The Curious Case of the Inverted Hierarchy

It’s been a while since I’ve written a new post. I’ve been busy. For that I apologise, but I’m sure you will understand. Baby needs shoes.

Anyway, here I am sitting watching some poor folk sit a Lead Auditor exam, with time on my hands. In this post I’m going to describe a rather unusual circumstance I encountered last year which presented its own almost unique set of management challenges. For fairly obvious reasons I won’t identify the client. Again, I hope you will understand.

Sometime last year I found myself working with a rather well known organisation. Part of my work involved understanding their operational risks and how they were mitigated. For that I needed to spend some time at the coal face. Now “coal face”, in this case, perhaps isn’t the most appropriate term to describe their point of service delivery. The “workers” were highly paid specialists, performing very complex tasks in a high hygiene environment. To some extent being able to witness the task felt like a bit of a privilege.

Part way through my time at their coal face I became aware that some of the controls in the “sterile environment” did not seem to be as stringent as I was used to in some other high hygiene environments, such as in food production. There were mobile phones in the work environment, documents, folders, pens that came apart and some of the staff were wearing earrings. You’d not normally get any of that anywhere near the food production area of a factory. It was explained to me that the sterile area was limited to the immediate vicinity of the task and the area just a few feet outside of the immediate vicinity didn’t need to be sterile. This still seemed a bit odd to me as, whilst that might have been true, it was possible, at no extra cost, to reduce the risk of contamination just that little bit more by excluding certain none critical objects from the adjacent areas. Later on I asked about frequency of hygiene checks and was very surprised to find the frequency of formal checks was “never”. This only added to my confusion as to why the hygiene controls for making sausages or fish fingers is generally higher than in this “sterile” work area.

I had to get to the bottom of it.

One thing you learn as an auditor is that when something doesn’t add up, there is usually something you don’t know. There was definitely something I didn’t yet know. So I pressed about the absence of formal hygiene checks. Eventually the answer came back that the coal face worker (the specialist) wouldn’t allow it. Then things started to make sense. In a factory (for example) it isn’t the worker that dictates procedures or management controls. They are expected to simply comply, and if they don’t they can expect to get into trouble, but this work area was different. In this case the “worker” was the most senior and the best paid person in the mix. They were also a very talented and a scarce commodity and very, very difficult to replace. In this case it was they that decided what would and would not happen on their patch. They decided what was necessary and what checks on them they would allow to take place. Anything they didn’t like didn’t happen. Going to war with the specialists was something their management just couldn’t afford to do. Consequently the system was “managed” to a large extent bottom up rather than top down. It seemed to “gravitate” to a set of controls and behaviours that were mutually acceptable, rather than by a top down risk based process of design, implementation and management.

It was then that I felt I had got to the bottom of things, which was scant consolation as there was effectively nothing that could be done about the hanging risks within the system. For a while I was wondering if this was unique. The only close parallel I could think of was a tier 1 football club that employed a number of galacticos. It may be that you can manage the superstars up to a point, but there is always a limit as to how much you can get them to do if they don’t want to do it, short of beg or cajole, and in the case where the two sides go to war with one another, it is always the manager that comes off worst in the end.

The interesting thing, apart from all the above, about the organisation in question, was that it spent a lot of money on quality improvement, but none of it ever went anywhere near what, to me at least, seemed to be a pretty obvious root of many of their problems. Again probably with good reason, once you have the facts ….

Shaun Sayers

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