Stick Child and the Flat Tyre

Here’s the problem – you have a flat tyre!

flat tyre

So, let’s look at a couple of options for resolving this issue…

Option 1

One approach might be to inflate the tyre, then check the air pressure on a regular basis to see if it starts to go flat again. If it does, you could put more air in the tyre. Perhaps if the tyre still keeps going flat, you could increase the regularity of the air pressure checks and fill it with air more often. If, despite this, the tyre still keeps going flat, maybe you could shout at the driver a bit. That should do the trick! Problem solved.

Option 2

Another option might be to see what caused the tyre to go flat. In this case it was a nail, so you could just remove the nail, then either repair or replace the tyre.

nail in tyre2

Option 1 vs Option 2

I prefer Option 2, as it addresses the root cause of the tyre’s flatness, rather than introducing disproportionate retrospective checks and downstream reactions which focus on the symptoms. Apparently, there are scientific studies that prove if you put a nail through a tyre, it is likely to go flat. Rocket science, this is not.

What the Pro-Nail Brigade Might Say

Now, Option 2 might seem logical to you and I, but there are people out there who disagree. For example, whilst you’re trying to remove the nail, they might approach you and say things like:

“It’s not the nail that’s the problem because…

  • – it’s the way the nail was inserted into the tyre.
  • – it must have been the wrong type of nail.
  • – it’s the driver’s fault for the way the car was driven whilst the nail was in the tyre.
  • – the nail needs to be there, otherwise air would leak out of the hole.
  • – lots of nails would be bad, but there’s only one nail in this tyre and that’s okay.
  • – but I’ve always put nails in tyres / they look nice.
  • – I use things that look like nails, but they’re called something else, so that’s okay”.
  • – it has to be something else, anything else. Nails don’t cause flat tyres!”

(Delete or combine as applicable)

If this happens to you, it’s always fun to ask what evidence these statements are based on, as such people tend to skulk off and leave you alone after that. (Or break into an incoherent outburst, then run away). In either case, this means you can fix your tyre in peace and quiet.

The same people usually think the solution is to leave the nail where it is and blame individuals, introduce tougher sanctions, invoke more audit and inspection, or produce a lot of meaningless numbers which they think will tell them about the air pressure. Unfortunately, this totally misses the point, as we shall see…

Stick Child’s Perspective

Stick Boy helloFollowing his popularity in my last blog post, Stick Child is back to offer a view on the nail conundrum. You see, he has been learning lots of cool stuff from his Daddy, and is becoming a bit of a systems thinker. One of the books his Daddy read him at bedtime was by a man called Deming, who said, “Cease reliance on audit and inspection”.

Being very bright for a nine-year-old, Stick Child is able to apply Deming’s concepts to everyday life and came up with these diagrams, which demonstrate the futility of relying on audit and inspection as a means of redressing problems caused by adverse system conditions, like nails in tyres.

Method 1

Method 2

His art teacher will be impressed!

Anyway, the point is that the best you can hope for by using Method 1 is to identify a problem and maybe send it back upstream. This causes extra work (the inspection itself, and then the rework) and can be very costly. It focuses on the symptoms rather than the cause. It’s equivalent to repeatedly checking the tyre’s air pressure and putting more air in it as it slowly deflates, whilst leaving the nail embedded.

As long as destabilising system conditions are present, no amount of audit and inspection will prevent dysfunctional responses, such as misreporting of air pressure, imaginative re-definitions of what a ‘nail’ can be classified as, or worsening damage to the tyre.

Method 2 is better because it addresses the system conditions that cause the issue. This means that we have an opportunity to remove them and resolve the problem. Therefore, if you keep encountering unwanted reactions within your system, simply trace the root causes and eliminate them. And yes, I’m talking about numerical targets, league tables and binary comparisons!

As I said in the previous blog post – if our little friend Stick Child gets this, so can you!

Further Reading

For those of you interested in how this applies to crime data, see my written evidence to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee here. You can also follow the progress of the #CrimeStats inquiry on the PASC twitter account @CommonsPASC


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 Stick Child and the Flat Tyre

  1. Hi Simon,

    That’s a creative example to demonstrate that the state of the system causes some of the problems we confront. We’re, unfortunately, from a young age, programmed to focus on the symptoms of a problem and not dig deeper to identify the systemic condition that leads to its creation.

    I had written about traffic jams to make a similar point. The jams are a result of the traffic system. Getting angry at fellow drivers does nothing to change that.

    The good news is that even if we generally tend to fixate on the immediate and the local, there are many among us who are looking at our circumstance more broadly; developing and practicing systems thinking skills. Let’s hope that this mindset spreads widely and quickly.

    Best regards,
    Shrikant Kalegaonkar

  2. Pingback: Stick Child and the Flat Tyre | Policing news |...

  3. drkirstyc says:

    I love stick child. He has much relevance to NHS target culture too!

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