Legally right – morally wrong?


So at last we all know.  The High Court has not accepted a bid from school leaders, teachers’ unions and councils to change grade boundaries in last summer’s GCSE English exams.

Apparently all is well because the standards of our examination system have been preserved. That must be good. A legal decision has been made.

Well that might be the single loop view (as systems thinkers might say)  But take a look at the double loop…..    ….We now have teenagers who are stepping out for the relative cocoon of secondary school, having tried their best, having endured all the motivational techniques their teachers knew only to be punished by the system.  Although I’ve seen no admission I think its reasonable to assume that all English students even those with A, B and C grades have been affected. I deeply suspect English is not the only subject.

Without doubt those who failed to achieve have been dealt a harsh blow by the leaders of our education system.  Those who were awarded D grades are by definition students who are less able than many of their peers. Recovering confidence from one poor grade amongst several A’s. B’s and C’s may be relatively easy, but rising to peak performance when you’re not academically strong and maybe you’re not hard-wired to classroom learning is a much tougher ask.  My heart goes out to the latter group.

Let’s remember the teaching staff too.  They’ve tried hard for these youngsters.

So perhaps there are other loops in play here.  One for teenagers on-going drive and motivation to succeed in their chosen careers; another for the educators who have to be motivated to re-inspire them. Both knowing that statistical fixes can change their path so easily.

So maybe legally right, but definitely morally wrong.

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Targets – We’ll hit them if you insist


The thing about staff is that they want to please you.  Yes, I suggest all of them, well at least they want to do everything they can to prevent you telling them they’re not performing well enough.

The reality is increased pressure to meet targets increases the ingenuity applied in response.  Or to look at it from the perspective of an economist, the relationship between ingenuity and pressure is elastic.

In other words people, even ‘honest’ people have a tendency to twist the story to hit the target. In short people will cheat (to a degree).  Parameters are bent to make sure goals are met. 

Take a certain parcel delivery organisation where the objective is (I assume) to deliver packages within a specified timescale and where a house is unoccupied leave a card advising of the attempted delivery.  The pressure to meet the objective creates a situation where the van driver rings the door bell and immediately puts a card through the letter box, driving away before the householder gets to the door.

The pressure to hit the target of delivering all the parcels on the van has motivated the driver to spend as little time as possible at each drop-off point. 

And the impact?

Firstly, the inconvenience to the addressee.  They have to either arrange re-delivery or go to the depot to collect the item.  In either event this has created extra work; the addressee may have phoned the depot, requiring someone there to answer it; finding the parcel at the depot and potentially redelivering it.

The key point here is that a target, probably imposed to increase the productivity of the delivery staff and reduce operating costs has caused inconvenience to the customer, and increased the service centre and delivery costs.

To find out more about the impact of rewards read this article from Freakonomics. http://tinyurl.com/c7qak5t

Targets – a rod for beating people?


Are you burdened by seemingly impossible targets?  You want to achieve, do a good job but struggle to hit the numbers.

Consider where that target came from.  The outcome of many targets is not within the control of the worker.  They are affected by external factors over which the individual has no control.

Take an ice cream vendor in kiosk at a British seaside resort.  Sales are likely to be heavily influenced by the weather. If it’s a cool wet summer, less people are likely to be around.  Hence less sales.  Yes if the kiosk is on a good pitch this can increase sales, and so will a clean and tidy kiosk.  But if it’s a wet and windy day sales will remain poor.

It’s easy for management to set targets where the results are primarily governed by factors over which the worker has no control.  They cannot change the outcome.

The impact of such targets is to de-motivate.  Gradual spirals of despondency set in with the workers and output falls further.  The result is increased sickness, increased staff turnover.  Performance decreases.

Targets can be dangerous.  That’s all targets, not just sales.

Who’s leaving at 3pm?


Sir Michael Wilshaw, England’s chief inspector of schools doesn’t want teachers to leave at 3pm. (BBC,  22/9/12)  This suggests that he thinks they don’t work hard enough and long enough.  He concludes that hitting them in the pocket will produce better results – either by limiting the pay of ‘under performers’ or by (allegedly) increasing the pay of the apparently dedicated.

I suggest Sir Michael needs to think again.

If staff leave at 3pm why is this?  Is it that they are naturally idle?  Is it that they don’t like teaching?  Or some other reason?

May be it is the impact of the endless targets, imposed ‘best’ ways of doing things which I suspect in many cases are invented by ‘those who don’t teach’.

Imagine this.  A school, an education system where teachers are allowed to determine the way they teach, where they can apply methods which they know work.  They know they work because they see the results in the children.

Managers and so called leaders dictating to professionals is de-motivating them, reducing their performance and any desire to excel. That is why they (apparently) leave at 3pm.  They have no control in what they do because they are constantly adhering to the latest edict, filling in plans and forms.

They are blaming the people instead of the system.

If those in charge gave freedom back to teachers, they would be inspired to improve the quality of education and not want to leave at 3pm.  Teacher need to feel that they own teaching

The challenge is getting those in-charge to understand that some things are counter-intuitive.

A load of bull?


Chatting to farmers is not something I normally indulge in but today was an exception.

What the farmer told me, if true, shows a shocking waste of resources and an increase in costs which presumably we, the buying public pay.

The story goes something like this…   …cattle are reared in Yorkshire, specifically Aberdeen Angus cattle.  Once they have been fattened up on Yorkshire’s finest greenery, they are taken by lorry to Scotland.  When they arrive in Scotland they are Scottish (apparently).  The cattle are slaughtered and sold in England as Scottish beef.

How crazy is this?  Where’s the benefit?  Will it taste different because it’s been slaughtered in Scotland?    No.  Will it cost more?  Yes.  Will it make more profit?  Probably yes.  Is it good for the environment?

I’ll leave the systems thinkers and the lean specialists to pick the bones out of this one.         

They set targets for Personal Payment Insurance and look what happened.


The impact of mis-selling personal payments insurance rolls on, now with concerns about the activities of claims management companies. 

It started with financial services companies providing loans.  There’s nothing particularly wrong there, providing the lending is prudent and appropriate.  Let’s assume it is.

These companies wanted to increase their profit margins, as they were targeted for revenue.  Increasing the interest rate charged on the loans was difficult as this is transparent and consumers can easily compare rates between different lenders.  Adding PPI was easier.  Selling PPI where the customer was not eligible was easy too.

All this was driven by a pressure to hit targets for the financial services companies.  Targets which were not linked to their customers’ needs; just those of the finance companies.  Had the measures been put in place related to the customer the outcome would have been very different.  For example an objective to sell PPI to 80% of eligible customers may have been better.

The problem with targets is that they make people cheat.  Management pressure people to hit targets.  Sometimes factors external to the situation make it difficult or impossible to hit the target.  As more pressure is applied staff find ‘alternative ways’ of meeting them, in this case by selling PPI to people who were ineligible.

Now the Legal Ombudsman is having to intervene as claims management companies driven by targets unrelated to their customer’s purpose.  The failures of mis-selling have created an industry to sort out PPI and now that being scrutinised for its own failings.

We need to get to grips with understanding our customer’s purpose and then measuring our success against it.  This will help us build stronger and more ethical businesses.  Fulfilling true customer purpose is the key to success.

Getting a drink is simple – Well it is, isn’t it?


Recently I was invited to a breakfast briefing at a major hotel. I arrive the obligatory 15 or so minutes before the published start time to mingle with my fellow guests. Courteously I’m invited to help myself to a drink – tea or coffee.

All the necessary items – sugar, sweeteners, stirring sticks, mugs, followed by flasks – are laid out on a table on the edge of the small mingling area. It’s quite a busy event and the area is a little congested.

Now I’m into process, in fact I’m very enthusiastic about process, you know doing the right thing right.

I must be careful here. I don’t want to spill anything do I?

First things first, I need a mug. Yes mugs are great, you get more in them and you don’t need to balance them on a saucer. That’s good.

Now for some coffee. I don’t like tea, so it must be coffee. What? The flasks aren’t labelled? Which is which? Ah, the chap at the side of me tells me which is coffee. Umm, good job he was there otherwise….. So where’s the milk then? Umm, that’s not particularly obvious either, but with team work we achieve our objective.

So far I’ve been working from left to right along the table. But now I need some sugar, oh and a stirrer. Where are they? What? At the extreme left hand side? Surely not. Oh, yes. I can see them but by now there’s someone on my left who’s guessing which liquid he’s pouring into his mug. Sorry mate, I should have told you about that. Really sorry, honest. Excuse me, I’ve not told you which was tea, but even so would you mind letting me through to the sugar… …err please.

I reach for the sugar and the stirrer, disrupting the flow, trying not to cause me or my fellow guest to spill our drinks.

Success. Coffee in mug. Milk in mug. Sugar in mug.

Stirrer in…. ….where’s the bin?

Why do they do it? These hospitality professionals, supposedly at the upper end of the market but they can’t even organise a cup of tea in a…. …hotel!

It should be so simple. 60 guests wanting a drink. But it’s not.

It’s all in the process. Don’t blame the guests. They’re following the process laid out by the hotel.

I wonder how good their other processes are? Glad I’m not expecting something more complex. How good are the processes in your business? Do the right thing righter.