Pressure for Change


The common denominator in all improvement programs

I think quite a bit about improvement. I think about why some projects work and some fail, and I like to think I have no particular drum to beat. What I mean by that is that many people who think they have “the solution” merely promote a strategy with which they have a strong self-interest. Take the CIPD for instance who, at the time of writing, are suggesting that public sector reform relies on a step change in the way they equip front line staff to lead and empower. Well, they would say that wouldn’t they? My own personal observation as a public sector veteran from the 1990s was that millions was spent in that decade on guess what? Leadership and Empowerment training – with what measurable result?  What do you think …

If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will look like nails

Similarly you find that “quality” people see every problem as having a “quality” solution, same with IT people, same with purchasing people. So we have to be objective about what the problem actually is, what are its ACTUAL causes and what sort of change would lead to realistic improvement. We also need to be realistic about what has failed on numerous occasions in the past. This should be a pretty important input

A hefty kick may be the key ingredient

Anyway, in a previous post on efficiency I made the point that efficiency is never delivered without pressure. A system will gravitate to its easiest possible state of equilibrium and if you want that to change, it requires a hefty nudge. You can’t get a plane off the ground by persuading it to overcome the forces of gravity, it needs some assistance of substantial (and greater) forces. No system I have ever encountered has ever been more efficient than it absolutely had to be. It needs a reason to work hard. Like me

My experience of “improvement” in the public sector has always been that the system (whatever that is) would resist the forces of change until the very point that a gun was put to its head. The inertia is significant, so the pressure for change needs a much bigger Dad. My experience has also been that on the rare occasions when pressure was great enough, change happened. It was never a happy experience, mind you, but it happened all the same. This was demonstrated to me mainly between the years 1992-1996 when the various guises of compulsory competitive tendering were flexing their muscles. At that time the threat was real and immediate. Maggie wasn’t playing

The one thing that I find that “quality professionals” over-estimate is the degree of ignorance in the public sector regarding the “tools of quality”. That is, if only they knew the tools, we’d be OK. That just isn’t true. There are lots of pretty well schooled people in the public sector, and an education in the “tools of quality” is not difficult to acquire. If that were the problem we’d have solved it decades ago

The problem is the behaviour of the system under the action of internal and external forces. These forces need to be identified in a clear and transparent way, understood (easier said than done), and ONLY THEN can ANYONE be in any position to know what the medicine might be

So in short, don’t look at me, I don’t have the answers, but based on past experience I have a pretty shrewd idea what won’t work (again)

This entry was posted in Quality Improvement and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pressure for Change

  1. Dave says:

    You’re right about contextual forces. Having recently left working in quality in the public sector (previously being in the private zone) I can make some first-hand observations.

    One of the most noticeable external forces on the organization is government, who changed their minds regularly and then wanted things implemented in short order. There was also an amazing array of stakeholders, any of whom seemed able to stick an oar in the works. Getting anything done was an endless round of proposals, meetings, agreements and then, most frustratingly, unwinding of decisions as risks were realized, new requests added and policy changed.

    There were many good people who tried to get things done. There were also many great talkers. Perhaps surprisingly, internal politics was quite rare, although most were concerned only with doing their own job in their own way rather than helping more broadly or improving the system.

    There was much use of consultants who arrived and ignored local expertise as they stirred the pudding in another direction before leaving (although the same people managed to pop up all over the place). The best consultants were often independents who spent time to understand and build ground-level relationships.

    Sometimes ‘quality’ was such a big driver that money seemed no object. Risks of failure led to belt, braces and an aversion to any improvements. Change was slow and quality (in terms of customer requirement) often really meant keeping out of the national news. When cut-backs occurred, it was not always managed well and subsequent problems led to high-level beheadings.

    And yet things still happened. People cared and stretched when the chips were down. Huge national deliveries happened on time. Sometimes it was close, but it got there.

    I could go on.

    In summary, it’s big, messy, complex and at the whim of politicians in a system that forces them to constantly worry about re-election and media criticism, and so act in short-term ways that led to sticking-plaster solutions. Governments should think long-term, but our political system acts against this.

  2. Shaun says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, David. I must say that for my part I did experience a little more of the internal politics that you appear fortunate to have avoided. The problem (caused again by the system design) was down to budgets, targets and the way they were appraised. Heads of Departments and Budget Holders were responsible for their people and their “deliverables”. They were, in effect, told to look after number one. So guess what was the result?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.