These beauties are my baby chilli plants, grown from seeds I cut out of chillies during my Mexican cooking efforts a few weeks ago. As you can see, they are only about an inch high at the moment, but if they end up anything like last year’s crop then I fully expect to be surrounded by the chilli version of The Day of the Triffids.

Anyway, the time is near that I’ll need to plant these little seedlings in bigger pots, so yesterday I visited a well-known local gardening store to buy some. Amongst other things, I bought six packs of small pots at 98p each. Bargain. The gent at the till scanned the items (I can verify this – I heard the ‘beep’) and I paid up then left the store. Back at the car I glanced at the till receipt and noticed that none of the plant pots had been charged for, so being an honest sort of chap I went straight back in and told the man on the till that they hadn’t registered and needed paying for.

To say he was grateful is an understatement. His first words were, “Thank you so much – you’ve saved me from getting in trouble”. He then went on to explain that every single transaction is retrospectively scrutinised by management and till operators are held personally responsible for any anomalies. As soon as I had paid for the pots he left the till area, explaining that even though the discrepancy had now been rectified, he was duty-bound to report the ‘incident’ to his supervisor. This was so his mistakes could be recorded.

I pointed out that I had seen and heard him scan the pots so it must have been a problem with the scanner or the till, but the poor guy genuinely believed it was his error and therefore needed to tell management before they found out. He told me that till operators were constantly monitored on CCTV, so I might have been picked up returning to the till and bosses might ask why.

This episode disturbed me. The gent was of an age where there was a possibility he might well have served his country, yet today he wasn’t trusted to operate a till. It’s possible that he might have somehow made a mistake when scanning the plant pots, although I suspect it was more likely to have been faulty equipment. In any case, there was no harm done. Even in the worst case scenario that I hadn’t noticed the pots were missing from my receipt, the store would have been out by £5.88. It wouldn’t have forced them to close.

As ever, a few things about this experience reminded me of how traditional management practice works against the system and can harm the workers-

  • 100% inspection in these circumstances represents waste. It is disproportionate and costly. Deming says, “Cease dependence on mass inspection”.
  • Deming also talks about ‘Joy in work’. How can you enjoy your job when you are being constantly spied on and know that everything you do will be retrospectively checked?
  • Why is there an underlying assumption that workers need to be extrinsically ‘motivated’ by carrots, sticks, fear and control mechanisms? Maybe some just want to do a good job. There’s a thought.
  • If the system is responsible for 94% of productivity, why is the emphasis on looking for individual’s mistakes and holding them to account?
  • Finally, as Harold Dodge puts it, “You can not inspect quality into a product”.

None of this policy of looking for mistakes, micromanaging the workers, reporting back, retrospective scrutiny and personal blame actually achieves anything that the management anticipates it will. It demoralises the workers, drives up costs, and cripples the system. It sends the message that management doesn’t trust the workers. Moreover, it doesn’t solve the ‘problem’. That nice chap I met yesterday will probably be working on the same till today, with the same dodgy scanner. Someone won’t get charged for plant pots again and he will get the blame.

The scanner and the management are the 94% of the system.

They’re the ones that need fixing.


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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3 Responses to Potted!

  1. I’ve been having similar discussions at work recently about general performance measures. Everyone wants to be trusted to get on with their work without unnecessary and confidence-sapping checks. However, no-one trusts that others will do the work conscientiously and correctly if they’re not being watched or checked.

    That was the essence of the discussion. Maybe it boils down to the old X and Y school of management. You can’t be managing if you’re not checking – that’s abrogation of duty. So we end up with a regime where a few years ago (and I kid you not), even the chief constable needed a ‘line manager’ to authorise a request for internet access – because you can’t just let everyone have the internet at work. Good gracious, no! They’ll all be spending their time browsing the web rather than working.

    Of course, despite the checks and authorisation procedures, a few people still abuse the trust placed in them. As a result, the vast majority, who flourish in a regime where they are trusted, end up being subjected to further checks and restrictions.

    I’ve always been told that most of the ‘shrinkage’ suffered by shops is carried out by staff rather than customers. In the old days, Woolworths staff had to wear outfits without pockets. But how would anyone know if this assumption is true? Has the surveillance regime in this garden centre reduced the shrinkage rate? Is the scanner faulty? What are the items that seem to ‘disappear’ more than others? Where are they in the shop?

    I’ve generally found that staff very quickly know what goes on in terms of theft hotspots and dodgy customers. Decent managers also know. However, these sorts of measures to reduce ‘shrinkage’ tend to be imposed either by someone remote who doesn’t understand the business, or else by someone deliberately trying to send a particular message/divert attention. Hmm?

  2. ThinkPurpose says:

    I like this and the previous posts about that pub and ice-cream because it shows how systems thinking becomes internalised and you continually see the ways things run, not just in your own workplace but everywhere. It is great fun and truly continuous learning seeing Deming in everyday life.
    I read a quote from some Chief Executive saying learning systems thinking was like putting on a pair of 3D glasses where before everything was in flat 2D. Once they’re on, they never come off either, which can be a right chore when you’re just going to the shops for some plants, but the upside is there’s an endless supply of material for a blog!

    • Thanks. This is true. I first noticed my affliction was so serious when I went to eat some lunch in a pie and mash shop whilst on holiday last year (see my Pie in the Sky post…)

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