FIFA and the Iron Law of Oligarchy

Йозеф Блаттер.jpgIn 1911, Robert Michels embarked on one of the earliest investigations into organisational culture. Michels was a pioneering sociologist, a student of Max Weber. In his book Political Parties he aggregated evidence about a range of trade unions and political groups, in particular the German Social Democratic Party.

He concluded that, as organisations become larger and more complex, a bureaucracy inevitably forms to take, co-ordinate and optimise decisions. It is the most straightforward way of creating alignment in decision making and unified direction of purpose and policy. Decision taking power ends up in the hands of a few bureaucrats and they increasingly use such power to further their own interests, isolating themselves from the rest of the organisation to protect their privilege. Michels called this the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

These are very difficult matters to capture quantitavely and Michels’ limited evidential sampling frame has more of the feel of anecdote than data. “Iron Law” surely takes the matter too far. However, when we look at the allegations concerning misconduct within FIFA it is tempting to feel that Michels’ theory is validated, or at least has gathered another anecdote to take the evidence base closer to data.

But beyond that, what Michels surely identifies is a danger that a bureaucracy, a management cadre, can successfully isolate itself from superior and inferior strata in an organisation, limiting the mobility of business data and fostering their own ease. The legitimate objectives of the organisation suffer.

Michels failed to identify a realistic solution, being seduced by the easy, but misguided, certainties of fascism. However, I think that a rigorous approach to the use of data can guard against some abuses without compromising human rights.

Oligarchs love traffic lights

I remember hearing the story of a CEO newly installed in a mature organisation. His direct reports had instituted a “traffic light” system to report status to the weekly management meeting. A green light meant all was well. An amber light meant that some intervention was needed. A red light signalled that threats to the company’s goals had emerged. At his first meeting, the CEO found that nearly all “lights” were green, with a few amber. The new CEO perceived an opportunity to assert his authority and show his analytical skills. He insisted that could not be so. There must be more problems and he demanded that the next meeting be an opportunity for honesty and confronting reality.

At the next meeting there was a kaleidoscope of red, amber and green “lights”. Of course, it turned out that the managers had flagged as red the things that were either actually fine or could be remedied quickly. They could then report green at the following meeting. Real career limiting problems were hidden behind green lights. The direct reports certainly didn’t want those exposed.

Openness and accountability

I’ve quoted Nobel laureate economist Kenneth Arrow before.

… a manager is an information channel of decidedly limited capacity.

Essays in the Theory of Risk-Bearing

Perhaps the fundamental problem of organisational design is how to enable communication of information so that:

  • Individual managers are not overloaded.
  • Confidence in the reliable satisfaction of process and organisational goals is shared.
  • Systemic shortfalls in process capability are transparent to the managers responsible, and their managers.
  • Leading indicators yield early warnings of threats to the system.
  • Agile responses to market opportunities are catalysed.
  • Governance functions can exploit the borrowing strength of diverse data sources to identify misreporting and misconduct.

All that requires using analytics to distinguish between signal and noise. Traffic lights offer a lousy system of intra-organisational analytics. Traffic light systems leave it up to the individual manager to decide what is “signal” and what “noise”. Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman has studied how easily managers are confused and misled in subjective attempts to separate signal and noise. It is dangerous to think that What you see is all there is. Traffic lights offer a motley cloak to an oligarch wishing to shield his sphere of responsibility from scrutiny.

The answer is trenchant and candid criticism of historical data. That’s the only data you have. A rigorous system of goal deployment and mature use of process behaviour charts delivers a potent stimulus to reluctant data sharers. Process behaviour charts capture the development of process performance over time, for better or for worse. They challenge the current reality of performance through the Voice of the Customer. They capture a shared heuristic for characterising variation as signal or noise.

Individual managers may well prefer to interpret the chart with various competing narratives. The message of the data, the Voice of the Process, will not always be unambiguous. But collaborative sharing of data compels an organisation to address its structural and people issues. Shared data generation and investigation encourage an organisation to find practical ways of fostering team work, enabling problem solving and motivating participation. It is the data that can support the organic emergence of a shared organisational narrative that adds further value to the data and how it is used and developed. None of these organisational and people matters have generalised solutions but a proper focus on data drives an organisation to find practical strategies that work within their own context. And to test the effectiveness of those strategies.

Every week the press discloses allegations of hidden or fabricated assets, repudiated valuations, fraud, misfeasance, regulators blindsided, creative reporting, anti-competitive behaviour, abused human rights and freedoms.

Where a proper system of intra-organisational analytics is absent, you constantly have to ask yourself whether you have another FIFA on your hands. The FIFA allegations may be true or false but that they can be made surely betrays an absence of effective governance.

#oligarchslovetrafficlights

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Deconstructing Deming IX – Break down barriers between staff areas

9. Break down barriers between staff areas.

W Edwards Deming

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down!

Robert Frost
Mending Wall (1914)

Point 9 of Deming’s 14 Points. One that is always attractive to a self describing iconoclast. Barriers must be bad if they prevent the exchange and interaction of ideas, or worse if they lead to optimisation within a subunit that suboptimises the wider system. Deming was thinking of managers such as John Browett. Browett was given charge of Apple’s retail operations and immediately started to cut staff numbers and hours in order to reduce his own budget. However, Apple’s avowed strategy is to foster reputation and brand loyalty through a distinctive, unconventional and delightfully effective Apple Store encounter. My wife is more of an enthusiast for Apple products than I, but I am always wowed by our Store visits.

I feel sorry for Browett as he was clearly left to guess the corporation’s strategy. Some organisational functions are just there because they enable the principle value streams. Without them profits would fall. Silo management is the term mockingly used to satirise a management dominated by pillars of functional expertise bolstered by professional status and mute to its “rival” silos.

Deming reminded us that somebody in a leadership position does need to maintain a synoptic view of the business system to prevent Browett type misunderstandings.

Deming system diagramAnybody who has been to a Deming seminar will have seen the Deming system diagram. Deming invited participants to focus on the system that created revenues for the organisation and, further, to see that system as a network of processes. Deming used the diagram to emphasis that the critical business processes transect organisational boundaries. Raw materials, whether physical or transactional, run into and out of the silos. Some processes don’t transform the raw materials but act as critical support for the supplier-customer strand. Deming argued that equipment maintenance, product development etc. are nonetheless processes transforming their own inputs into vital enablers and accelerants of the revenue generating activities.

Further, held Deming, those processes run across the external boundaries of the organisation into suppliers and customer. A manufacturer making car tyres is part of a bigger picture including the manufacture of the tyre rubber and even the way the end user drives his motor car. Only by understanding the whole can the tyre performance be optimised, customer value maximised, and growing market share and revenues realised.

Yet the power of the functions remains and is seldom mitigated by implementing process management. Process management is something with which organisations still struggle.Those who try to follow the idea of dispersing expertise into the processes frequently find that individuals embedded in cross-functional teams perform less well than within their concentrated centres of excellence. It is worth remembering how two counterbalancing forces arise.

Behaviour

Any proposed system of reward must be risk assessed against the behaviours it is likely to encourage or discourage. Managers given the job of reducing the cost of running their own silo will do just that. All managers are optimising within their own bounded rationality.

Goal deployment

One tactic that can help prevent managers from optimising their own subsystem at the expense of the greater is to adopt some system of goal deployment such as hoshin kanri. Visibility, both horizontally and vertically, of how individual results contribute to organisational goals, effected through objective supervision and strategic governance, ought to discourage suboptimisation and reveal any such trends at an early time.

Professional expertise is important

In 1776, Scottish philosopher Adam Smith told the parable of the pin maker. Smith set out a detailed argument for the benefits of specialisation and the division of labour. The silos provide the means of rewarding the development of expertise in itself, something whose value may only be seen in the future, and of fostering the application of that expertise in management.

Deming was somewhat inimical to this idea and thought that managers should work in a variety of roles across functions as they ascended the hierarchy, as he felt they did in Japan. Yet it is critical in that environment to maintain the virtues of the silos as incubators of expertise. This is not so easily achieved.

Organisational boundaries exist for a reason

In The Democratic Corporation (1994) Russell Ackoff asked why we could not make a business out of mutually and severally co-operating individuals, each negotiating a web of personal contracts that made up the system that delivered the goods.

Nobel laureate economist Ronald Coase had already answered the question in his 1937 paper The Nature of the Firm. Coase explained why organisations are promoted and employ the people who might otherwise be a market of interacting individual contractors. It simply came down to the costs of operating such a market and the savings that could be made from making a global decision to bring some people and facilities under a single enduring roof.

Organisational and even function boundaries often arise from subtle cost structures. Perhaps these develop over time as more connected ways of remote working become commonplace. But it is important to analyse the forces that created and perpetuate the silos. Otherwise, it should be no surprise when the benefits of process management go unrealised.

Deconstructing Deming VII – Adopt and institute leadership

7. Adopt and institute leadership.

W Edwards Deming Point 7 of Deming’s 14 Points. This point leaves me with some of the same uncertainty as Point 6 Institute training on the job. But everybody thinks they know what training is. Leadership is a much more elusive concept.

In a recent review of Archie Brown’s book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (Times (London) 12 April 2014), Philip Collins observed as follows.

The problem with Brown’s book is his idea that there is a single entity called “leadership” that covers all these categories. It does not follow from the existence of leaders that there is such a thing as “leadership”. It may be no more possible to distil wisdom on leadership than it is on love. Every lover is different, I would imagine. There doesn’t seem to be much profit in the attempt to set out a theory of “lovership” as if there were common traits in every act of seduction.

Collins identifies a common discomfort. Yet there remain good and bad leaders, as there are good and bad lovers. All who aspire to improve must start by distinguishing the characteristics of the good and the bad.

Deming elaborates his own Point 7 further in Out of the Crisis and, predictably, several distinct positions emerge. I identify four but they don’t all help me understanding what leadership is.

1. Abolish focus on outcomes

Deming’s point is well taken that, for the statistically naïve, day to day management based on historical outcomes typically leads to over adjustment, what Deming called tampering. The consequences are increased operating costs that have been themselves induced by the over active management.

However, outcomes must be the overriding benchmark by which all management is measured. The problem with the over adjustment that flows from a lack of rigorous criticism of data is that it frustrates the very outcomes it aspired to serve. There has ultimately to be some measure of success and failure, an outcome. That is the inevitable focus of every leader.

2. Remove barriers to pride in workmanship

This is picked up at greater depth in Deming’s Point 12. I shall come back to it then.

3. Leaders must know the work they supervise

Alan Clark was a British politician, a very minor, and comically gaff prone, minister in the Thatcher government of the 1980s. He is now mostly remembered as a notorious self styled bon viveur and womaniser. His diaries are as scandalous as they are apocryphal. A good read for those who like that sort of thing.

In 1961, Clark published an historical work about the First World War, The Donkeys. The book adopted a common popular sentiment of mid-twentieth-century Britain, that the enlisted men of the war were lions led by donkeys. The donkeys were the officer class, their leaders. Clark helped to reinforce the idea that the private soldier was brave and capable, but betrayed by a self styled elite who failed to equip and direct them with commensurate valour. Historian Basil Liddell Hart endorsed Clark’s proofs.

To be fair there is legitimate controversy about the matter. But I think that now academic, and certainly popular, sentiment has swung the other way, no longer regarding the leaders as incompetent and indifferent, but rather as diligent and compassionate though overwhelmed. Historian Robin Neillands put it thus:

… the idea that they were indifferent to the sufferings of their men is constantly refuted by the facts, and only endures because some commentators wish to perpetuate the myth that these generals, representing the upper classes, did not give a damn what happened to the lower orders.

I find Deming content to perpetuate a similar trope about industrial managers in his writings. In Out of the Crisis:

There was a time, years ago, when a foreman selected his people, trained them, helped them, worked with them. He knew the job. … Supervision on the factory floor is, I fear, in many companies, an entry position for college boys and girls [sic] to learn about the company, six months here, six months there. … He does not understand the problem. and could get nothing done about it if he did.

I frankly don’t know where to start with that. It goes on. I constantly see Deming’s followers approving and sharing this sort of article. They all simply have the whiff of lamp oil about them. They fail to ring true and betray the same sort of lazy, chippy, defensive emotions as the donkeys attribution.

Other than in the simplest of endeavours, perhaps a window cleaning business, perhaps, the value of an enterprise flows from the confluence and integration of diverse materials, skills, technologies, knowledge and people. A manager or leader is the person who makes that confluence occur. But for the manager it would not have happened. Inevitably that means that the leader’s domain knowledge of any particular element is limited. It is the manager’s ability to absorb and assimilate information from a variety of sources that enables the enterprise. Leadership demands capacity to trust that other people know what they are doing, and to use the borrowing strength of diverse sources of information to signal when assumptions are betrayed. The hope that the leader can be a craft master of all he or she seeks to integrate is forlorn.

4. Leaders understand variation

I dealt with this under Point 6. It is a strong point. Without understanding of statistics, rigorous criticism of historical data is impossible. Signal and noise cannot be efficiently separated. That leads to over adjustment, tampering, increased costs and frustrated outcome. Only managers who are not held to outcomes will ultimately be indulged in an innumerate pursuit of over adjustment. But it takes a long time for things to shake out.

The role of a manager of people

Deming wrote under this head in his last book The New Economics. There are another 14 points with overlaps and extensions of his original 14. A lot of it expands Principal Point 12. I will need to come back to them at another time. However, Deming certainly saw a leader as somebody with a plan and an ability to explain the plan to the workforce.

Attempts to define leadership abound yet no single one is, to me, compelling. However, part of it must be engagement with strategy. Strategy is the way of dealing with the painful experience that plans do not survive for very long. I liked the way Lawrence Freedman put it in his recent Strategy: A History.

The strategist has to accept that even when there is an obvious climax (a battle or an election), the story line will still be open-ended … leaving a number of issues to be resolved later. Even when the desired endpoint is reached, it is not really the end, The enemy may have surrendered, the election won, the target company taken over, the revolutionary opportunity seized, but that just means there is now an occupied country to run, a new government to be formed, a whole new revolutionary order to be established, or distinctive sets of corporate activities to be merged. … The transition is immediate and may well be conditional on how the original endpoint was reached. This takes us back to the observation that much strategy is about getting to the next stage rather than some ultimate destination. Rather than think of strategy as a three-act play, it is better to think of it as a soap opera with a continuing cast of characters and plot lines that unfold over a series of episodes. Each of these episodes will be self-contained and set up the subsequent episode. Unlike a play with a definite ending, there is no need for a soap opera to ever reach a conclusion, even though the central characters and their circumstances change.

That leads us to my first response to Deming’s Point 7.

  • Leaders take responsibility for aligning outcomes to targets.
  • Targets are in constant motion.
  • Continual rigorous statistical criticism of historical data is the way to align outcomes and targets, by avoiding over adjustment and by navigating the sort of strategic soap opera Freedman describes.
  • Leaders need to trust that their team know what they are doing.
  • Leaders use the borrowing strength of diverse data to monitor performance.

There is much else to leadership. I have not addressed people or engagement. That takes me back to Deming’s Principal Point 12 (yet to come). I want to look closely at those topics at a later time within the framework of Max Weber’s ethics of responsibility.

I also want to come back to Freedman’s narrative approach to strategy and the work of G L S Shackle on statisics, economics and imagination. It will have to wait.

Deconstructing Deming VI – Institute training on the job

6. Institute training on the job.

W Edwards Deming Point 6 of Deming’s 14 Points. I think it was this point that made me realise that everybody projects their own anxieties onto Deming’s writings and finds what they want to find there.

Deming elaborates this point further in Out of the Crisis and several distinct positions emerge. I identify nine. In many ways, the slogan Institute training on the job is no very good description of what Deming was seeking to communicate. Not everything sits well under this heading.

“Training”, along with its sagacious uncle, “education” is one of those things that every one can be in favour of. The systems by which the accumulated knowledge of humanity are communicated, criticised and developed are the foundations of civilisation. But like all accepted truths some scrutiny repays the time and effort. Here are the nine topics I identified in Out of the Crisis.

1. People don’t spend enough on training because the benefits do not show on the balance sheet

This was one of Deming’s targets behind his sixth point. It reiterates a common theme of his. It goes back to the criticisms of Hayes and Abernathy that managers were incapable of understanding their own business. Without such understanding, a manager would lack a narrative to envision the future material rewards of current spending. Cash movements showed on the profit and loss account. The spending became merely an overhead to be attacked so as to enhance the current picture of performance projected by the accounts, the visible figures.

I have considered Hayes and Abernathy’s analysis elsewhere. Whatever the conditions of the early 1980s in the US, I think today’s global marketplace is a very different arena. Organisations vie to invest in their people, as this recent Forbes article shows (though the author can’t spell “bellwether”). True, the article confirms that development spending falls in a recession but cash flow and the availability of working capital are real constraints on a business and have to be managed. Once optimism returns, training spend takes off.

But as US satirist P J O’Rourke observed:

Getting people to give vast amounts of money when there’s no firm idea what that money will do is like throwing maidens down a well. It’s an appeal to magic. And the results are likely to be as stupid and disappointing as the results of magic usually are.

The tragedy of so many corporations is that training budgets are set and value measured on how much money is spent, in the idealistic but sentimental belief that training is an inherent good and that rewards will inevitably flow to those who have faith.

The reality is that it is only within a system of rigorous goal deployment that local training objectives can be identified so as to serve corporate strategy. Only then can training be designed to serve those objectives and only then can training’s value be measured.

2. Root Cause Analysis

The other arena in which the word “training” is guaranteed to turn up is during Root Cause Analysis. It is a moral certainty that somebody will volunteer it somewhere on the Ishikawa diagram. “To stop this happening again, let’s repeat the training.”

Yet, failure of training can never be the root cause of a problem or defect. Such an assertion yields too readily to the question Why did lack of training cause the failure?. The Why? question exposes that there was something the training was supposed to do. It could be that the root cause is readily identified and training put in place as a solution. But, the question could expose that, whatever the perceived past failures in training, the root cause, that the training would have purportedly addressed, remains obscure. Forget worrying about training until the root cause is identified within the system.

In any event, training will seldom be the best way of eliminating a problem. Redesign of the system will always be the first thing to consider.

3. Train managers and new employees

Uncontroversial but I think Deming overstated businesses’ failure to appreciate this.

4. Managers need to understand the company

Uncontroversial but I think Deming overstated businesses’ failure to appreciate this.

5. Managers need to understand variation

So much of Deming’s approach was about rigorous criticism of business data and the diligent separation of signal and noise. Those are topics that certainly have greater salience than a quarter of a century ago. Nate Silver has done much to awaken appetites for statistical thinking and the Six Sigma discipline has alerted the many to the wealth of available tools and techniques. Despite that, I am unpersuaded that genuine statistical literacy and numeracy (both are important) are any more common now than in the days of the first IBM PC.

Deming’s banner headline here is Institute training on the job. I think the point sits uncomfortably. I would have imagined that it is business schools and not employers who should apply their energies to developing and promoting quantitative skills in executives. One of the distractions that has beset industrial statistics is its propensity to create a variety of vernacular approaches with conflicting vocabularies and competing champion priorities: Taguchi methods, Six Sigma, SPC, Shainin, … . The situation is aggravated by the differential enthusiasms between corporations for the individual brands. Even within a single strand such as Six Sigma there is a frustrating variety of nomenclature, content and emphasis.

It’s not training on the job that’s needed. It is the academic industry here that is failing to provide what business needs.

6. Recognise that people learn in different ways

Of this I remain unpersuaded. I do not believe that people learn to drive motor cars in different ways. It can’t be done from theory alone. It can’t be done by writing a song about it. it comes from a subtle interaction of experience and direction. Some people learn without the direction, perhaps because they watch Nelly (see below).

Many have found a resonance between Deming’s point and the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. I fear this has distracted from some of the important themes in business education. As far as I can see, the theory has no real empirical support. Professor John White of the University of London, Institute of Education has firmly debunked the idea (Howard Gardner : the myth of Multiple Intelligences).

7. Don’t rely on watch Nelly

After my academic and vocational training as a lawyer, I followed a senior barrister around for six months, then slightly less closely for another six months. I also went to court and sat behind barristers in their first few years of practice so that I could smell what I would be doing a few months later.

It was important. So was the academic study and so was the classroom vocational training. It comes back to understanding how the training is supposed to achieve its objectives and designing learning from that standpoint.

8. Be inflexible as to work standards

This is tremendously dangerous advice for anybody lacking statistical literacy and numeracy (both).

I will come back to this but it embraces some of my earlier postings on process discipline.

9. Teach customer needs

This is the gem. Employee engagement is a popular concern. Employees who have no sight of how their job impacts the customer, who pays their wages, will soon see the process discipline that is essential to operational excellence as arbitrary and vexatious. Their mindfulness and diligence cannot but be affected by the expectation that they can operate in a cognitive vacuum.

Walter Shewhart famously observed that Data have no meaning apart from their context. By extension, continual re-orientation to the Voice of the Customer gives meaning to structure, process and procedure on the shop floor; it resolves ambiguity as to method in favour of the end-user; it fosters extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, motivation; and it sets the external standard by which conduct and alignment to the business will be judged and governed.

Deconstructing Deming V – Improve constantly and forever

5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.

W Edwards Deming Point 5 of Deming’s 14 Points. Surely about this there can be no controversy.

Improvement means reducing operating costs, enhancing customer value, and developing flexibility and agility. Improvement means constantly diminishing the misalignment between the Voice of the Process and the Voice of the Customer.

The UK awaits fresh productivity statistics next month but the figures up to the end of 2013 make sobering reading. UK productivity has been in miserable decline since 2008. In response to tightening of demand, failures of liquidity, absence of safe investment alternatives, rises in taxation and straightened cash flows, the aggregate response of industry has been a decline in human efficiency.

The reasons this has happened are no doubt complex. The paradox remains that it is improvement in productivity that grows sustainable rewards, captures markets and releases working capital for new ventures. At first sight it appears the answer to all the ills of a recession.

How will you know?

In their seminal model for improving productivity, Thomas Nolan and Lloyd Provost posed the question:

How will you know when a change is an improvement?

It is such a simple questions but it is too seldom asked and I suspect that itself is a major barrier to improvement.

We are beset by human induced change, by government and by business managers. The essential discipline is critically to question whether such change results in an improvement. It is an unpopular question. Nobody who champions a particular change wants to be proved wrong, or confronted with a marginal improvement that fails to live up to an extravagant promise.

Business measurement is mandated in the modern corporation. Businesses, governments, organisations abound with KPIs, metrics, “Big Ys”, results measures … and often a distracting argument over what to call them. There is no lack of numbers for answering the question. We are constantly assured that we now have the Big Data whose absence frustrated past strategy.

The habitual analytic tool in old-style businesses was what Don Wheeler mischievously named the executive time series, two numbers, one larger (or smaller) than the other, selected to show movement in the desired direction. That is, as Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang put it:

… using statistics in the same way that a drunk uses lamp-posts — for support rather than illumination.

It is a moral certainty that no two measurements will yield the same number. One will be larger than the other. It will be easy to select two to support any pet project or theory.

Building a persuasive case that improvement has happened firstly requires a rigorously constructed baseline. Without an objective description of the historical experience base, claims as to improvement are simply speculative.

And beyond that, what the executive time series cannot do is distinguish signal from noise. It cannot help because the answer to the question When will you know …? is When there is a signal in the data. That can only be answered with the diligent and rigorous use of process behaviour charts.

At the top of this page is a “RearView” tab. Without the trenchant and determined use of process behaviour charts there is not even a white line in the rear view mirror. The only signal will come from the “bang” when we hit the kerb.

What to improve

Deming’s further message was that it was every process that was to be improved, not simply those whose customer was the end consumer. Many processes have internal customers with their own voice. Processes of management of human resources, maintenance and accounting can all have a critical impact on organisation performance. They must keep on getting better too.

Being held to account is never comfortable but neither is the realisation that we have surrendered control of assets without the means of knowing when such assets are incrementally put to increasingly efficient, effective and agile use.

We need louder demands of “Show me!”

The truth behind takt time

A few months ago my wife ordered a hole punch from Amazon one evening. It cost £5.49. The following morning at 8.00 there was a knock at the door. The hole punch was delivered.

That really is as much as I know for a fact about Amazon’s business processes. I was, therefore, shaken by an item on BBC News alleging Amazon workers face ‘increased risk of mental illness’. I don’t think the quotes make that anything other than an alarming headline. The item trailed a BBC documentary The Truth Behind The Click. UK readers can see the documentary here on BBC iPlayer. I thought that I would wait until I watched the documentary before I commented.

Having now watched it, I think it is difficult to draw any conclusions from the programme. Its tone was so plainly tendentious. The BBC had sent a covert reporter with a video camera into an Amazon warehouse, he having misrepresented himself as a job seeker. Some of the video, taken from the perspective of an Amazon employee picking in a warehouse, looked to me as though it was shown speeded up.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, an expert in public health, was shown the video, I presume the same limited and selective one shown on the BBC. He observed that:

The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows, increase the risk of mental illness and physical illness.

Sadly there is no analysis. We were not told what characteristics, what the supposed levels of safety or what the supporting evidence. There was no quantitative data drawn from more than one individual.

Part of the problem with the programme was, I think, that three principle issues have been conflated here.

  • The general nature of repetitive manual work.
  • The psychological impact of working to an externally set “drum beat”.
  • The physical and cognitive effects of working at a particular rate.

Repetitive work

Repetitive work has always been with us. Some people find in it dignity and liberation. The Buddhist practice of samu, repetitive physical work performed with mindfulness, is part of Zen spiritual dicipline and the quest for enlightenment. Conversely, socialist pioneer William Morris believed that we should all be composing epic poems in our heads while sat weaving at the loom.

That being said, such work is not for everybody. I got the impression that Amazon were fairly clear to new employees as to what was involved. This is where recruitment is a key business process, identifying people who will fit with this type of role and stick with it.

However, I see nothing in general sinister about such work.

Drum beat

What delivered that hole punch so quickly was the “drum beat” that regulates work along the supply chain. This is a fundamental part of the Toyota Production System and lean operations generally.

The takt time specifies the rate at which products are being despatched to customers. That sets the rate at which pickers need to work. If the pickers work too quickly then packages build up in front of the despatch area. If too slowly, the despatch area stands idle. Both entail cost or delay that has to be passed on to the customer. The customer suffers.

The programme interviewed workers who felt the “drum beat”, announced through the bleep on a hand held electronic scanner, dehumanising. The BBC journalist clearly shared their view. The workers felt this deprived them of autonomy. They felt that they were not encouraged to think of [them]selves as human beings.

We do not show enough respect for boring work. We tend to sentimentalise and even glamorise the sort of active participation in work that too often results from having to resolve a non-conformance, a defect, a delay or an emergency. That is not useful work, no matter how much satisfaction it offers the employee.

I sometime sense a bien pensant nostalgia for the days when millions were employed in repetitive tasks on piece work. I think the BBC especially self indulgent on this matter. Piece work of course incentivises a worker to produce as much as they can even if that increases costs to the company in storing it until it can be used, if it ever is. The benefit of the drum is that the worker is required to produce no more or less than society needs. The laudable aim of lean operations is to reduce waste, Toyota use the Japanese term muda.

What I think was missing at Amazon was engagement of all employees in improvement. The usual quid pro quo for diligently following the drum is that part of the day is spent off-line in improvement work where an employee can, if so inclined, exercise their ingenuity. However, I am aware that the BBC reporter was recruited for the Christmas rush. That is not a period that anybody devotes to improvement work. Production is king. Improvement should have been prioritised earlier in the year when volumes were slow.

I think though that there is still an opportunity for a periodic review of the voice of the customer with all staff. It is focus on the customer that ultimately legitimises and justifies the discipline. I think Amazon staff would appreciate being reminded of just how quickly their orders are getting to customers, the variety of desires satisfied so promptly and the volume of transactions despatched, all through their discipline and focus on the drum.

Perhaps Amazon do this but the reporter didn’t stick around long enough to hear.

Work rate

This is the toughest part of the allegations to analyse. Was the takt time just set too quick for human capability? There is probably some flexibility in setting the rate for any individual as capacity can be increased by employing more pickers. There must be some limit on the number of pickers as the warehouse aisles will only accommodate so many on the move. However, as I said above, I found the overall tone of the programme so tendentious that I cannot take its criticisms at face value. No analysis by Professor Marmot was presented. Amazon have serious legal obligations to provide their workers with a safe system of work and to carry out health surveillance. Amazon have to cope with the real costs of absenteeism, staff turnover and litigation. I would be surprised if they had not analysed work demands thoroughly and diligently.

I do confess to feeling uncomfortable at the practice of terminating employment on the third consecutive day’s sick leave but, ultimately, it is a matter for Amazon.

I think that my conclusion from watching the programme is that it is critical to maintain all employees’ extrinsic motivation by the voice of the customer through constant review and emphasis of how an individual’s discipline contributes to the overall market impact. Goal deployment helps. Beyond that, I’m not persuaded by the BBC’s criticism.

Trust in data – IV – trusting the team

Today (20 November 2013) I was reading an item in The Times (London) with the headline “We fiddle our crime numbers, admit police”. This is a fairly unedifying business.

The blame is once again laid at the door of government targets and performance related pay. I fear that this is akin to blaming police corruption on the largesse of criminals. If only organised crime would stop offering bribes, the police would not succumb to taking them in consideration of repudiating their office as constable, so the argument might run (pace Brian Joiner). Of course, the argument is nonsense. What we expect of police constables is honesty even, perhaps especially, when temptation presents itself. We expect the police to give truthful evidence in court, to deal with the public fairly and to conduct their investigations diligently and rationally. The public expects the police to behave in this way even in the face of manifest temptation to do otherwise. The public expects the same honest approach to reporting their performance. I think Robert Frank put it well in Passions within Reason.

The honest individual … is someone who values trustworthiness for its own sake. That he might receive a material payoff for such behaviour is beyond his concern. And it is precisely because he has this attitude that he can be trusted in situations where his behaviour cannot be monitored. Trustworthiness, provided it is recognizable, creates valuable opportunities that would not otherwise be available.

Matt Ridley put it starkly in his overview of evolutionary psychology, The Origins of Virtue. He wasn’t speaking of policing in particular.

The virtuous are virtuous for no other reason that it enables them to join forces with others who are virtuous, for mutual benefit.

What worried me most about the article was a remark from Peter Barron, a former detective chief superintendent in the Metropolitan Police. Should any individual challenge the distortion of data:

You are judged to be not a team player.

“Teamwork” can be a smokescreen for the most appalling bullying. In our current corporate cultures, to be branded as “not a team player” can be the most horrible slur, smearing the individual’s contribution to the overall mission. One can see how such an environment can allow a team’s behaviours and objectives to become misaligned from those of the parent organisation. That is a problem that can often be addressed by management with a proper system of goal deployment.

However, the problem is more severe when the team is in fact well aligned to what are distorted organisational goals. The remedies for this lie in the twin processes of governance and whistleblowing. Neither seem to be working very well in UK policing at the moment but that simply leaves an opportunity for process improvement. Work is underway. The English law of whistleblowing has been amended this year. If you aren’t familiar with it you can find it here.

Governance has to take scrutiny of data seriously. Reported performance needs to be compared with other sources of data. Reporting and recording processes need themselves to be assessed. Where there is no coherent picture questions need to be asked.