random survey, and we don’t know, the confidence levels for a value of 32% (local gvt productive time) from a sub sample of 173 is about +/- 7 per centage points i.e. 25 to 39%.

Except that the 173 seems to be all public sector workers surveyed and the productivity quoted for junior public sector workers.  So, how about we assume that 50 of the 178 public sector workers were “junior”, that leaves us with error of around + / – 13 per centage points.

Which means that this survey, on the basis of the summary above, does not prove there is any difference.

I am aware of Roger’s initial post – and of everything that has followed from that.

But the post beginning I agree totally that so often it is the ‘rules and regulations’ that get in the way [five contributions above] has left me wondering somewhat.  It has made me wish to take this to a new dimension.

He mentioned the architect, Louis Suillivan – and his comments on “form follows function”.

Something about these two facts has stuck with me – my father was an architect – and he was very particular not to restrict movement and freedom – to be accommodating.

Common sense?

I agree.  But think about it.

He is designing a building.  The constructors want to know where the path to the door is going to be placed.

He always responded: “You’ll find out when people have walked it.”

He objected to designing a piece of art, which looked good on paper, but when laid in concrete people would wander off, and make their own path, dependent on their requirements and where they were going. Once the building had been up a few months, he would set the path according to the pedestrian traffic.

It was a sensitive method – it never looked ugly with trails off, or downtrodden verges, because people had chosen it themselves.

Is this getting near the bedrock of problems with Councils?  That there is very little opportunity for the individual to choose that path and blaze his own trail?  Is there not confinement to policy – and speaking the words of others?

Does that stifle initiative and innovation which could be so productive?

All well and good querying efficiency but I would have thought that the report should also have considered overall effectiveness.  The public sector is quite a different operating environment to other sectors and people that aren’t apparently doing something (like the lifeguard!) can still be effective. Some may argue that when I spend time on web discussion forums I am not efficient but I would argue that I am being effective.

[In response to the comment above beginning I am aware of Roger’s initial post…]

Thanks again for the feedback.  Now you have got me going – and I would like to stray from the path a little bit farther.

The problem is one of the choice between order (control), on the one hand, versus chaos, on the other.  The idea is that we build designed and controlled organisations that are perfect exemplars of predictability, dependability and repeatability – in a turbulent world.  Combine that thought with the fact that it is impossible to legislate for every exception.  What this adds up to is an organisation that is carefully designed with highly prescriptive rules, to achieve the three ‘under control’ goals – that is populated with people who have to live in the real world of endless exceptions.

At that point, people have a choice. Either they conform to the rule book, and ignore the real needs of the situation they are facing; or they do their best to do what is actually needed, and take their chance on being ‘caught breaking the rules’. Public sector organisations, like most in the private sector, have lots of good conscientious folk, (especially those in operational, service-delivery roles), who really care about their jobs, and refuse to ‘leave their brains at the factory gate’.  They take their chances on the possibility of sanctions – depending on how severe the sanctions might be – and try to do the best they can for their customers.

Because of the possibility of sanctions, their behaviour is generally buried.  So the desire to avoid chaotic systems behaviour, which would occur if the rule book provided broad guidelines instead of prescriptive rules, just drives the chaotic systems behaviour underground.  So the real choice is not between order and chaos – it is between overt chaotic systems and covert chaotic systems.  Or, if you like to think about it a different way, too many senior people are still operating under the ‘illusion of control’, when the operational reality is quite different.

Personally, I would rather operate with chaotic systems behaviour that I know about, rather than the variety that is hidden from me.  To quote the oracle, broad guidelines enable adaptive strategies to be developed, whereas detailed prescriptive rules either get you malicious obedience or hidden rule breaking.  Neither sounds like a good idea to me.

So my thought is that when individuals have ‘little opportunity to choose their own path and blaze their own trail’, they either do it and hide it, or become just another disengaged employee on attendance pay.

[In relation to the previous comment]

A brilliant post – in your last paragraph you have succinctly expressed my general direction.

The possibility of  “disengaged employees” and “attendance pay” can and does affect others and comes into direct conflict with committed and dedicated employees.

How do they feel about each other?

My husband tells the story of being asked to work more slowly by his colleagues because he was making everybody else look bad. He was astonished.

But he had two choices.  He could either slow down – and be economically less productive – or lose all his mates.

He had come from Canada, where you were paid by the job.  The quicker the job was done, the more you made.

He has always considered it folly to pay by the hour – and insists that Canada had a much more engaged and efficient workforce.

And a simpler system.

And as you point out, it takes courage, especially in this day and age to break the rules.

So, to go back to Roger’s original point, is it tension in the ranks causing a problem?  Those who are working devilishly hard “underground” to get past the regulations, and those who merely turn up and ask if it is time for a tea break?

Supposing this was the fundamental rule:

“We accept that everybody working here is an adult, and as such, will be expected to add their own contribution and opinions to current practice.”

Encourage networking coffee breaks and brainstorming.

Chaos avoided?

Voice and choice permitted?

A more efficient system driven by those who know that they have had a part in designing it?

OOooohhh….. Way too scary. It might work!

In fact it did – for Oticon. “Think the Unthinkable” section (half way down the first page of the link ) is well worth considering in this economic climate.

“The UK’s councils could do the same amount of work with 500,000 fewer staff if they matched the productivity of private firms, a report has claimed.”

This is the first sentence of an item on the BBC news web site today. Their You and Yours programme on Radio 4 also carried an interview with the report’s author, consultant Paul Weekes of a company called Knox d’Arcy.

This is a great topic worthy of serious examination.

The first thing to say is that it’s difficult because although the research has been widely publicised in the UK media this last week, none of the references actually provide a link to the report itself.  The BBC for one is usually meticulous about this.

An obvious place to find the report would be the Knox D’Arcy web site.  Unfortunately, it does not have a “News” section or make any reference to the report anywhere.

So my less than enthusiastic (as you will discover) look at this has to be based on media reports.  The first three thrown up by Google were the BBC, the Belfast Telegraph and the Conservative Home web site.  Others were listed but added little by way of more information.

The central claim in the report is that

junior staff in local authorities were, on average, productive only 32% of their time during working hours…compared with an average of 44% in the private sector – BBC web site

This conclusion seems to be based on 1,855 what the BBC call “workers’ surveys”.  The Belfast Telegraph more helpfully explains that the 1,855 surveys were of managers and supervisors, including 173 from local government officers.

There is no information available of how Knox D’Arcy defined a local government officer, which councils or even sorts of council they came from, or when the surveys were carried out.

There is no information about what sorts of organisations the other 1,682 managers and supervisors came from, or again when.  Knox D’Arcy claim an international clientele, almost exclusively private sector, so the comparators could be in the UK or elsewhere.  They could be manufacturers or service providers.

There is no definition of what Knox D’Arcy regard as “productive time”.

Although it may be the BBC’s choice of phrase (if Knox D’Arcy choose not to publish their full research how can we know?) we do not know what they mean by “junior staff”.

All this makes it extremely difficult to judge whether these claims are valid but two thoughts come to mind.

  • 173 “surveys” is a painfully low number to draw any conclusions from for a sector that employs 2,900,000 (Report on the Triennial Review of the Quarterly Public Sector Employment Survey, Office of National Statistics 2008).  On the arbitrary assumption that 1 in 10 might be a manager or supervisor that is a sample of 0.6%.  We do not know if they were chosen randomly, which would be the only sure way some statistical confidence could be assigned to the sample’s characteristics
  • the difference in productive use of time between private sector and local government is said to be 12% (44% – 32%). If 2,900,000 people could be made 12% more productive that would mean, crudely and all other things being equal, that their work could be done by 2,550,000 people, 350,000 fewer people not 500,000

Finally, we do not know if the report was commissioned by a client or whether Knox d’Arcy carried it out on their own behalf.

None of these points individually invalidates the report.  But taken together the best you could say about it is that pending further information, the jury has to be out on its conclusions.

The sadness, as so often, is that the media have taken up what is presumably a press release and reported it almost completely uncritically.

Footnote 21 August 2010 – this post refers to the apparent unavailability of the report on which the conclusions reported above are based.  Overnight a note has appeared on the Knox D’Arcy web site saying The research into public sector productivity will be available as a down load from this site when the report is released at the end of August.  I will return to the subject once it is available.

“Reality” TV is not always necessarily that real.  Even a casual viewer can spot how reality is squeezed into a formula. 

The objectionable teenagers sent to stay with the “strictest parents in the world” who always find redemption after a week having travelled a remarkably similar journey as the stroppy pair the week before, and the week before that and so on.  

The ritual humiliation of Alan Sugar’s would-be apprentices as he barks “You’re fired!” at the week’s victim (“It wasn’t me that did it, Sir Alan, honest”) across the board room table.

But sometimes a sort of truth shines through.

Undercover Boss on the UK’s Channel 4 is one of those series.  A few weeks ago the chief executive of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets learned (I’m sure he knew already) that there’s virtually nothing a local authority does that someone does not want, and will often fight hard to retain. 

You can be cynical about the motivation of the CEOs and the companies concerned, although they sometimes seem to be genuinely surprised and even moved by what they see at the sharp end of their business.

The aspect as enlightening as the bosses and their reactions is what their workers are like.

This week’s edition featured Colin Drummond of Viridor, a company big in the glamorous world of waste recycling.   Their people collect overflowing bins of rubbish, direct a reluctant public to the right skip at recycling centres, and sort noxious recycled materials by hand on never-ending conveyor belts.

In short, pretty basic work.

But in all that – literally – rubbish there are some great people doing great work.

The manager at a recycling centre constantly innovating to encourage customers to recycle more.

 The cheerful efficient agency worker with no job tenure on a sorting line.

 The depot hand who through his own choice took leave every time he had to go up to London for his cancer treatment.

It was a lovely example of the intrinsic motivation which comes from within ourselves that psychologists like Alfie Kohn talk about (see my earlier post on Time to sack public sector employees? – the answer’s No by the way).

Or as W Edwards Deming put it in a slightly old-fashioned way in his 14 points for management:

Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship.

It’s not spoken about often enough.  Even less is it implemented by managers.  Undercover Boss at its best reminds us why it is so powerful.

The UK government’s Spending Challenge web site seems to be up and running again and the number of suggestions to “save money” that mention lean has gone from 9 to 19 to 23 – not all of them it has to be said to do with lean thinking unless “lean meat” in school meals counts.

Another keen critic has voted for my suggestion to Implement lean/systems thinking across government, dragging my average star rating down from 4 to 2.5.  Even without being a Six Sigma black belt I can work out the statistics of that – (s)he must have given me 1 star.  Have these people no appreciation?  In the meantime, the most popular “pro” lean suggestion has 13 votes and an average score of 4.1.  Grrr!!

Well, I suppose it’s good fun – sort of.

Much more interesting are the anti-lean proposals and the adverse comments on the pro-lean suggestions.  As I mentioned in my post on 9 July these – mostly from disaffected public employees – are worth scanning for evidence of how not to do it.

Here’s some of what they say and the fundamental errors they reveal.

  • “An outside ‘lean’ consultancy recently tried to reduce waste in radiology. New monitors were needed so the lean team ordered the cheapest they could find to save money…the resolution on the new monitors was to low and scans could not be interpreted due to poor image quality.  The new…monitors were thrown away and more appropriate ones bought.  The ‘lean’ team still got paid and were not invoiced for their mistake”.  Fundamental error No. 1 – never use consultants to do the ongoing work, only to transfer skills in to the organisation.  Fundamental error No. 2 – lean is not about buying cheapest it is about eliminating waste.
  • “Lean implementation…just becomes a bureaucratic nightmare of non-jobs”.  Fundamental error No. 3 – it’s only bureaucratic if you let it be.  The people who do the work know best and should be enabled to make the improvements themselves.
  • “I saw a pathology lab where some ‘lean’ consultants had been speeding up the process.  All jolly good but nobody asked why the samples were coming in the first place. The answer was that 80% were entirely preventable”.  Fundamental error No. 4 – clearly no analysis of the root causes of a problem.
  • “It seems to be all about hitting targets”.  Fundamental error No. 5 – it shouldn’t be.  In fact, targets kill real improvement.
  • “People are employed to make sure that staff only have certain items on their desk i.e. only one photograph and a small (not large) bottle of water.  If staff fall foul of these rules they are then reprimanded”.  Fundamental error No. 6 – confusion of superficial rules with the real power of the technique called 5S (see my post on Tidy up time for adults)  Fundamental error No. 7 – a blame culture.
  • “Each team [has] to have a meeting every morning to tell them about the day ahead when most Civil Servants days are the same and nothing different gets said.  Each team requires a white board (cost) and figures are collected every hour and put on the white board.  These figures are never checked and most of the staff make up the figures or hold work back for the next hour if they have done a lot of work just in case something else pops up”.  Fundamental error No. 8 – misuse of “visual management” techniques
  • “Managers spend all day now just analysing statistics”  Fundamental error No. 9 – whatever that is it’s not lean.  Lean should mean that the current work situation is available to everyone at not much more than a glance.

And there’s more of the same.

You may say the staff concerned have misunderstood what is going on, perhaps willfully in some cases.

 It matters not.

In every case what has gone wrong – lack of understanding, poor implementation, inadequate communication, disaffected people – is the responsibility of management, and the more senior they are the greater the responsibility they bear.

It’s sometimes difficult to get people working in the public sector to relate to the philosophy of business improvement variously known as systems or lean thinking.  The answer to the question “Where did this come from then?” involves, amongst many other things, reference back to the Second World War, the occupation of Japan, American teachers like W Edwards Deming, and the Toyota Corporation.

It can seem like a million miles away from, say, being a social worker in rural Scotland or a police officer in Bristol.

Throw in one of my lesser known heroes of improvement – the US Piggly Wiggly Corporation – and the disbelief can be complete.

Piggly Wiggly (let’s call them PWC) was founded in 1916 and has been through a number of ownerships and transformations.  Today it is a US grocery chain with 600+ franchise stores across 17 states.  But tucked away in its history are a number of innovations, for example (although disputed by some) the concept of the self-service grocery store.

The “improvement” link comes from the fact that by the 1950s they had developed an inventory system in their stores where stock was only reordered once it had been bought by customers.

The story goes that a Toyota delegation led by Taiichi Ohno, largely responsible for developing the Toyota Production System, was visiting the States in the 1950s to learn from the Ford Motor Company.  Alas, the waste they saw there did not impress.  But they also visited PWC and realised their inventory system could make their own car manufacture more efficient.  From that evolved the just-in-time manufacturing system, with components arriving on the production line as they were needed, no or minimal stock held, and the whole pace driven by customer orders.

I’d love to know how they came across PWC and the translations of Piggly Wiggly provided for them.  The possibilities remind me of a Spanish friend keen to improve his English who said to me “You say pussy cat? Can you also say pussy dog in English?”

PS – just-in-time applies to public services as well as retailing and manufacturing…

My thanks to Alan V for enlightening me about PWC and to Wikipedia whose article on Piggly Wiggly filled in some of the details