The dark side of discipline

W Edwards Deming was very impressed with Japanese railways. In Out of the Crisis (1986) he wrote this.

The economy of a single plan that will work is obvious. As an example, may I cite a proposed itinerary in Japan:

          1725 h Leave Taku City.
          1923 h Arrive Hakata.
Change trains.
          1924 h Leave Hakata [for Osaka, at 210 km/hr]

Only one minute to change trains? You don’t need a whole minute. You will have 30 seconds left over. No alternate plan was necessary.

My friend Bob King … while in Japan in November 1983 received these instructions to reach by train a company that he was to visit.

          0903 h Board the train. Pay no attention to trains at 0858, 0901.
          0957 h Off.

No further instruction was needed.

Deming seemed to assume that these outcomes were delivered by a capable and, moreover, stable system. That may well have been the case in 1983. However, by 2005 matters had drifted.

Aftermath of the Amagasaki rail crashThe other night I watched, recorded from the BBC, the documentary Brakeless: Why Trains Crash about the Amagasaki rail crash on 25 April 2005. I fear that it is no longer available in BBC iPlayer. However, most of the documentaries in this BBC Storyville strand are independently produced and usually have some limited theatrical release or are available elsewhere. I now see that the documentary is available here on Dailymotion.

The documentary painted a system of “discipline” on the railway where drivers were held directly responsible for outcomes, overridingly punctuality. This was not a documentary aimed at engineers but the first thing missing for me was any risk assessment of the way the railway was run. Perhaps it was there but it is difficult to see what thought process would lead to a failure to mitigate the risks of production pressures.

However, beyond that, for me the documentary raised some important issues of process discipline. We must be very careful when we make anyone working within a process responsible for its outputs. That sounds a strange thing to say but Paul Jennings at Rolls-Royce always used to remind me You can’t work on outcomes.

The difficulty that the Amagasaki train drivers had was that the railway was inherently subject to sources of variation over which the drivers had no control. In the face of those sources of variation, they were pressured to maintain the discipline of a punctual timetable. They way they did that was to transgress other dimensions of process discipline, in the Amagasaki case, speed limits.

Anybody at work must diligently follow the process given to them. But if that process does not deliver the intended outcome then that is the responsibility of the manager who owns the process, not the worker. When a worker, with the best of intentions, seeks independently to modify the process, they are in a poor position, constrained as they are by their own bounded rationality. They will inevitably by trapped by System 1 thinking.

Of course, it is great when workers can get involved with the manager’s efforts to align the voice of the process with the voice of the customer. However, the experimentation stops when they start operating the process live.

Fundamentally, it is a moral certainty that purblind pursuit of a target will lead to over-adjustment by the worker, what Deming called “tampering”. That in turn leads to increased costs, aggravated risk and vitiated consumer satisfaction.

Target and the Targeteers

This blog appeared on the Royal Statistical Society website Statslife on 29 May 2014

DartboardJohn Pullinger, newly appointed head of the UK Statistics Authority, has given a trenchant warning about the “unsophisticated” use of targets. As reported in The Times (London) (“Targets could be skewing the truth, statistics chief warns”, 26 May 2014 – paywall) he cautions:

Anywhere we have had targets, there is a danger that they become an end in themselves and people lose sight of what they’re trying to achieve. We have numbers everywhere but haven’t been well enough schooled on how to use them and that’s where problems occur.

He goes on.

The whole point of all these things is to change behaviour. The trick is to have a sophisticated understanding of what will happen when you put these things out.

Pullinger makes it clear that he is no opponent of targets, but that in the hands of the unskilled they can create perverse incentives, encouraging behaviour that distorts the system they sought to control and frustrating the very improvement they were implemented to achieve.

For example, two train companies are being assessed by the regulator for punctuality. A train is defined as “on-time” if it arrives within 5 minutes of schedule. The target is 95% punctuality.
TrainTargets
Evidently, simple management by target fails to reveal that Company 1 is doing better than Company 2 in offering a punctual service to its passengers. A simple statement of “95% punctuality (punctuality defined as arriving within 5 minutes of timetable)” discards much of the information in the data.

Further, when presented with a train that has slipped outside the 5 minute tolerance, a manager held solely to the target of 95% has no incentive to stop the late train from slipping even further behind. Certainly, if it puts further trains at risk of lateness, there will always be a temptation to strip it of all priority. Here, the target is not only a barrier to effective measurement and improvement, it is a threat to the proper operation of the railway. That is the point that Pullinger was seeking to make about the behaviour induced by the target.

And again, targets often provide only a “snapshot” rather than the “video” that discloses the information in the data that can be used for planning and managing an enterprise.

I am glad that Pullinger was not hesitant to remind users that proper deployment of system measurement requires an appreciation of psychology. Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman warns of the inherent human trait of thinking that What you see is all there is (WYSIATI). On their own, targets do little to guard against such bounded rationality.

In support of a corporate programme of improvement and integrated in a culture of rigorous data criticism, targets have manifest benefits. They communicate improvement priorities. They build confidence between interfacing processes. They provide constraints and parameters that prevent the system causing harm. Harm to others or harm to itself. What is important is that the targets do not become a shield to weak managers who wish to hide their lack of understanding of their own processes behind the defence that “all targets were met”.

However, all that requires some sophistication in approach. I think the following points provide a basis for auditing how an organisation is using targets.

Risk assessment

Targets should be risk assessed, anticipating realistic psychology and envisaging the range of behaviours the targets are likely to catalyse.

Customer focus

Anyone tasked with operating to a target should be periodically challenged with a review of the Voice of the Customer and how their own role contributes to the organisational system. The target is only an aid to the continual improvement of the alignment between the Voice of the Process and the Voice of the Customer. That is the only game in town.

Borrowed validation

Any organisation of any size will usually have independent data of sufficient borrowing strength to support mutual validation. There was a very good recent example of this in the UK where falling crime statistics, about which the public were rightly cynical and incredulous, were effectively validated by data collection from hospital emergency departments (Violent crime in England and Wales falls again, A&E data shows).

Over-adjustment

Mechanisms must be in place to deter over-adjustment, what W Edwards Deming called “tampering”, where naïve pursuit of a target adds variation and degrades performance.

Discipline

Employees must be left in no doubt that lack of care in maintaining the integrity of the organisational system and pursuing customer excellence will not be excused by mere adherence to a target, no matter how heroic.

Targets are for the guidance of the wise. To regard them as anything else is to ask them to do too much.

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.

Suicide statistics for British railways

I chose a prosaic title because it’s not a subject about which levity is appropriate. I remain haunted by this cyclist on the level crossing. As a result I thought I would delve a little into railway accident statistics. The data is here. Unfortunately, the data only goes back to 2001/2002. This is a common feature of government data. There is no long term continuity in measurement to allow proper understanding of variation, trends and changes. All this encourages the “executive time series” that are familiar in press releases. I think that I shall call this political amnesia. When I have more time I shall look for a longer time series. The relevant department is usually helpful if contacted directly.

However, while I was searching I found this recent report on Railway Suicides in the UK: risk factors and prevention strategies. The report is by Kamaldeep Bhui and Jason Chalangary of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, and Edgar Jones of the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London. Originally, I didn’t intend to narrow my investigation to suicides but there were some things in the paper that bothered me and I felt were worth blogging about.

Obviously this is really important work. No civilised society is indifferent to tragedies such as suicide whose consequences are absorbed deeply into the community. The report analyses a wide base of theories and interventions concerning railway suicide risk. There is a lot of information and the authors have done an important job in bringing together and seeking conclusions. However, I was bothered by this passage (at p5).

The Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) reported a progressive rise in suicides and suspected suicides from 192 in 2001-02 to a peak 233 in 2009-10, the total falling to 208 in 2010-11.

Oh dear! An “executive time series”. Let’s look at the data on a process behaviour chart.

RailwaySuicides1

There is no signal, even ignoring the last observation in 2011/2012 which the authors had not had to hand. There has been no increasing propensity for suicide since 2001. The writers have been, as Nassim Taleb would put it, “fooled by randomness”. In the words of Nate Silver, they have confused signal and noise. The common cause variation in the data has been over interpreted by zealous and well meaning policy makers as an upward trend. However, all diligent risk managers know that interpretation of a chart is forbidden if there is no signal. Over interpretation will lead to (well meaning) over adjustment and admixture of even more variation into a stable system of trouble.

Looking at the development of the data over time I can understand that there will have been a temptation to perform a regression analysis and calculate a p-value for the perceived slope. This is an approach to avoid in general. It is beset with the dangers of testing effects suggested by the data and the general criticisms of p-values made by McCloskey and Ziliak. It is not a method that will be a reliable guide to future action. For what it’s worth I got a p-value of 0.015 for the slope but I am not impressed. I looked to see if I could find a pattern in the data then tested for the pattern my mind had created. It is unsurprising that it was “significant”.

The authors of the report go on to interpret the two figures for 2009/2010 (233 suicides) and 2010/2011 (208 suicides) as a “fall in suicides”. It is clear from the process behaviour chart that this is not a signal of a fall in suicides. It is simply noise, common cause variation from year to year.

Having misidentified this as a signal they go on to seek a cause. Of course they “find” a potential cause. A partnership between Network Rail and the Samaritans, Men on the Ropes, had started in January 2010. The programme’s aim was to reduce suicides by 20% over five years. I genuinely hope that the programme shows success. However, the programme will not be assisted by thinking that it has yet shown signs of improvement.

With the current mean annual total at 211, a 20% reduction entails a new mean of 169 annual suicides.That is an ambitious target I think, and I want to emphasise that the programme is entirely laudable and plausible. However, whether it succeeds is to be judged by the figures on the process behaviour chart, not by any post hoc rationalisation. This is the tough discipline of the charts. It is no longer possible to claim an improvement where that is not supported by the data.

I will come back to this data next year and look to see if there are any signs of encouragement.

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.