The UK’s Passport Office is in difficulties. They have a backlog that is resulting in customers’ passport applications being delayed. This is not a mere internal procedural inconvenience. The public has noticed the problem and started complaining. Emergency measures are being put in place to deal with the backlog. Politicians have become involved and are looking over their shoulders at their careers.
It is a typical organisational mess. There is a problem. Resources are thrown at it. Personalities wager their reputations. Any hero able to solve the problem will be feted and rewarded. There will be blame and punishment. Solutions will involve huge cost. The costs will be passed on to the customer because, in the end, there is no one else to pay.
A suggestion for investigation
From the outside, it is impossible to know the realities of what has caused the problem at HM Passport Office. However, I think I can respectfully and tentatively suggest some questions to ask in any inquiry as to how the mess occurred.
- Had any surprising variation in passport processing occurred before the crisis hit?
- If so, what action, if any, was taken?
- Why was the action ineffective?
- If no surprising variation was observed, were the managers measuring “upstream” indicators of process performance in addition to mere volumes?
- Was historic data routinely interrogated to find signals among the noise?
- If signals were only observed once it was too late to protect the customer, was the issuing process only marginally capable?
“Managing the passport issuing process on historical data is like …”
… trying to drive a car by watching the line in the rear-view mirror.
And, of course, that is what HM Passport Office and every manager has to do. There is only historical data. There is no data on the future. You cannot see out of the windscreen of the organisational SUV. Management is about subjecting the historic experience base to continual, rigorous statistical criticism to separate signal from noise. It is about having a good rear view mirror.
A properly managed, capable process will operate reliably, well within customer expectations. In process management terms, the Voice of the Process will be reliably aligned with the Voice of the Customer.
Forever improving the capability of the process gives it the elbow room or “rattle space” within which signals can occur that the customer never perceives. Those signals could represent changes in customer behaviour, problems within the organisation, or external events that have an impact. But the fact that they are unnoticed by the customer does not mean those signals are unimportant or can be neglected. It is by taking action to investigate those signals when they are detected, and by making necessary adjustments to work processes, that a future crisis can be averted.
While the customer is unaffected, the problem can be thoroughly investigated, solutions considered calmly and alternative remedies tested. Because the problem is invisible to the outside world there will be no sense of panic, political pressure, cash-flow deficit, reputational damage or destruction of employee engagement. The matter can be addressed soundly and privately.
Continual statistical analysis is the “rear view mirror”. It gives an historical picture as to how well the Voice of the Process emulates the Voice of the Customer. Coupled with a “roadmap” of the business, some supportive data from the “speedometer” and a little basic numeracy, the “rear view mirror” enables sensible predictions to be made about the near future.
Without that historical data, properly presented on live process behaviour charts to provide running statistical insight, then there is no rear view mirror. That is when the only business guidance is the Bang! when the organisation hits the kerb.
It looks like that is what happened at HM Passport Office. Everything was fine until the customers started complaining to the press. Bang! That’s how it looks to the customer and that is the only reality that counts.