Divide And Don’t Conquer

In my last post (“Pie In The Sky”), I talked a bit about the effect of handovers within systems, and how they almost always result in waste, delays and inefficiencies. This post is going to look at this concept in a bit more detail, using a simple, real-life example from a colleague in another police force. Don’t worry if you are not a police person – the lessons from the example are so blatant that no specialist knowledge is required, and you will probably recognise similarities within your own organisation.

There seems to be a commonly-held misconception that by separating functions within a system, the organisation will somehow achieve enhanced levels of efficiency. The argument goes along the lines of, “If we create specialist teams with defined remits, they will do a better job than mere front line dogsbodies”. In a policing context, this can result in new departments being created that operate within strict parameters, along with mandatory handovers once an offender is arrested (typically by a frontline officer). In systems terms, the concept of separating out functions and establishing teams that pick up handovers from others is known as ‘division of labour’. It results in arguments about what is in whose remit, how policy is interpreted, and so on. It also slows down the flow of the work, disempowers frontline workers, and results in sub-optimal output.

In some cases however, the existence of particular specialist departments is entirely necessary and appropriate. A good police example would be the Counter Terrorist Unit, which deals in such a unique line of work that it would be unfair and ridiculous to expect a shift bobby to manage a complicated investigation around someone arrested under anti-terrorism laws. Another example would be the Economic Crime Unit, which deals exclusively with complex and high value frauds. Despite the fact that these are separate units within the overall system, the presence of such departments is not incompatible with the theory of building an effective system.

Sometimes lower-level prisoner handovers are also unavoidable. For example, officers could make an arrest 20 minutes before the end of their shift that will require extensive evidence collation ahead of interview. It would not be practical for them to stay on duty for many hours to deal with the job themselves in these circumstances. Another common factor is where the suspect is too drunk to be interviewed for several hours. It would be unfair (and costly) to expect the arresting officer to wait around for the suspect to be fit to be dealt with after he or she would normally have gone off duty.

Theoretical arguments against division of labour must always be considered against the need to achieve the stated purpose of the system (e.g. to effectively prosecute terrorists or organised criminal gangs operating international multi-million pound fraud rackets). Any notion that such top-end specialist teams are somehow incongruous with systems thinking is predicated on a rigid ideology that ignores real life. Furthermore, any interpretation of systems thinking that suggests all the workers in a system must perform an identical role is a fallacy that translates into some ill-conceived philosophy akin to ‘Systems Communism’. It is also a sure-fire way of wrecking the system.

Anyway, back on track. Division of labour and handovers are always bad when they exist unnecessarily. For example, if the first person you speak to when you report a fault with your internet service could diagnose and fix it for you, this makes so much more sense than them working through a junior-school level diagnostic flowchart before passing you onto someone else in another department because the problem wasn’t contained in their chart and it blew their mind. If the expert is at the front end it prevents handovers and results in a nice short process, as well as a faster, more efficient service. As I pointed out in the pie shop story, any handover (whether necessary or totally avoidable) introduces an additional stage into the process and therefore slows it down. The skill is in knowing your system so that you can identify any handovers that are essential, then eliminate all the others.

Enough theory for now. I’m going to run through an example featuring a dysfunctional system that thrives on separate departments with narrow remits that all receive handovers from front line workers. The example will demonstrate how this structure actually works against the system, ignores its purpose, generates waste, decreases capacity, and results in poorer service delivery. Here goes…

I have a friend who is a frontline PC on a response team in another force. We’ll call him ‘Gary’ to protect his identity. Gary’s force has recently undergone a reorganisation (or you could argue, a redisorganisation). The force has reduced the number of frontline police officers on response teams, moving some of them to various newly-generated teams with specific remits. One main feature of the new structure is that response officers no longer deal with their own prisoners following an arrest, and are obliged to hand the job over to an ‘investigation team’. The laudable aim behind this idea is that response officers are therefore not tied up in the station dealing with prisoners, and by handing the prisoner over to the investigation team, this will increase visibility, as well as availability for calls from the public. Sounds like a good idea at first, doesn’t it?

The problem is that the person who came up with this brainwave did not understand systems. There are all sorts of problems with response officers handing over prisoners as a matter of course. Aside from the horrible effects on the flow of the work that we will look at shortly, this design removes ownership and responsibility from the arresting officer. There is also the argument that it will de-skill frontline response officers, as they will become less proficient at interviewing suspects. Furthermore, smaller response teams will be less capable of managing demand at peak times (particularly in a rural force, such as where Gary is based). In addition to this there are implications for officer safety, as back-up from colleagues may be several miles away. These factors alone make this change in organisational structure a good example of introducing a systemic change that appears to offer short-term benefits, but which guarantees long-term rot.

But wait, it gets worse!

The other day, Gary told me about a straightforward incident that was unnecessarily complicated by the dysfunctional system he is obliged to operate within. It drew more people in than it needed to. It wasted time, internally and externally. It kept him off the streets. It would be funny if it wasn’t so frustrating, or costly for the taxpayer.

Gary was called to deal with a shoplifter who had been detained by staff. He had stolen low-value items and upon police arrival, he readily admitted he was guilty. (This may have had something to do with the fact that he had been seen committing the offence by three members of staff, as well as being caught on CCTV). Nevertheless, this type of incident is usually about as straightforward a job that a police officer can get. The items were returned undamaged to the shop, and the shoplifter was arrested for theft.

A check on the Police National Computer (PNC) revealed that he had not been arrested before, and the shop manager did not particularly want to go to court for such a relatively minor offence. In theory at least, providing that he subsequently admitted the offence in a taped interview, the shoplifter would usually be considered eligible for a caution. In these circumstances, this would be a proportionate outcome that would be acceptable to the shop manager. It would also negate the requirement to obtain witness statements or seize the CCTV, and mean that Gary would be back on patrol within a couple of hours at the most.

Except for the system.

What happened next was that Gary drove the shoplifter to the custody station (which was 30 minutes away, being as they were in a rural force area), and after he was booked in (this also took around 30 minutes), the following conversation ensued:

Gary: “Sarge, this one’s straightforward. He’s making a full and frank admission, so I’ll crack on and interview him myself if that’s okay?”

Custody Sergeant: “No you won’t lad. You’re not allowed to deal with your own prisoners any more. You will have to put together a handover package and then hand the case over to the investigation team”.

So, Gary had to leave his prisoner in a cell, drive the 30 minutes back to the shop, explain to the shop manager and two staff members that he would have to take statements from them after all, and that he also needed them burn off a copy of the CCTV footage. Being a quick writer, Gary was able to complete all three statements in two hours. An extra bonus was that it only took 15 minutes to burn a copy of the CCTV footage onto disc*.

(*Note: I’ve used a bit of artistic licence here: ask any bobby and they will tell you it’s always, “Nah mate, only the manager can work the CCTV and she’s on holiday / nights / at our Outer Hebrides branch this week”. Or there’s no disc available. Or despite fiddling with it for hours no one can get the damn thing to work. Or once you get the disc back to the police station there’s no machine that recognises the format. Etc. Etc.)

Once armed with all this evidence, Gary drove the 30 minutes back to the police station, where he then commenced tackling the gargantuan bureaucracy of the infamous ‘handover package’. This varies from force-to-force, but as a minimum will require the arresting officer’s statement, statements from all witnesses, a narrative of the incident from start to finish, as well as printouts of all relevant documents relating to the case, including a copy of the incident log, crime report and associated papers, a copy of the officer’s pocket book entry, PNC print, exhibit details (i.e. CCTV disc), along with a printout from the detained property computer system once the exhibit has been booked in. Along with this, there is almost always a pro-forma that lists all the papers attached to the handover package, which also requires a supervisor’s signature.

Needless to say, compiling the handover package to this standard is not a quick task, although Gary managed to do it in just an hour and 15 minutes. He then took it to the investigation team supervisor, who had to sit down and check through it, before endorsing the papers that it had met the required standard for his team to take on. Despite the likelihood that the outcome in this case was probably going to be a caution (meaning that the statements, CCTV evidence, and other documentation would never be required), policy dictated that all these elements must be present before the investigation team would deal with the shoplifter.

At this point, Gary was able to go back out on patrol. This was six hours after the ‘straightforward’ arrest.

The investigation team supervisor then had to find and allocate one of his officers to deal with the case from that point onwards. Of course, this officer had absolutely no knowledge of the matter whatsoever, so he had to read all the handover papers, including the three witness statements and Gary’s arrest statement, as well as view the CCTV. This prepared him for the interview with the suspect, which commenced about an hour after Gary exited stage left. The interview and subsequent administration of the inevitable caution took just an hour, before the stopwatch on the whole process ended 8 hours after the arrest.

The end-to-end process for what happened is mapped below:

Custody Process Flowchart 1

By following this model the following consequences have been caused:

  • Gary was off the streets for 6 hours.
  • Three members of the public have had to provide statements that weren’t needed. (Their time is not free!)
  • A whole host of unnecessary paperwork and preparatory activity was generated to meet the standard to pass the job across to the investigation team.
  • More officers were drawn in to the process than was necessary. (Their time is not without cost either).
  • The end-to-end time was unnecessarily extended.

Contrast this with what the process would have looked like had Gary been allowed to retain ownership of the case:

Custody Process Flowchart 2

The advantages are obvious:

  • No handovers.
  • Ownership retained throughout.
  • More efficient end-to-end process.
  • Gary is back on patrol within 2 hours.

Considering that Process 1 was intended to increase the time response officers spend on the street, I hope you share Gary’s sense of frustration that this poorly-design system actually achieves the opposite. It also ‘achieves’ the introduction of blockages in the cell block, as the suspect is in custody for 8 hours instead of 2, meaning their capacity to manage other prisoners is affected. It causes a backlog in the control room as officers like Gary are tied up with these sorts of incidents four times longer than they should be, meaning there are less officers (on an already reduced response team) left to deal with incoming incidents. This means that outstanding jobs stack up and the public receive a sub-optimal response. All because someone with good intentions interfered with a system without understanding it. Ironic isn’t it?

The argument is not against every handover or specialism, but against rigid organisational structures and inflexible policies that dictate that there will be handovers and division of labour regardless of circumstances or context.  

The lesson here is simple:

The more an organisation compartmentalises its functions, the more handovers are introduced. The more handovers that are introduced, the more waste is driven into the system, and the less efficient it becomes. As the system becomes less efficient, service delivery gets worse.

The solution is even simpler:

Remove unnecessary handovers.

I thank you.

(Note: ‘Gary’ was not paid for contributing his story, and no animals were harmed during the making of this blog).

About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I dislike numerical targets and unnecessary bureaucracy.
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20 Responses to Divide And Don’t Conquer

  1. Excellent post. Really interesting.

    Do you know what the consequences are of the prisoner being in the system for 8 hours (in a straight forward case) instead of 2? What do you observe? 8 hours is a long time for Gary to be off the streets but it is also a long time for a prisoner isn’t it? I mean, I know shop lifting has consequences but you’d hope they would be about prevention and justice and not a bureaucratic punishment. What does 8 hours of bureaucracy do to the prisoner?

    Charlotte Pell (researcher for John Seddon)

    P.S I’ve added my name because the name at the bottom on this comment (on the form I can see) isn’t mine. I think the comment function might have gone skew whiff.

  2. Dave says:

    As a former front-line officer in the UK and now a current front-line officer in a large city in North America, here’s a radical perspective: I can deal with a shoplifter (even one who is a juvenile or doesn’t speak English) in about half an hour. Here’s how:
    1. Get the security staff to write their own statements.
    2. Bring the suspect in to the police station to be indentified (fingerprinted or whatever) and charged. If you’ve got CCTV or other decent evidence, you don’t need to interview.
    3. Release or jail suspect depending on whether or not they’re going to show up at court.
    4. Head back out on the street and write up the report on the laptop in your car.

    The fundamental problem with policing in the UK is that the systems (for recording crime, for authorising a charge, deciding on a caution, no-criming, counting crime etc) are seen as more important than actual police work. Nowadays, although I’m guided by policy, I make my own decisions about charging, no-criming, what needs further investigation and other aspects of routine police work. There aren’t armies of prisoner processing detectives, CPS lawyers, review teams or gatekeepers, there’s just me dealing with a relatively simple process.

    • Porcelain Patrol says:

      Dave – every time I see your posts, I get more and more jealous.
      How did you get this golden ticket?

      I looked at Policing on the other side of the water for years, but the advice was I’d have to be a citizen to even apply.

      • Dave says:

        I did 5 years in the UK before coming out here to Canada in 2007. I’m still a permanent resident and not a citizen. It’s not for everyone: it’s been around -20 degC all week and we’ve been on nights.

        Working here gives you a different perspective on UK policing and looking back I almost want to weep with frustration at the waste of time and talent I witnessed on a daily basis.

  3. Very interesting.

    I was saying years ago that police should utilise case progression teams (as they are called in my area) to increase the time officers spend on the streets. I still think it is a good idea; however, you are right that the system needs to take account of the cases where handing over a case causes more delays than it saves.

    • Dave says:

      But isn’t that still saying, ‘Let’s take a really complicated system and break it up into smaller pieces?’ When really you should be saying, ‘Let’s make the system really simple so we don’t actually need handovers or case progression teams.’

      Three simple examples:
      Why bother interviewing if you’ve got enough to charge? (Time saved 4-5hrs)
      Why wait for people to sober up if you can release them to someone sober? (Time saved 10hrs minimum)
      Why go to CPS for authority to charge? (Time saved 3hrs)

      These seem like radical ideas, but I work as a bobby in a modern, liberal, western country where the law is based on UK law and we do this every day. A simple system combined with a solid, useable IT system means I am 80-100% more efficient than I ever was doing the same job in the UK.

      And no handovers.

  4. Another excellent blog. Having recently witnessed this process in a large UK force I would add the following as results. De-skilling of front line personnel and increased levels of stress from those who have to pick up the pieces further down the line. This is a ‘non’ process and should be re thought. Final comment – how many small specialised units are broken up once their value is lost? Answers on a postage stamp.

  5. Ian says:

    Case progression teams also involve handovers. They can be useful when dealing with bulk volume, simple cases. For example drunks and simple public order, when the patrol officer can ‘drop and go’ (or ‘wash and go’ as I used to refer to it).

    There are more efficient ways of processing jobs such as shoplifters, such as those mentioned by Dave, but in most forces the expectation is still to arrest and take into custody. This is usually because:
    – alternative methods are often more difficult and time consuming for the responding officer
    – performance regimes often use arrest counts, without looking at wider costs or outcomes
    – forces have introduced ‘drop and go’ as an apparent efficiency improvement for response teams, without looking at wider costs/outcomes

    The ideal option is to have the flexibility to use the right option for the right situation. Some shoplifters are serious/serial offenders and need to go into custody, and be dealt with appropriately by the Justice system. Some are minor, first-time offenders, and RJ is the ideal option, preferably done swiftly when victim and offender are there together. For some, the options set out by Dave or the use of penalty notices (FPNs) are ideal. If the desired outcome is to ensure that the offender is dealt with expeditiously, in a way that best meets the need of the victim and which prevents re-offending, then the responding officer needs to have the flexibility to choose which method is the best for that particular situation.

    This will also be the option that offers best VFM.

  6. Ian says:

    And selecting the right option for the circumstances might also mean the responding officer will also do the investigation and case file, rather than hand the job over to someone else.

    This doesn’t necessarily require all officers to be ‘omnicompetent’. It’s about sending the right resource with the right skills, and making sure that the skilled resources are matched to demand. It does seem sensible that the basic level of skill for a response officer should include the ability to investigate a case through to prosecution if necessary.

  7. Edzwaring says:

    Another sound piece about why we need to look at System Thinking nationally rather than in isolation and put a halt to those Forces straying from this type of approach by building in the Silo’s ……

  8. Thecustodysgt says:

    This is a great Post and indicative of processes being adopted by some forces and abandoned by others.

    Investigation teams as you describe engenders;

    Response officers tied up with more paperwork than necessary in some cases (as you identify)

    Drastically reduced numbers on the streets to free up staff for said investigation team. This puts pressure on officers to become free creating poor quality rushed statements.

    Officers become de-skilled in interview techniques and file building competence.

    No ownership of the job. The OIC is blurred and no individual person can be pulled up about a poor investigation or file.

    Massively increased time in custody for DP’s

    Response officers under such pressure, particularly on nights simply go from job to job never getting a handover done and then having 2 or 3 to compile in last 2 hrs of shift. Again leads to poor quality files.

    If DP needs bail then a case building unit follows up enquiries not the arresting officer. Each person touching the job does so cold and wastes time apprising themselves of the case. A single OIC knows case inside out and can move along much faster.

    Massively increased bail lists and extended bail dates as backlogs in case building units increase.

    This system, as you point out, doesn’t work. Yet it continues to be implemented in some forces. Why? Because it is all part of the promotion aspirations of some senior officers.

  9. Blue Eyes says:

    Great post. Do you think the new Met Commisioner’s Total Policing will address some of these issues?

  10. John says:

    Excellently argued … and so very true. We are lucky in that we have a good prisoner-handling team at our local nick, but they can only be as good as the handover package they receive

  11. Nick B says:

    Great observations, I would add however that in the model described the purpose for each individual and department is to deal with the offender efficiently. There appears to be no real understanding of what is the problem we are trying to solve. Whilst the officer recognises the caution is an appropriate method of disposal there is no indication as to why, other than I suspect that this is what we do when a crime is reported – because how else would you get the detection (‘de-facto purpose’).
    The often ignored purpose or problem is how do we prevent this crime from re-occurring, whether that is working with the store in question or more importantly ensuring that the offender is treated in such a fashion that he chooses not to re-offend in the future (and brute force is unlikely to be part of this solution!).
    From our experience there is a real lack of data and knowledge around what does work in reducing re-offending, but there is a lack of pressure for this information as we do not measure the success of dealing with this shoplifter in terms of reducing crime in the future.
    When this is taken into account it calls in to question further whether the process adopted was purposeful or merely full of waste – as everything that does not address purpose we should seek to cease.
    Nick B

  12. Ruralsgt says:

    Great blog. This system has recently been implemented in my force. My area has gone from approx 4 sgts and approx 30 bobbies covering a large rural area with several towns based at 5 locations to 1 or 2 sgts and 12 pc’s from 2 locations. And 3 to 5 officers sat in an office on Wednesday day shift waiting for work to be delivered! When person is arrested due to lack of people arresting officer has to do all investigations prior to hand over. Eg; 2 drunk friends have fight neither had any previous. No injuries, pc arrives, arrests person immidiately due to current policy, transports to custody 40 mins away, speaks to gateway officer who outlines all enquires that must be completed to handover. Arresting officer returns to scene discovers there is no complaint, however due to policy MUST have statement. Pursuedes agg to give statement saying nothing, completes house to house and checks with local CCTV, takes statement from witness, another friend who does not wish to get involved and says basically ‘saw something not telling you what and I won’t go to court’ arresting officer returns to station and spends 1 -2 hours completing handover package. At this point the 3 officers from investigating team have gone off duty and as it is now evening there is no cover in the rural so investigator must be sent over from nearby urban area that covers lates for rural as well. Investigator arrives 45 mins later spends 1 hour reading up. Time for interview. 6 min interview basically I was to drunk to recall. Custody sgt spoken to and result NFA. Total time in custody 10 hours. Now the process prior to this; OIC arrests on route a collegue speaks to agg and witness’s establishing no complaint by the time DP is booked in OIC has been told this. As OIC has full facts straight to interview If DP not too drunk then NFA time DP in custody approx 1 hour and OIC back out.

  13. CJInspector says:

    Si, good points, as always, but methinks you have picked an extreme case to make your point. The system actually allows for discretion/common sense by the arresting officer. The circs sound like those suitable for an on street resolution: Neighbourhood/Community/Restorative Resolution (whatever each force calls it) with some suitable reparation for the shopkeeper would have took 40-60 mins top; or a Penalty Notice for Disorder – £80 on the spot fine might have took the same amount of time; or even secure evidence and report for summons, completing the case file at a time of low demand (same time there, but add an hour for the file later). The fault for not picking any of those options lies with the officer, not the system.

    Secondly, although I’m a big fan of Seddons system thinking, I do feel it down plays the potential impact/power of the ‘operator’ – police officers in this case. We expect and train them to use common sense, problem solve and bear in mind the bigger picture. I’d like to think that in most cases if the arresting officer in this case was faced with the request for a handover he/she would argue hard to be allowed to deal themselves. Their case is a no-brainer, the custody officer wants the PIC out asap and if they were difficult surely the duty inspector would listen to the argument and see that this would give him/her resources on the street to deal with calls from the public, and therefore tick the right boxes for them.

    Finally, the arguments for handover or not can be a little more balanced – both have pros and cons. When forces move to dedicated prisoner handling teams its usually in response to poor quality investigations and case files, and after attempts to raise standards (training lots of staff who only occasionally do the task, and adding in audit and rework roles). Specialising seems to offer a more efficient system: less training costs and abstractions, gettiing it right first time, faster turnover. The fact that this is one of those areas of police business that regularly flips from one style to the other would suggest to me that neither is head and shoulders better than the other. Where you have it spot on is that detailed study of the system should lead to the better system in each individual location.

    A great blog – keep up the good work.

  14. Dave Hasney says:

    The crux of the problem is in your summary statement… “The argument is not against every handover or specialism, but against rigid organisational structures and inflexible policies that dictate that there will be handovers and division of labour regardless of circumstances or context.” This in it self is compounded by the lack of task ‘ownership’ and our predominant culture of ‘blame’ – “it’s not my job” – “it’s not within my remit” etc.
    As ‘ Dave’ pointed out, and I would have to agree, having examined some of the North American process at first hand, why make an already complicated system more complicated? As NickB said; “…everything that does not address purpose we should seek to cease.” Confirmed by CJInspector; “…detailed study of the system should lead to the better system in each individual location.”
    CJInspector also highlights another important factor when applying ‘Seddon’ or any other ‘brand’ of system thinking for that matter in that; little or no cognisance of “the potential impact/power of the ‘operator’ – police officers in this case” is ever taken into consideration. Some of the reasoning behind this is simple; self-interest and TheCutodySgt also grasped this by pointing out, much of the problem “is all part of the promotion aspirations of some senior officers.”
    Clearly ‘one size doesn’t fit all’, despite what many ‘thinkers’ would have the ‘doers’ believe. In addition, the more rural the force the greater the negative impacts on service delivery, in my experience. With more meagre resources which are distributed more widespread geographically, the greater need for higher levels of Omni competence. With the silo methodology of today, my own force area actually has less officer availability, in real terms, than it did 30+ years ago, despite what the corporate media machine would have us believe. How can anyone say this is more effective, from a cost or productivity perspective? Theory is great, just so long as those wishing to apply it have some real grasp on reality. Often they don’t!

  15. Cockney Copper says:

    Penalty Notice for Disorder (retail theft under £300) at the shop?
    Total time – 5 minutes if you’re a slow writer.
    No statement needed. What is effectively a ‘Fast track guilty’ only needs a basic PNB entry.
    Total time – another 5 minutes.

    My current force is utterly obsessed with arresting people and it’s time consuming, expensive, and unnecessary and therefore frequently a clear breach of PACE.

    • To clear up the valid points raised by Cockney Copper and others regarding the option of using either fixed penalty notices or community resolutions being done at the scene, those options were not available to the officer. Sorry I didn’t make this clear in the post.

      • Cockney Copper says:


        That makes the offender either a juvenile, mental, blind drunk, a non-resident foreigner, non-English speaking, or homeless.

        Contemp interview (with appropriate adult if necessary) and report for summons?

        Oh sod it, just lock ’em up and sort it out at the nick!

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