Confirmation bias – sleep-walking into the same old problems

I was watching an episode of “Air Crash Investigation”, a great programme for understanding what can go wrong and how, in the  very public and challenging world of civil aviation.

An airliner ran out of fuel and crash-landed more than 700 miles from its destination, having flow in the opposite direction to its destination.

The pilots blamed technical failure, but there was none – they had mis-set the autopilot and set off in completely the wrong direction, and when they realised they were really lost, instead of asking air traffic control for help, tried to sort it out themselves, making the problem even worse, because they interpreted what they saw as what they wanted to see, not what was really there (confirmation bias).

Many project teams start with a low expectation of success because they have always fallen short of delighting the customer. Repeated failures confirm their bias that they will always fail, so why bother?

Since they are not expecting to succeed, they don’t look how they could do things differently to improve their chances of success. I had a very serious argument with the existing team I inherited when asked to recover a failing programme. “We always do it this way” they said, to which I replied “and you always fail!”

I won the argument, losing one team member in the process, and we tried a completely different approach, very focused on customer experience, and succeeded beyond all expectations.

Taking a fresh look at the complete problem, understanding the true success criteria and designing the whole approach to achieve success, quickly transformed project performance, lifting the team’s self-esteem in a virtuous circle!

This isn’t a one-off – tackling the root causes of frequent problems in a railway infrastructure company saw a 25% reduction in recurrent problems in just 4 weeks!

Teamworking: wishing you peace and happiness at Christmas and in the new year.

Just over 4 weeks ago I went into an NHS hospital for a hip replacement. I was stunned by the efficient and effective way I was treated, and how quickly I was discharged to go home – 30 hours.  What really struck me was that the staff were working together as a team, despite the usual NHS pressures, and I was treated as a human being, not  a number.

Has that  stayed the standard? Well, not quite – when I went to see Outpatients Physio, the handover and integration were less slick and integrated.  After, I felt less comfortable both physically and mentally than I had done. My GP surgery has done a lot to balance that out though, whipping out a couple of undissolved sutures at less than 24 hours notice.

Teamworking is something that makes everyone involved feel better, which directly and indirectly boosts performance.  I spend a lot of my time building up team behaviour in the early days of the projects I lead as I know the investment will repay huge dividends.

So why is it that the wreckers and tearers-apart are in the political ascendancy? People are feeling under pressure, for whatever reason, and this forces behaviours towards the extremes of the build up/split apart spectrum.

War is a major pressure, obviously. I’ve just finished reading a reference work on the British invasion of Madagascar during the Second World War, and it revealed to me the huge political impact of individuals’ relationships; Churchill and de Gaulle couldn’t get on together, which led to decades of Anglo-French acrimony after the was was over, and the UK’s delayed entry to the Common Market. Churchill didn’t trust the Vichy regime to stand up to Germany and Japan and stay truly neutral, leading to tragic events like the shelling of the French fleet at Mers el Kebir and the consequent vicious fighting by the Vichy French forces against the UK and its allies.

However, we are not at war, and the UK hasn’t had to fight a war locally within the lifetime of many people.  It’s something that others fight and suffer through – we just have to pay taxes to support our forces. The paradox is that the apparently despised EU, with NATO, has reduced the level of military conflict in Europe almost to zero as more states appreciate that membership means stopping fighting their neighbours and minorities.

Are we just bored with peace and prosperity? In 1957, just 12 years after the end of WW2, the PM, Harold Macmillan, had to rally the country and remind them that most people had never had it so good, following 6 years of war that bankrupted the country and 12 years of austerity.

People are often quite bad at comparing where they are now with where they were in the past, and are disillusioned they don’t have everything they could possibly want, when in reality nearly everyone has FAR MORE now than when I was growing up.

According to Oprah Winfrey, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough”

At this time of year, with the awful prospects facing the word from the “votes of hate”, and the very real  fighting destroying the lives of so many, please relax for a moment, think of everything you have achieved in your life, and decide whether you can step back from our society’s obsession with accumulating yet more money and possessions and focus on working with people in peace and harmony as teams.

Oh – and stop buying newspapers. They lie to make money, and make you miserable and dissatisfied without any basis. You won’t find anything in the papers praising the NHS!


Measuring performance

On Friday I listened at the BCN to someone with a much more prestigious career (thanks, Duncan Ashurst) echoing my own thoughts on the huge difference between efficiency and effectiveness.

Seeing this article on the challenges of performance management where it’s not simple or easy to quantify output led me to think back to setting the performance measurement strategy at Willis and Centrica, and how that led to driving another project around something as subjective as customer experience.

There is a sad tendency towards measuring what is easy to measure, not what is truly needed.

In the case of driving through a major billing migration project, we could measure complaints and churn, but that would have been too late – the customer would have walked away already.We had to work pre-emptively with the customer services manager and use her skills and judgement to predict our performance qualitatively, and fine tune very quickly in the light of feedback.

There are many key parameters for success, and often a large fraction can’t be quantified easily  – you still have to assess them if you want to succeed!

P.S. Just saw this article on customer service cooking the books. This is a lovely analysis of why poor performance measures damage business performance by distorting business intelligence information!

Business Processes; the good, the bad and the ugly

I’ve recently had a series of discussions with colleagues, clients and other professionals that I respect, on the subject of business processes. They are all strongly in favour of them, and I know why, they:

  1. systemetise the work flow, making it more predictable and manageable
  2. assist in delivering consistency
  3. encourage the right people to be included in decisions
  4. make it easy to measure performance (and diagnose issues with performance too)
  5. can prevent individuals making serious errors
  6. make training new staff (and handling staff turn-over) relatively straight-forward
  7. allow straight-forward IT automation

and have many other positive aspects that make them ideal for the more straight-forward jobs.

So are they a panacea? Sadly not, as they have serious weaknesses that can compromise more complex types of work. The key issues are that they:

  1. tend to serialize workflows, slowing them down by introducing bottlenecks
  2. become inflexible and over-prescriptive to prevent a small minority abusing the system, preventing justifiable initiative being taken
  3. become over-dependent on IT performance (which is driven by a completely separate budget)
  4. become more complex to handle extreme cases, causing following them to become a chore that is skipped if possible
  5. remove the spirit to think amongst some staff
  6. generate “malicious compliance” amongst other staff
  7. provoke rebellion from a tiny minority
  8. become a strait-jacket that prevents business agility
  9. eventually break when they no longer reflect business needs

People are not machines, and their greatest asset is their versatility and intelligence – watch a plumber at work!

Of course, the greatest free-thinkers of all are the salesmen, so if we can design for salesmen, we’ve cracked it!

A colleague raised a hugely valuable point – what is needed is something that ensures that all aspects are considered, without forcing mindless compliance, while harnessing the best aspects of human behaviour: checklists.

Yes, checklists – so simple, so easy to maintain, yet so powerful – it’s what saved the lives of all  on board US Airways Flight 1549 when it crashed into the Hudson River (Thanks, Neil)!

So how can we get the benefits of checklists in lieu of hard-coded business processes? Redesigning ICT to provide real-time decision support around a checklist front end could do the job nicely. I know it’s very “Mission: Impossible”, but with 4G, Internet-enabled cameras, tablets and mobile comms, we really do have the technology to build a real-time decision-supported salesman!

What do I mean?

I mean that the salesman can collect information from the client that is immediately transferred back to base, where the team (and IT systems) analyse that information and offer up both validated options and further information to gather.

Such technology has been available in a limited way for contact centre staff for many years  as “case-based reasoning” tools, but we need to include the option of expert advice from real people if the sale is valuable.

Most salesmen can cope with the freedom of the checklist – making sure that they have the right information to correctly tick the box in real time would massively improve both sales and sales quality.

And if it works for salesmen, it can work for everyone.

Where has Honda customer service gone?

Back in February I posted a brief discussion on the backwards steps many organizations are taking in dealing with customer problems and complaints. 

I reported such poor service from 2 businesses, and I plan never to use them again. was the (unnamed then) exception to the rule: their staff  were helpful, friendly,  persevering and I got all my money back from their error. I now use them in preference to others because I know they put it right if it goes wrong.

I wish Honda UK were in the same class. I bought a Honda Accord 6 years ago and have been pretty happy with it. So much so that I was seriously considering buying another Accord and a Civic to replace my current cars.

I’ve only had to pay for 1 significant repair (though Honda covered a £1800 failure under an extended warranty) – until yesterday.

I was informed by the main dealer that the power steering was disintegrating, with 3 seals failing, and a repair cost a third of what the vehicle is now worth. This is very unusual, they said, and recommended I call Honda Customer Relations.

Honda Customer Relations said that unless I had a complete main dealer service history, they would not help. I don’t have, so that was that. Never mind the 4 years of servicing with the main dealer, never mind that the reason I use my local garage is that they do better work (having sorted a problem a Honda main dealer was unable to sort).

I’ve gone back to my local garage, who has quoted a lot lower price, and I will run this car on while my daughter is still at Uni and needs a lot of stuff shifting, but I won’t be buying any more Hondas.

At British Gas, the guideline we used for the cost of cross-selling or up-selling was around 20% of the cost of recruiting a new customer – a huge saving. Haven’t Honda UK heard of this?

Honda’s intransigent attitude is hard to credit when businesses are desperate for custom, we are told. Perhaps they are NOT?

Business understanding of customers going backwards?

This recession is having a dire effect on customer treatment when things go wrong. This may appear to be just me sounding off as I’m angry, but there is a very important point here; in just 3 days I have vowed never to use the services of two businesses again, and the jury is still out on the third.

Bearing in mind that the most loyal customers are those that have a problem dealt with to their satisfaction, why are so many businesses becoming so poor in handling complaints? I suspect it is short-termism.

Story 1:  I tried to book a hotel through a website that shall remain nameless for the moment (the problem is still being resolved). Due to their systems problems, no booking was created that was visible either on-line to me nor to their contact centre staff, bur TWO were sent to the hotel!

So, I made a booking via another agency.

Arrival at the Hotel des Colonies in Brussels was greeted with “you have 3 bookings and you must pay for all 3, even though it’s not your fault”. The hotel staff were surly at first, and completely unhelpful, and the hotel took payment in full for all 3 bookings, leaving me £400 out of pocket through no fault of my own, and having to deal with the booking agency to recover my costs. After 3 days, and despite a promise to refund my costs today, the booking agency has still not resolved the problem.

 I WILL NEVER USE THIS HOTEL AGAIN, after years of staying there. They applied the terms and conditions of the booking agency website even though I’d not made a booking!

Story 2: Last autumn I bought a refurbished printer from Cartridge World in Macclesfield. I had used their services for years and trusted them as a preferred supplier. Within the 3 month warranty period I took it back because of the high level of paper feed errors I was getting.

They couldn’t find a problem and suggested it was damp, curled or poor quality paper. Over Christmas it wouldn’t work most of the time, so I took it back in and they had it for a week – no fault found, apparently just the paper tray not pushed firmly home. Brought it home and it wouldn’t work at all. After letting them look at it twice, I asked for my money back, to be refused, saying that I should have asked within 3 months, and that it was perfect anyway (?). The personal and professional slights were something else.


In both instances, the companies concerned were taking some sort of short-term cashflow stance and totally ignoring future sales – “I have some money now and I’m not giving back, even if I see no more from this customer”.

This thinking destroys businesses in the Social Networking world, because word gets around. I’ll be filling in a Trip Advisor report on the Hotel des Colonies to warn other customers, and I’ll tweet my experiences with Cartridge World – poor problem management has consequences, good problem management creates advocates!

I’m currently advising on a major business transformation and I’ve been pushing the need to ensure that the customer experience is addressed. Thankfully, in this case the company is listening!