Barking Up The Wrong Tree

dog barking up tree

“The system must be held to account!”

How often do you hear that in the wake of the latest scandal?

Not that often. Usually, it’s “People must be held to account! / Who is responsible? / This must never happen again!” We have seen this predictable reaction to recent failings in policing, healthcare, education, social services and beyond. The clamour is usually followed by red-faced senior managers being duly wheeled out to limply trot out the phrase, “Lessons have been learned”.

But have they?

I don’t think so.

The problem is that the drive to find a ‘bad’ person to blame when something goes wrong ignores the fact that the overwhelming contributory factors in major organisational failings (and performance of course) derive from THE SYSTEM. (See the pie chart below, adapted from a previous blog post).

94-6 chart for barking up the wrong tree

So…

  • If your system employs target-based performance management, people WILL  concentrate on the areas subject to targets at the expense of other important activities, and they WILL engage in gaming to meet the targets.
  • If your system encourages internalised competition between work units or individuals, they WILL try to out-do each other at the expense of the customer or service user.
  • If your system does not afford frontline workers the autonomy to exercise professional judgment, they WILL behave like automatons that slavishly follow prescriptive policies, and this WILL increase risk.
  • If your system relies on retrospective audit and inspection, people WILL concentrate on technical compliance at the expense of doing the right thing.

…Oh, and all of these things WILL occur despite the fact that the people involved are not ‘bad’ people. So now you know.

The system conditions listed above are consistently found at the root of major organisational failings. These failings do not occur because the people in these systems are necessarily ‘bad’ people; they are the inevitable consequences of dysfunctional system conditions that inadvertently encourage good people to do the wrong things.

A leaking copper pipeNow I am not suggesting for a minute that those who go round committing criminal offences or morally reprehensible acts during the course of their duties should be able to use some sort of “It’s not me – the system made me do it” get-out-of jail-free card, but there’s a serious point here – a wide range of evidence points towards the types of system conditions outlined in the bullet points as being responsible for driving deviant behaviour within organisations. Simply assuming it must be a ‘people problem’ is like sacking the cleaner who is too slow to mop up a flooded floor, rather than fixing the leaky pipe. Address the cause, not the symptoms!

What’s more, merely admonishing or replacing those found responsible for engaging in behaviour that contributed towards organisational failings does not solve the problem. If the same system conditions persist after a major organisational failing, then there’s every likelihood that a similar catastrophic event will reoccur in future, this time involving different people. That should be a clue.

So what’s the solution?

Kitchener - Your system needs youWell, if you are a manager, it’s YOU! Deming pointed out that management bears the responsibility for improving the system. That’s also where you should start looking when things go wrong. Start holding the system to account. Don’t go barking up the wrong tree!

Therefore, if you recognise any of the features I have described in the bullet points as being present in your system, I suggest it would be prudent to tackle them now, before it’s too late.

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About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I have a big problem with numerical targets, unnecessary bureaucracy, and anything else that stops police officers from providing the best possible service. I believe that by adopting a systems approach, policing can be transformed beyond the wildest expectations of many.
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12 Responses to Barking Up The Wrong Tree

  1. Lwalkerbtc says:

    No free beer this week, just a thoroughly good read… Thanks

  2. Great post again Simon. When will all this finally sink in!

  3. leonard measures says:

    Follow the system rules and you will always end up at the wrong tree barking like a demented loony. Its a design feature from those at the top of the tree avoiding accountability .A magic roundabout of plausible deniability. And it works
    As usual you make excellent and very fair, pertinent points . Keep them coming.
    Is the pipe shown a PSD confidential reporting pipeline , because if it is then you have simply illustrated another design feature from the tea party in the canopy. Its not meant to be fixed and the spillage goes straight down the drain. Very rarely will a plumber appear mainly for budgetary reasons. I believe the costs involved can be high. Certainly the bill for London plumber Ian Puddick has yet to be finalised. If those at the top were to descend and do some hands on maintenance the working environment would be a more pleasant one for everybody .Many hands and all that. A system fit for heroes would be nice

  4. sue says:

    Your second bullet point: Do you think the staff who are good at using professional judgement , even under the pressures of the frontline will realy become slavish autonomans? Might it not be the case that those staff with the qualities and skills to work well at the frontline just move on eventually leaving the frontline staffed by ‘autonomans’ who dont have the skills you need to man the front line in the first place. I understand the effect/impact is the same but do think that one of the consequences of the system is that you end up with the kind of people who actually suit /like the system – and people who are comfortable with the system are the most resistant to its demise.

    • I suppose it depends on people’s breaking points. I think some will stay and battle it out, whilst others will become fed up, move on and then the system becomes populated by lesser skilled, more compliant types as you describe. Some may even become so demoralised that formerly bright, innovative individuals conform to the dysfunctional system. Not me though! ;-)

      • sue says:

        (….sorry, should have said 3rd point not 2nd in previous post)

        I’m also thinking another response would be ‘rebelion’ which might also present a risk. I think you are right about the inherent failure of systems…and being a rebel is always more fun than compliance ;o)

  5. yo mo says:

    If your system employs target-based performance management, people WILL concentrate on the areas subject to targets at the expense of other important activities, and they WILL engage in gaming to meet the targets.

    I don’t want to butt heads about the word ‘target’ again, however can I tweak that a bit?
    “If your system employs metric-based performance management, people WILL concentrate on the areas subject to measurement at the expense of other important activities, and they WILL engage in gaming to meet the metrics”.

    You might say that it is ‘distinction’ without ‘difference’, but to me the difference is very real. The objective handed to me is to deliver:
    The right thing
    To the right customer
    At the right time
    On or under budget

    Provided I meet all of these criteria, any intermediate metrics are inconsequential. Or if inconsequential is a bit too strong for your taste, they are only ‘indicative’ because they have no context.
    Theoreticians may reel at that statement, but if I can meet the objective, despite not hitting a single intermediate metric, the the metrics are either irrelevant or wrong.

    If your system encourages internalised competition between work units or individuals, they WILL try to out-do each other at the expense of the customer or service user.

    Again if I can have a tweak, with the same caveat.
    If your system punishes or rewards the difference between units or individuals carrying out identically valued work, all sorts of really wacky things can happen.
    Corners can get cut, but there are checks that can be applied for this, but the cost of the additional inspection and increased scrap/rework produced [in a system with a physical product] as the workers try to find the minimum acceptable standard of output, defeats the point.
    If there is only one ‘winner’ in the race, competitors may sabotage each other and the process in the race to be first.
    Workers may collude to make the race a ‘dead heat’ so all share the reward and all escape punishment.

    A quick study of industrial relations from 1900-1970 will throw up hundreds of examples of disputes based in this behaviour between labour and capital, [but nobody came here for a lecture on communism.]

    If your system does not afford frontline workers the autonomy to exercise professional judgment, they WILL behave like automatons that slavishly follow prescriptive policies, and this WILL increase risk.

    If you impose silly ideas/methods/processes on people who know what they are doing, they will resist at first and point out the failings of the change. If you do not listen to what they are saying, they will give up and do EXACTLY, ONLY what you insisted upon. It will very quickly go ‘child feeding units’ upwards, especially if they are smarter than you and your boss is watching.
    [What a long winded way to say workers don't start as robots, but you can make them behave like they are.]

    If your system relies on retrospective audit and inspection, people WILL concentrate on technical compliance at the expense of doing the right thing.

    Not sure that I want to prise this one apart, there is piece of dogma that goes around to the effect of “you cannot inspect in quality” which is both linguistically tortured and logically false. The only thing I’ve got sounds a bit ‘Zen’.

    “If you value the journey over the destination, you will walk a longer path, Grasshopper.” [One for the kids there.]

    • Nice interpretation – nothing I disagree with there.

      ‘You cannot inspect quality into a product’ is from Harold Dodge (in Deming’s book ‘Out of the Crisis’, p.29.

      Anyway, after all this time, when are you going to unmask yourself? (Don’t keep avoiding the question…) ;-)

    • I gave a talk to some new recruits a few years ago (it had to be a few years ago, because we haven’t been recruiting for some time), and made a reference to Grasshopper walking on the rice paper. And no-one knew what I was talking about!

      Ah well. The main point of discussion is around the your very slimmed down focus on delivering what the customer wants, right thing, right time, on/under budget.

      First, I agree – that’s what we’re all here for, whether public or private sector. Doing the right thing. But if you are instead measured against a narrower set of measures (I haven’t seen any performance frameworks that count how often you did the right thing for the customer – most are just focused on budget, shareholder value, cost, productivity, sales, etc), then your attention shifts towards what you are measured on. And because people are trying to meet the numbers, bosses realise things can get distorted. So you go for things like balanced scorecards, to try and mitigate the perverse impact of certain measures. And you need plenty of checkers and audit systems to make sure the numbers aren’t being fiddled. The hope is that the audit regime will ensure staff maintain quality – as obviously, without a checking regime, the staff will just try to get away with doing as little as possible.

      Or you take a more positive view of the world, particularly for those who have a vocation for working in the public sector. Inspection there should be to support the practitioners. Is there anything to be learned? What would help get things better? Is there anything getting in the way?

  6. Pingback: Barking Up The Wrong Tree | Policing news | Scoop.it

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