Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Measuring for the right reasons.

March 18, 2013

In a recent article Simon Caulkin gives a vivid description of how it emerged at a recent event on ‘results-based management’ run by the consultancy Vanguard that “what to measure may be the single most important management decision a company makes.”

 For an indication of why, take the case of a typical local authority child protection department which operates to two standard measures. For children at serious risk, it must carry out a fast initital assessment of 80 per cent of cases within seven days. For a full core assessment, the standard is 35 days. The department meets both standards; under the widely-used ‘traffic-light’ signalling system (red-amber-green) it rates a green, so managers judge that no further action on their part is necessary. 

 Now look at the same department through a different measure: the end-to-end the time taken to do the assessment from first contact to completion. The picture that emerges is very different. The urgent assessment predictably takes up to 49 days, with an average of 18.5, while the 35-day assessment takes an average of 49 days, but can equally take up to 138. Worse, the clock for the core assessment doesn’t automatically start when the initial assessment finishes but only when it is formally opened. So the true end-to-end time for the 35-day assessment is anything up to 250 days. ‘Now tell me Baby P and Victoria Climbié were one-offs,’ says Vanguard consultant Andy Brogan, who gathered the data, grimly. ‘They weren’t – they were designed in.’

 When the underlying cause is looked for we find, Caulkin says, that “from assessing and protecting children, the imposition of the government-mandated measures ..has shifted the de facto purpose to meeting the standard within officially laid-down parameters”

Unlike standards, the end-to-end measure on the other hand throws light on how well the department is meeting its purpose. Learning takes place. The workplace conversation is no longer about how to meet the standard but what accounts for variation and how to how to save time in assessments to make children safer. Contradicting the traffic lights, action is urgently needed. As the process is repeated, improvement becomes continuous.

 The “why” we measure must, Caulkin insists, always precede the “what”,  and in the remainder of his article he states very plainly why this must be so.


Shareholders are not investors.

March 18, 2013

Professor Brendan McSweeney (Royal Holloway, University of London) recently reminded readers of The Guardian that shareholders are not investors and that a “shareholder’s relationship with a company is, in effect, the same as that of a punter on horse races with the owners of the horses.”

Look to Japan

February 10, 2013

In an excellent piece fot The Observer, in which he outlines lessons he learned from his week with Japan’s power-brokers, the columnist Will Hutton outlines the  “toll two decades of deflation had levied on Japanese society”

Hiromasa Yonekura, the president of the Keidanren, Japan’s all-powerful employers’ association, told me that this lack of confidence, in his view unjustified, had become hard-wired into Japan’s culture by falling prices. It affected even the birth rate and was the chief cause of Japan’s rapidly ageing society. Nor is the birth rate the only sign of a society in stress. Young women’s role in Japanese society is being knocked back by the fashion for coquettishness and cartoon-style prettiness, complete with singsong voices and contrived ways of walking. It is a return to suffocating traditionalism masked as fashionable faddishness. A society worried about its future becomes socially regressive.

However, he does observe that Japan’s capacity to pick itself up and go about the business of recovery is  “very much greater than our own.” And why is this?

Time after time, as I questioned company leaders about their capacity to do this, I was referred to Japan’s “public interest” or “stakeholder” capitalism – committed long-term ownership, partnership with the state to drive research forward and corporate leaderships keen to find commercial responses to the giant economic and social problems of our time. It is a world foreign to our own of shareholder value maximisation and gigantic personal bonuses, where interest in social problems is seen as “anti-business”.

It certainly is.

It’s all Labour’s fault!!!!!

February 4, 2013

Its pretty much conventional wisdom to say that New Labour left the British economy in an appalling mess. The Conservative Party and its supporters in the right wing press never tire on saying so.. However, those of us with longer memories and with fewer reasons for rooting out bogeymen everytime we see a problem,  should not accept without question this very comfortable narrative.

  Firstly, we should recall the economic crash was principally a failure of the market.  Adair Turner, head of the FSA, described it as perhaps being the ‘biggest crisis of free market capitalism’ ever. Secondly, the crash was a global economic one and not unique to the UK.

 These two points are vital when trying to fully understand what happened. A properly balanced history of New Labour’s economic performance should recognise that there is little evidence to suggest that the Tory party would have either avoided the crash or would have done anything that make the UK better prepared to deal with its consequences.

 One of the main thrusts of  he arguments coming from the Consevatives is that there was insufficient regulation of financial institutions. Better regulation certainly would have  helped us to avoid some of the outcomes; of this there can be little doubt. However, the question we have to ask is whether or not the banking sector would have been adequately regulated under the Conservatives. I think not.

 Neither does the admirable Deborah Orr

In and opinion piece she wrote for The Guardian in December 2012, entitled “Why are the Tories laughing? Because they’ve got away with it yet again”, she says:

 The Conservatives have had awesome success in promulgating the nonsensical idea that the crash was caused by Labour incompetence and overspending, when it was really caused by Labour’s failure to tackle the neoliberalism introduced by the previous Tory administration. Genius. Not only do the Conservatives fail to take responsibility for the results of the banking deregulation that their party “masterminded”, they also manage to look as though they are the poor sods picking up the pieces after a socialist failure. That’s such good insurance, too. They can carry on saying, for a while yet, that the problem they inherited was huge. And they’re right. It was huge, because it had been being stoked up since the Big Bang 26 years ago.

  How do we explain the “awesome success” the Conservatives are having in continuing to lay the blame for everything at Labour’s door?

What about a career in science?

September 8, 2011

According to a report in today’s edition of The Guardian a study, using data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, by researchers Birmingham University concluded that too many rather than too teenagers  may be studying engineering and sciences. This suggests that the advice that the government has been giving students may be wrong.

The study showed only 55% of chemistry and physics students were in jobs related to their degree. Photograph: F1 Online / Rex Features

Only about half of all science graduates find work that requires their scientific knowledge, a study has shown, casting doubt on the government’s drive to encourage teenagers to study the subject at university.
A study showed 46% of engineering students and 55% of chemistry or physics students were in jobs related to their degree six months after graduation.

The researchers from Birmingham University analysed data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency on students who graduated from UK universities in 2008 and 2009. About a quarter of engineering students were in roles that did not require a degree six months after graduation, and 12% were in sales or admin work, the researchers found. Engineering and science degrees are among the most expensive for universities to run.

The study – Is there a shortage of scientists? A re-analysis of supply for the UK – argues that there may be too many science graduates for the labour market.

Ministers from all political parties and the Confederation of British Industry have argued the opposite for many years.

The government has protected the funding of places on science, technology, engineering and maths degrees, while spending on other courses has been cut. The Council for Industry and Higher Education told ministers in 2009 that it could not “stress too forcibly our concern at the critical shortage of graduates and postgraduates with science, technology, engineering and maths capabilities”.

Could this be the result of our politicians really have no business advising pupals what subjects they should study? Could it be that the advice they have been giving is based only pm a hnch that advising young people to study the sciences is right.  It certainly goes down with the electorate.

Emma Smith, professor of education, equity and policy at Birmingham University and one of the study’s authors, said the drive to boost the number of science graduates might have led to “too many people studying science for the labour market to cope with”.

She said that while it was possible that the problem might lie with the quality of science graduates, it was more likely that the scientists were not in work related to their studies because “the shortage thesis is wrong and there are no jobs waiting for all of them”.

She added: “It is astonishing … that so few new graduates go into related employment. The figures suggest it is not easy or automatic for qualified engineers to get related employment in the UK, despite the purported shortages.”

Welcome back the the bullies!!!!

September 5, 2011

In a rather insightful piece in today’s edition of The Guardian, Jackie Ashley, reflecting on the implications Gordon Brown’s bully-boy tactics  ,as revealed by Alistair Darling in his memoirs, argues any organization run by an autocrat is bound run into trouble.

 I’d argue that there is a much wider problem, a cultural problem, illustrated by Darling’s implied parallel with the leadership of RBS before the crash. We know, or say we know, how good decision-making works. It should be fact-based, deliberative and tested by real arguments. This means it needs people who have the knowledge to engage and the self-confidence to challenge assumptions. In theory, a cabinet of ministers who are there because they have parliamentary support and have risen through past successes should provide just that – a table full of people with the facts in front of them, able to say “no, prime minster”.

 In theory, just the same should apply to the management of big companies, including banks. Around the boardroom table, independent-minded people with business records of their own, are able to cross-question CEOs and managing directors. New ideas are thrashed out. Mistakes are honestly debated and learned from. If things go too wrong, then the wider electorate can call a halt – the real electorate in politics, and the shareholders in business. It’s a theory of public life most people sign up to…..

 I cannot say that in forty years of working in manufacturing  I much come across the theory that’s put into practice. In fact in recent times, and probably because people, for reasons that I hardly need  spell out, I see they bully-boy tactics prevail more than they ever did.

Target-based management takes a first knock.

May 25, 2010

This item appeared in Children &Young People Now a few days ago

Councils welcome abolition of Comprehensive Area Assessments
Children & Young People Now 20 May 2010,

The Local Government Association has welcomed government plans to scrap the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) saying the move will free up councils and enable them to better deliver frontline services

John Seddon, the prominent management consultant with a background in clinical psychology, who has been a consistent critic current British management thinking, such as the  NHS modernisation agenda and ISO9000, cannot conceal his glee:

Celebrate the end of CAA, by John Seddon
Posted in: PF blog

10:03 am, 24 May 2010 | John Seddon

The new government has abolished Comprehensive Area Assessments. Hoorah. Public servants will be breathing a sigh of relief now that the burden of self-assessment, a costly exercise in representation rather than accuracy, has gone.  The public couldn’t care less and those of us who know the ratings were at best spurious and at worst plain wrong will be pleased if the Audit Commission has its power to pontificate on management methods removed. CAA’s demise should herald the end of the era of compliance.

It represents an important opportunity for public service managers. They should assert their right to make their own decisions about how they are judged as managers. Matters of methods and measures should be their choice – that’s  why they are employed. Many have already stood up to the Audit Commission, with evidence showing how following the Audit Commission inspectors’ guidance, nay obligations, created poor service and higher costs.

Responsibility, promised by the new government, is the foundation for innovation; it should be the hallmark of the new era. Those who have eschewed the Audit Commission’s bullying have not only argued with the inspector’s judgements, they have shown how better methods and measures have led to performance improvement of extraordinary proportions. To give just one example: housing repair costs halved while making extraordinary improvements to service (all repairs completed in three days or on the day required by the tenant).

Innovation will flourish in the new era provided the psychology changes from compliance to responsibility. But, no doubt, many will fear a ‘loss of control’. They should appreciate how the regime of compliance has driven our services out of control. And they should take comfort in the fact that the era of responsibility will make any weak managers easier to root out; with CAA and the other centrally-promulgated requirements, managers only needed to comply to be hidden. We should not fear loss of control, we should celebrate getting control in the right place.

Professor John Seddon is an occupational psychologist, researcher, and authority on change in the public sector. He is MD of Vanguard, visiting professor at Cardiff University Business School and author of several books including “Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, the Failure of the Reform Regime and a Manifesto for a Better Way” and “Delivering Public Services that Work”.

This is not, in my opinion, the beginning of the end management by targets. It must be remembered there at least a generation and a half which has been trained in nothing else and whose raison d’etre resides in mantaining it as a model for years to come.

Simon Caulkin bids farewell 4.

July 24, 2009

A letter from the founder and Chair of Human Capital Forum,  Philip Whiteley, to the letters pages of totalpolitics, sums up how many readers of The Observer feel about the enforced departure of Simon Caulkin’s management column from the pages of the paper’s business section.

The decision by The Observer to drop the Simon Caulkin column on management is probably the worst decision I have witnessed in more than 20 years in publishing. It raises serious worries about the quality and depth of debate in our media.

Second only to Vince Cable, he has been the most consistent and intelligent commentator on the contributory factors that lay behind the credit crisis. The Observer’s appalling decision reveals two unfortunate prejudices at the heart of media and politics. Firstly, the assumption that issues of governance and management are minor or fringe issues; secondly that quality newspapers have to court celebrities and drop informed comment in order to stay viable.

Turning to the first matter, while economics correspondents like Robert Peston are feted and given prime slots, they are only ever reporting on the effects of economic decisions made by institutions and individuals. Simon Caulkin analysed the core underlying ideology that causes economic events. This is far more important for understanding how to prevent a repeat of the crisis that we are living through. The mechanistic modelling, treatment of people as resources, obsession with the short-term, and management by targets in the public sector are all symptoms of the sick ideology that has driven management culture, which Simon brilliantly dissected. This is not a left-right issue: the ideology appals many conservative Board members and school-masters, as well as the trade union activist.

Secondly, to what extent are we losing a quality press in this country? When I see the likes of Frank Skinner and David Mitchell given prime spots, I wonder: would The Observer of the 1940s have replaced George Orwell with Tommy Trinder? And how would that have helped, exactly?

I co-ordinated the signatures for a joint letter of protest to The Observer about the decision. Over a weekend, I received 60 vehement voices of support.

If anyone wishes to join the campaign for proper coverage of management, and to arrest the decline of formerly quality newspapers, please contact me on

Philip Whiteley
Chair of the Human Capital Forum London

It seems to me that no amount of huffing and puffing from readers is likely to arrest the decline of newspapers. The best and brightest are slowly beginning to realise that newspaper as we know it is in decline and that if as writers they intend to become professional commentators, they will find ways other than through newspapers of bringing their work to the attention of the public.

Balls and the Sats fiasco.

July 23, 2009

Nothing in this report comes as a surprise to those who believe that this government has long had a penchant for micromanaging things it knows little about. What may surprise just a little is lengths to which it is prepared to go to ensure that what it believes to be right is done – in other words,  how far it will go to impose its will on those who probably know better .

 Ed Balls‘s interference increased the likelihood of the collapse of the Sats system, according to MPs in the first report to officially accuse the schools secretary of playing a significant role in the fiasco.

His department micromanaged the system and prevented the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) from reforming the tests, the report says. But ministers later claimed that they had not been involved and could not be blamed when the tests failed.

The parliamentary committee responsible for schools said Balls and his ministers knew of the problems earlier than has been acknowledged and established a testing system on a scale that made it vulnerable to failure every year. The marking of Sats – taken by 1.2 million children in England – collapsed last year under the auspices of the American firm ETS, which had its contract terminated.

An independent inquiry commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the exams watchdog Ofqual, led by Lord Sutherland, said ETS was ultimately responsible, but heaped blame on the QCA for failing to prevent the escalation of the problems. Balls subsequently scrapped all tests for 14-year-olds and science papers for 11-year-olds.

Ken Boston, the then chief executive of the QCA, had his offer of resignation refused and was eventually fired after Sutherland reported last December. Boston accused Balls of being more involved than had been acknowledged and “sexing up” evidence against him when he appeared before the select committee in April. The report largely backs his version of events.

Barry Sheerman, the chairman of the children, schools and families select committee, said: “The whole process got muddled because there wasn’t a clear line of responsibility. This led to a situation where this [the QCA] was clearly not an independent organisation.

“It’s too easy for Ed Balls and Jim Knight [the then schools minister] to say ‘It wasn’t me, guv, it’s an independent body’. QCA wasn’t independent. If someone is looking over the QCA’s shoulder all the time watching and observing them, even if it’s informally, quietly, beneath the radar, you can’t claim it’s independent.

“Ed Balls and Jim Knight were ultimately responsible for the quality of these bodies. In a system of ministerial responsibility, Ed and his ministerial team can’t escape totally.”

I don’t suppose for one moment that this will make any difference to what either Mr. Balls or his cronies  think or do in future.

Labour and damning statistics.

July 16, 2009

There was a terrific article by Jenni Russell in the 14h of July edition of The Guardian in which she examined why measuring-by-statistic-mad new Labour are still failing to understand why the electorate are ungrateful, even when all the statistics show that it’s spending on schools and the hearth service is higher than it ever was, its commitment to economic regeneration demonstrably serious, its commitment to reducing crime figures unquestionable.  

The conversations I have had recently with senior civil servants, advisers and Labour ministers have often had a plaintive tone. Why, these people want to know, aren’t the electorate more grateful for what’s been done for them? Where’s the political reward for all the money spent on schools and hospitals and economic regeneration? Why doesn’t the country appreciate the fall in crime figures? How could voters be flirting with the cost-cutting Conservatives, when Labour’s statistics show that spending money produces measurable and improved results?

These sound like the right questions, but they aren’t. What the questioners really mean is not “Where did we go wrong?” but “What’s wrong with all of you?” And what’s wrong with us is that we’re not the automatons New Labour thought we were. We’re not remote and dispassionate observers of our society, making cool calculations about its success or failure on the basis of government-generated numbers. We’re complicated, vulnerable, emotional creatures, and we live with the consequences of official decision-making every day of our lives. What matters to us aren’t the figures we’re fed, or the targets that get hit, but what the experience feels like to us. Yet that part of the process has been almost completely neglected in official eyes….

As one reads this article, one realises that big lesson that Labour did not was the lesson Simon Caulkin was, but is no longer,  preaching Sunday after Sunday in his column for The Guardian‘s sister paper, The Observer, and that is that Labour has, since it came to power, insisted on using the wrong measures.

 It thought it was being modern and innovative by treating the country as if it were a business, where all outcomes could be measured by putting money in and getting targets out. It made the false assumption that building a school or a sports complex was automatically an investment, just as it would be if the government were in the business of mechanising chicken factories or building car plants. It thought it could close police stations or post offices in the name of cost-cutting, with as little effect as if it were Coffee Republic shutting down some unprofitable shops. It didn’t stop to remember that the business of all public services is dealing with the needs of people, and that those are never just mechanical, but social and emotional too.

Governments cannot afford to take a business’s narrow and mechanistic view of people’s requirements, because it’s not just a collection of service providers. A government’s wider duty is to frame and structure the society in which we live. Rebuilding society was one of Labour’s explicit aims, in contrast to Mrs Thatcher’s infamous reference to there being no such thing. Yet our encounters with the state are profoundly important in shaping our culture, and every time we run up against the wooden indifference, public lies or robotic responses of officialdom we shrink into ourselves, and the bonds between all of us are weakened a little more.

Labour thought that what we prized above all else was economic efficiency. Clumsily, it tried to give it to us and, even when the evidence showed it wasn’t delivering, it went on attempting to give us statistics instead. But the priorities were wrong. What we all prize in our encounters with others is a sense of our value. We are social animals, alarmed by the uncertain world in which we live, with a profound need to be recognised, respected and responded to. We want public services to respond to us as people, and to give us the sense that we matter. It is the deepest human need, and yet this government has been oblivious to it.

When it wonders why we’re not grateful to it, the answer’s really simple. It’s the experience, stupid.

Yes indeed we do “want public services to respond to us as people, and to give us the sense that we matter”, and as an adjunct to that we want our newspapers and periodicals to employ and retain people who will articulate those wants in forceful ways. What we do not want is influential newspapers to rid themselves of our most eloquent spokespersons at the very moment we need them most in the way that The Observer rid itself of Simon Caulkin