Maybe this is ill-timed, not being long after my ‘weight loss’ blog post, but here’s another story from the land of “Is that large?” In my defence, I was on a long journey and was so hungry when I stopped at some services in the middle of nowhere that I’d have eaten my own toenails. Anyway, feel free to dispense advice on health and nutrition if you want, but take comfort from the fact that when I’m at home I usually cook from scratch; neither do I make a habit of hanging about in fast food joints.
Being thoroughly British, one of my pet hates is queue-jumping. There are many variants of this despicable pastime, but one I find particularly annoying is when people send their kids to ‘reserve’ tables in busy food places whilst they queue. This was endemic at the burger joint I was at today and it drives me potty. It was busy and the queue was massive, but looking around, there were actually more people at tables without food than there were people actually eating.
This meant that suckers like me who wait our turn get to the front of the queue can’t find anywhere to sit and eat, because some bright spark who has come in after me has despatched their offspring to ‘hold’ any table that suddenly becomes vacant. Even adults were doing it, which I found really irritating.
Anyway, as ever, my uncontrollable rants usually come with a systems-based moral to the story, so here it is:
When people behave in a selfish, rational, manner such as this, they only ever score individual victories at the expense of the overall system (and the others within it). Okay, so it was busy, but my guess is that the turnover of people eating at tables is pretty constant, so if everyone just took a table after purchasing food, tables would become available at roughly the rate they are required. (I appreciate this is contingent on queuing theory, but there’s no way I was going to do the maths). What happens when people grab tables well before they purchase their food is that this natural flow is interrupted and blockages occur.
The purpose of this system (i.e. to allow people to eat their food at a table if they wish) is therefore more difficult to attain because of the behaviour of those people who elevate their own individualist aims over the collective good. It may at first seem like a good idea to guarantee your party will have somewhere to sit in 10 minutes time after you’ve finished queuing, but the fact is that this behaviour has a negative effect on the overall system. If everyone does it, the whole thing grinds to a halt. (I have a feeling there are examples in economic theory that demonstrate how rational choice behaviour damages the overall system – price wars perhaps? I’d be grateful for the reference).
Such unhealthy competition is commonplace in public and private sector organisations alike. Sales teams are pitted against each other, departments are compared and ranked, schools and hospitals are placed in league tables, and so on. Of course, the classics in policing include such things as performance documents that count numbers of arrests, or individuals being held to account for the crime rate on their beat / sector / division /force (delete as applicable) as compared to somewhere else. The difference though, is that unlike the bunch of hungry, yet selfish, travelling strangers who abused the fast food system, organisations actually build the triggers that cause this type of behaviour into the system design, as if in some kind of bizarre foot-shooting exercise.
Traditional modes of management in the Western World are based on assumptions such as ‘competition is a good thing’, ‘comparing people’s performance and ranking them is a good way of presenting data’, and ‘if we didn’t do this, people would stop working’. I argue that this is not the case; indeed that it makes performance worse, not to mention relationships. Where one work unit focuses on out-performing others regardless of the consequences to the system, this is called sub-optimization, i.e. one part of the system is optimized at the expense of other parts of the system.
The effect of this is some parts of the system ‘win’ at the expense of others that ‘lose’. Furthermore, the overall system always loses, as individual or departmental selfishness results in capacity and ingenuity becoming focused towards introspective survival activity, instead of achieving purpose from the customer’s or service user’s perspective. In addition to this, cooperation between individuals, departments and organisations is always adversely affected when people become caught up in internalised competition. Targets, ranking, singling out the ‘bottom 10% of performers’ or ‘naming and shaming’ this week’s victim at the bottom of whatever league table, causes dysfunctional behaviour and makes it incredibly difficult for the system to attain what it is there for.
The type of behaviour associated with sub-optimization is so destructive because it ignores the interrelationships and interdependencies that are so crucial to the fabric of an effective system. Flattening a bump in the carpet here might ‘solve’ that problem, but it is likely to cause another bump in the carpet elsewhere. Snatching a table in advance so you can scoff your burger sitting down might solve your problem, but it will certainly put someone else out. “But, hey, that’s not my problem right?” Well it should be, if you care about the system. If the bunch of random strangers in an isolated burger joint acted in the best interests of all those present, then everyone would get a table.
Sub-optimization and unhealthy competition in the burger setting had the relatively innocuous effect of irritating me (and giving me the idea for this blog post) – in organisations, the consequences are much more severe. What’s more, the staff in the burger joint probably could not have influenced their customers’ behaviour much (I suppose being ordered off vacant tables in the interests of fairness would not go down that well with some people) – this is totally different to the examples of sub-optimization that are endemic in organisations. Managers have it within their gift to design and adjust systems so as to remove the perverse incentives that cause this very type of self-destructive behaviour.