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The “value add” tax – a riff on corporate communication

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A mainstay of team building workshops is the old “what can we do better” exercise.  Over the years I’ve noticed that “improving communication” is an item that comes up again and again in these events.  This is frustrating for managers. For example, during a team-building debrief some years ago, an exasperated executive remarked, “Oh don’t pay any attention to that [better communication], it keeps coming up no matter what we do.”

The executive had a point.  The organisation had invested much effort in establishing new channels of communication – social media, online, face-to-face forums etc.  The uptake, however, was disappointing:  turnout at the face-to-face meetings was consistently low as was use of other channels.

As far as management was concerned, they had done their job by establishing communication channels and making them available to all. What more could they  be expected to do? The matter was dismissed with a collective shrug of suit-clad shoulders…until the next team building event, when the issue was highlighted by employees yet again.

After much hand-wringing, the organisation embarked on another “better communication cycle.”  Much effort was expended…again, with the same disappointing results.

Anecdotal evidence via conversations with friends and collaborators suggests that variants of this story play out in many organisations. This makes the issue well worth exploring. I won’t be so presumptuous as to offer answers; I’m well aware that folks much better qualified than I have spent years attempting to do so. Instead I raise a point which, though often overlooked, might well have something to do with the lack of genuine communication in organisations.

Communication experts have long agreed that face-to-face dialogue is the most effective mode of communication. Backing for this comes from the interactional or pragmatic view, which is based on the premise that communication is more about building relationships than conveying information. Among other things, face-to-face communication enables the communicating parties to observe and interpret non-verbal signals such as facial expression and gestures and, as we all know, these often “say” much more than what’s being said.

A few months ago I started paying closer attention to non-verbal cues. This can be hard to do because people are good at disguising their feelings. Involuntary expressions indicative of people’s real thoughts can be fleeting. A flicker of worry, fear or anger is quickly covered by a mask of indifference.

In meetings, difficult topics tend to be couched in platitudinous language. Platitudes are empty words that sound great but can be interpreted in many different ways. Reconciling those differences often leads to pointless arguments that are emotionally draining. Perhaps this is why people prefer to take refuge in indifference.

A while ago I was sitting in a meeting where the phrase “value add activity” (sic) cropped up once, then again…and then many times over. Soon it was apparent that everyone in the room had a very different conception of what constituted a “value add activity.” Some argued that project management is a value add activity, others disagreed vehemently arguing that project management is a bureaucratic exercise and that real value lies in creating something. Round and round the arguments went but there was no agreement on what constituted a “value add activity.” The discussion generated a lot of heat but shed no light whatsoever on the term.

A problem with communication in the corporate world is that it is loaded with such platitudes. To make sense of these, people have to pay what I call a “value add” tax – the effort in reaching a consensus on what the platitudinous terms mean. This can be emotionally extortionate because platitudes often touch upon issues that affect people’s sense of well-being.

Indifference is easier because we can then pretend to understand and agree with each other when we would rather not understand, let alone agree, at all.

Written by K

November 19, 2015 at 8:02 am

From the coalface: an essay on the early history of sociotechnical systems

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The story of sociotechnical systems began a little over half a century ago, in a somewhat unlikely setting: the coalfields of Yorkshire.

The British coal industry had just been nationalised and new mechanised mining methods were being introduced in the mines. It was thought that nationalisation would sort out the chronic labour-management issues and mechanisation would address the issue of falling productivity.

But things weren’t going as planned. In the words of Eric Trist, one of the founders of the Tavistock Institute:

…the newly nationalized industry was not doing well. Productivity failed to increase in step with increases in mechanization. Men were leaving the mines in large numbers for more attractive opportunities in the factory world. Among those who remained, absenteeism averaged 20%. Labour disputes were frequent despite improved conditions of employment.   – excerpted from, The evolution of Socio-technical systems – a conceptual framework and an action research program, E. Trist (1980)

Trist and his colleagues were asked by the National Coal Board to come in and help. To this end, they did a comparative study of two mines that were similar except that one had high productivity and morale whereas the other suffered from low performance and had major labour issues.

Their job was far from easy: they were not welcome at the coalface because workers associated them with management and the Board.

Trist recounts that around the time the study started, there were a number of postgraduate fellows at the Tavistock Institute. One of them, Ken Bamforth, knew the coal industry well as he had been a miner himself.  Postgraduate fellows who had worked in the mines were encouraged to visit their old workplaces after  a year and  write up their impressions, focusing on things that had changed since they had worked there.   After one such visit, Bamforth reported back with news of a workplace innovation that had occurred at a newly opened seam at Haighmoor. Among other things, morale and productivity at this particular seam was high compared to other similar ones.  The team’s way of working was entirely novel, a world away from the hierarchically organised set up that was standard in most mechanised mines at the time. In Trist’s words:

The work organization of the new seam was, to us, a novel phenomenon consisting of a set of relatively autonomous groups interchanging roles and shifts and regulating their affairs with a minimum of supervision. Cooperation between task groups was everywhere in evidence; personal commitment was obvious, absenteeism low, accidents infrequent, productivity high. The contrast was large between the atmosphere and arrangements on these faces and those in the conventional areas of the pit, where the negative features characteristic of the industry were glaringly apparent. Excerpted from the paper referenced above.

To appreciate the radical nature of practices at this seam, one needs to understand the backdrop against which they occurred. To this end, it is helpful to compare the  mechanised work practices introduced in the post-war years with the older ones from the pre-mechanised era of mining.

In the days before mines were mechanised, miners would typically organise themselves into workgroups of six miners, who would cover three work shifts in teams of two. Each miner was able to do pretty much any job at the seam and so could pick up where his work-mates from the previous shift had left off. This was necessary in order to ensure continuity of work between shifts. The group negotiated the price of their mined coal directly with management and the amount received was shared equally amongst all members of the group.

This mode of working required strong cooperation and trust within the group, of course.  However, as workgroups were reorganised from time to time due to attrition or other reasons, individual miners understood the importance of maintaining their individual reputations as reliable and trustworthy workmates. It was important to get into a good workgroup because such groups were more likely to get more productive seams to work on. Seams were assigned by bargaining, which was typically the job of the senior miner on the group. There was considerable competition for the best seams, but this was generally kept within bounds of civility via informal rules and rituals.

This traditional way of working could not survive mechanisation. For one, mechanised mines encouraged specialisation because they were organised like assembly lines, with clearly defined job roles each with different responsibilities and pay scales. Moreover, workers in a shift would perform only part of the extraction process leaving those from subsequent shifts to continue where work was left off.

As miners were paid by the job they did rather than the amount of coal they produced, no single group had end-to-end responsibility for the product.   Delays due to unexpected events tended to get compounded as no one felt the need to make up time. As a result, it would often happen that work that was planned for a shift would not be completed. This meant that the next shift (which could well be composed of a group with completely different skills) could not or would not start their work because they did not see it as their job to finish the work of the earlier shift. Unsurprisingly, blame shifting and scapegoating was rife.

From a supervisor’s point of view, it was difficult to maintain the same level of oversight and control in underground mining work as was possible in an assembly line. The environment underground is simply not conducive to close supervision and is also more uncertain in that it is prone to unexpected events.  Bureaucratic organisational structures are completely unsuited to dealing with these because decision-makers are too far removed from the coalface (literally!).  This is perhaps the most important insight to come out of the Tavistock coal mining studies.

As Claudio Ciborra  puts it in his classic book on teams:

Since the production process at any seam was much more prone to disorganisation than due to uncertainty and complexity of underground conditions, any ‘bureaucratic’ allocation of jobs could be easily disrupted. Coping with emergencies and coping with coping became part of worker’s and supervisors’ everyday activities. These activities would lead to stress, conflict and low productivity because they continually clashed with the technological arrangements and the way they were planned and subdivided around them.

Thus we see that the new assembly-line bureaucracy inspired work organisation was totally unsuited to the work environment because there was no end-to-end responsibility, and decision making was far removed from the action. In contrast, the traditional workgroup of six was able to deal with uncertainties and complexities of underground work because team members had a strong sense of responsibility for the performance of the team as a whole. Moreover, teams were uniquely placed to deal with unexpected events because they were actually living them as they occurred and could therefore decide on the best way to deal with them.

What Bamforth found at the Haighmoor seam was that it was possible to recapture the spirit of the old ways of working by adapting these to the larger specialised groups that were necessary in the mechanised mines. As Ciborra describes it in his book:

The new form of work organisation features forty one men who allocate themselves to tasks and shifts. Although tasks and shifts those of the conventional mechanised system, management and supervisors do not monitor, enforce and reward single task executions. The composite group takes over some of the managerial tasks, as it had in the pre-mechanised marrow group, such as the selection of group members and the informal monitoring of work…Cycle completion, not task execution becomes a common goal that allows for mutual learning and support…There is basic wage and a bonus linked to the overall productivity of the group throughout the whole cycle rather than a shift.  The competition between shifts that plagued the conventional mechanised method is effectively eliminated…

Bamforth and Trist’s studies on Haighmoor convinced them that there were viable (and better!) alternatives to those that were typical of mid to late 20th century work places.  Their work led them to the insight that the best work arrangements come out of seeking a match between technical and social elements of the modern day workplace, and thus was born the notion of sociotechnical systems.

Ever since the assembly-line management philosophies of Taylor and Ford, there has been an increasing trend towards division of labour, bureaucratisation and mechanisation / automation of work processes.  Despite the early work of the Tavistock school and others who followed, this trend continues to dominate management practice, arguably even more so in recent years. The Haighmoor innovation described above was one of the earliest demonstrations that there is a better way.   This message has since been echoed by many academics and thinkers,  but remains largely under-appreciated or ignored by professional managers who have little idea – or have completely forgotten – what it is like to work at the coalface.

Written by K

April 7, 2015 at 10:30 pm

Scapegoats and systems: contrasting approaches to managing human error in organisations

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Much can be learnt about an organization by observing what management does when things go wrong.  One reaction is to hunt for a scapegoat, someone who can be held responsible for the mess.  The other is to take a systemic view that focuses on finding the root cause of the issue and figuring out what can be done in order to prevent it from recurring.  In a highly cited paper published in 2000, James Reason compared and contrasted the two approaches to error management in organisations. This post is an extensive summary of the paper.

The author gets to the point in the very first paragraph:

The human error problem can be viewed in two ways: the person approach and the system approach. Each has its model of error causation and each model gives rise to quite different philosophies of error management. Understanding these differences has important practical implications for coping with the ever present risk of mishaps in clinical practice.

Reason’s paper was published in the British Medical Journal and hence his focus on the practice of medicine. His arguments and conclusions, however, have a much wider relevance as evidenced by the diverse areas in which his paper has been cited.

The person approach – which, I think is more accurately called the scapegoat approach – is based on the belief that any errors can and should be traced back to an individual or a group, and that the party responsible should then be held to account for the error. This is the approach taken in organisations that are colloquially referred to as having a “blame culture.”

To an extent, looking around for a scapegoat is a natural emotional reaction to an error. The oft unstated reason behind scapegoating, however, is to avoid management responsibility.  As the author tells us:

People are viewed as free agents capable of choosing between safe and unsafe modes of behaviour.  If something goes wrong, it seems obvious that an individual (or group of individuals) must have been responsible. Seeking as far as possible to uncouple a person’s unsafe acts from any institutional responsibility is clearly in the interests of managers. It is also legally more convenient

However, the scapegoat approach has a couple of serious problems that hinder effective risk management.

Firstly, an organization depends on its frontline staff to report any problems or lapses. Clearly, staff will do so only if they feel that it is safe to do so – something that is simply not possible in an organization that takes scapegoat approach. The author suggests that the Chernobyl disaster can be attributed to the lack of a “reporting culture” within the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, is that the focus on a scapegoat leaves the underlying cause of the error unaddressed. As the author puts it, “by focusing on the individual origins of error it [the scapegoat approach] isolates unsafe acts from their system context.” As a consequence, the scapegoat approach overlooks systemic features of errors – for example, the empirical fact that the same kinds of errors tend to recur within a given system.

The system approach accepts that human errors will happen. However, in contrast to the scapegoat approach, it views these errors as being triggered by factors that are built into the system. So, when something goes wrong, the system approach focuses on the procedures that were used rather than the people who were executing them. This difference from the scapegoat approach makes a world of difference.

The system approach looks for generic reasons why errors or accidents occur. Organisations usually have a series of measures in place to prevent errors – e.g. alarms, procedures, checklists, trained staff etc. Each of these measures can be looked upon as a “defensive layer” against error. However, as the author notes, each defensive layer has holes which can let errors “pass through” (more on how the holes arise a bit later).  A good way to visualize this is as a series of slices of Swiss Cheese (see Figure 1).

The important point is that the holes on a given slice are not at a fixed position; they keep opening, closing and even shifting around, depending on the state of the organization.  An error occurs when the ephemeral holes on different layers temporarily line up to “let an error through”.

There are two reasons why holes arise in defensive layers:

  1. Active errors: These are unsafe acts committed by individuals. Active errors could be violations of set procedures or momentary lapses. The scapegoat approach focuses on identifying the active error and the person responsible for it. However, as the author points out, active errors are almost always caused by conditions built into the system, which brings us to…
  2. Latent conditions: These are flaws that are built into the system. The author uses the term resident pathogens to describe these – a nice metaphor that I have explored in a paper review I wrote some years ago. These “pathogens” are usually baked into the system by poor design decisions and flawed procedures on the one hand, and ill-thought-out management decisions on the other. Manifestations of the former include faulty alarms, unrealistic or inconsistent procedures or poorly designed equipment; manifestations of the latter include things such as unrealistic targets, overworked staff and the lack of  funding for appropriate equipment.

The important thing to note is that latent conditions can lie dormant for a long period before they are noticed. Typically a latent condition comes to light only when an error caused by it occurs…and only if the organization does a root cause analysis of the error – something that is simply not done in an organization takes a scapegoat approach.

The author draws a nice analogy that clarifies the link between active errors and latent conditions:

…active failures are like mosquitoes. They can be swatted one by one, but they still keep coming. The best remedies are to create more effective defences and to drain the swamps in which they breed. The swamps, in this case, are the ever present latent conditions.

“Draining the swamp” is not a simple task.  The author draws upon studies of high performance organisations (combat units, nuclear power plants and air traffic control centres) to understand how they minimised active errors by reducing system flaws. He notes that these organisations:

  1. Accept that errors will occur despite standardised procedures, and train their staff to deal with and learn from them.
  2. Practice responses to known error scenarios and try to imagine new ones on a regular basis.
  3. Delegate responsibility and authority, especially in crisis situations.
  4. Do a root cause analysis of any error that occurs and address the underlying problem by changing the system if needed.

In contrast, an organisation that takes a scapegoat approach assumes that standardisation will eliminate errors, ignores the possibility of novel errors occurring, centralises control and, above all, focuses on finding scapegoats instead of fixing the system.


Figure 1 was taken from the Patient Safety Education website of Duke University Hospital.

Further reading:

The Swiss Cheese model was first proposed in 1991. It has since been applied in many areas. Here are a couple of recent applications and extensions of the model to project management:

  1. Stephen Duffield and Jon Whitty use the Swiss Cheese model as a basis for their model of Systemic Lessons Learned and Knowledge Captured (SLLKC model) in projects.
  2. In this post, Paul Culmsee extends the SLLKC model to incorporate aspects relating to teams and collaboration.

Written by K

July 29, 2014 at 8:43 pm

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