Slow down – that’s how we do things around here

I had a very interesting conversation recently regarding continuous improvement and efficiency within the public sector with a people improvement professional – lets call him Jake. We were talking about how efficiency was perceived by staff and how the success of initiatives introduced as ‘good idea’s to make things more efficient was ascertained. Jake had just resigned and had come to the realisation that for most of the past 5 years where he was involved in delivering improvement initiatives, there had been a complete disconnect between the improvement initiative and the overall purpose of the organisation (to provide service to the public). More alarmingly he realised that over the period of 5 years, not one of these initiatives had carried through over time nor was there any clear reporting on the outcomes.

When I asked Jake why these ‘initiatives’ were delivered in the first place, he explained that it was more political in terms of who came up with the idea and what their (or their departments) agenda was. He explained that is was more about ‘giving people’ kudos for their idea rather than for any strategic or business imperative where the initiative could make a demonstrable genuine improvement. I found this to be quite extraordinary particularly given that this was the public purse and that this division of the public sector was the largest, the most expensive where there are gross shortages with so many services.

This is half the story, I asked Jake about the ‘various departments’ within departments and what their purpose was. It seems that EFT positions are created because of some perceived need, not a strategic or evidence based need but rather to run one of these initiatives for example. Once the initiative was completed (or not as in many cases) these newly created EFT people would stay – we don’t like to get rid of EFT positions was Jake’s response.

So what do these people do? I asked. Not very much apparently. A further factor that had contributed to Jake deciding to leave was that increasingly ‘work’ was on a go slow. Upon explanation he said if you are ‘efficient’ and work fast you are going against the grain and pressured to slow down. Jake’s interpretation was that over the 5 year period of recruiting additional EFT employees to roll out an ‘initiative’ and then retaining that person following the cessation of the initiative, had resulted in a significant number of people who were employed with no real job. So they were ‘given things to do’. This was usually something that some other ‘department or group’ was doing just with a different label as the left hand had no idea what the right hand was doing. So therefore in order to keep these people occupied in some manner of speaking – work processes had slowed down markedly.

Jake recognised that he no longer fit the ‘mould’ of the sector as he was efficient and enthusiastic and constantly seeking purposeful ways to do things more effectively and efficiently. He found the practice of deliberate ‘go slow’ to be abhorrent, hence finding himself with no choice but to leave. I asked Jake if he could see a way for the public sector organisation to break out of this nexus? He was not optimistic suggesting it had become ingrained in the culture of the way they did things.

Decision by committee is annihilating business effectiveness

I felt compelled to write about this following a raft of conversations with various people over the past few weeks where they were venting about this issue. One senior manager, lets call him Jarrod was really disheartened as he was describing how this had played out in his organisation. Jarrod’s role had innovation attached to the title and he was an enthusiastic, intelligent forward thinker and struck me as an extremely resourceful person capable of seeing the bigger picture along with the parts – just the person you would want as an innovator for your business.

Jarrod had been working on developing an innovative process in the professional services organisation he worked for as Business Improvement and Innovation Manager, which would free up the double handling of components of the business process causing considerable problems. He had done his research, established a watertight business case as to the cost of this double handling, along with an anticipated ROI if resolved. He floated the idea and business case with the CEO and CFO and they agreed in principle, however said ‘you will need to get the managers of operations, quality, safety, HR, sales and marketing on board’.

Eight months and interminable meetings, re-drafts, expert discussions and negotiations later – his proposal was canned. He was so devastated that he was looking for another job. I was curious as to what in his view had been the primary factor that lead to this ‘good idea’ not being taken up. Jarrod’s response was ‘committee’. In elaborating he explained how each of the managers (who really didn’t have expertise in innovation) wanted to put their stamp on the process. He explained that early in the process he thought this was coming from a genuine commitment to efficiency and improvement for people and the business overall.

He explained that about 2 months in, he began to see that the focus of the ‘meetings’ became more about the ‘ego’ of the person making suggestions and their desire to be seen as important and making a ‘valuable’ contribution rather than the intent of the project and the overall benefit to everyone in the business. This, he explained ended up being ridiculous and likened it to one of those team games where people end up failing to solve problems because they didn’t listen to each other and failed to stick with the purpose of the exercise. He said there were one or two ‘powerful’ people in the group who succeeded in ‘altering’ the project to such a point where it had no semblance of its original intent or capacity to achieve the outcome required.

I asked Jarrod why he didn’t take more of a leadership role in keeping the approval process on track and rein in ‘wayward personalities’ with alternate agenda’s? He said he tried, but consistently found that he was out argued. He described the process as doing his head in (he used other words) and that he felt that what he should have done was sought input from the other managers in writing at the start of the process – how can you contribute to this solution? – rather than starting the meeting process.

What was most incredible about this experience was that Jarrod being the savvy business person he was had kept a running log of the costs/waste, from hours spent in meetings, his salary for 25% of the eight month period, the loss due to the doubling handling which had worsened and the fact that he was leaving the organisation as a result – the number was staggering.

Sadly this is a common story within businesses – it is almost like the ‘do nothing’ approach has taken hold by default. Whist the decision by committee is occurring more and more often with good initial intentions, the real issue is lack of leadership, largely driven by ‘fear’ in terms of ‘consequences’ real or imagined, of getting the decision wrong. Jarrod said that he was out argued by the dissenters within the committee. Had he perhaps been a stronger leader, prepared to back himself more and ask for his CEO to support him, things may have been different. However the real concern lies with the CEO – where was his support for Jarrod and the business he was responsible for?

Women national team synchronized swimming performing at olympic games

Women national team synchronized swimming performing at olympic games

To judge to not to judge – the primary contributor to distraction

As a behaviorist and a researcher I have developed a keen sense of observation which means becoming just that – an observer. To really observe behaviours (both reading and hearing about what people do and directly observing them) one must be objective and non-judgmental. This is quite hard as most people automatically think and behave in a dualistic fashion due to the law of opposites. To be truly non-judgmental requires stepping beyond the law of opposites, because by default you will be judging what you are observing as right or wrong, good or bad, which then renders your objectivity void. The other factor that makes being non-judgmental challenging is the media. Negativity and being righteous and judgmental about events and behaviours sells. Consequently the daily diet of righteous judgement is relentless as ‘the media’ is now so unbelievably expansive.

Most people don’t actually have any consciousness of this relentless daily‘judgmental’ programming that is going on by their participation in consuming media, which includes all forms of social media. This directly contributes to the constant ‘mind battle or self-talk’ that so many people endure day in day out. Constant self-talk or inner discussions are exhausting for the brain and are the primary cause of distraction. This extends to ‘work being distracting’ – it is not so much that ‘work’ is the distraction, but rather the inner discussion which goes something like this:

“I haven’t finished the work for Mike or added the time line to the project spreadsheet….Petra has just emailed asking for an up-date on the project….I have no idea how I am going to get all this done….I have the meet-up to get to tonight and I don’t want to miss it again….. Ben asked me to help him with his Uni assignment……..that terrible situation with the European refugee’s….Carla is just being nasty to Gina…..oh no is that the time…” 

Productivity and efficiency with this level of ‘relentless’ conscious brain activity will be at best 50%.

Yet there are some people that appear to be cool as cucumbers and just get on with their work. The difference? Those who are able to get on with it are in control of their ‘mindspace’. They are focused and there is NO inner argument going on. They are able to attain a state of neutrality. Ask them about their media consumption (including social media) and they will have very different habits. The main difference is they will consume media from a state of ‘indifference or neutrality’, this is not the same as a ‘whatever’ attitude which is not neutral. These people are able to consume and observe outside events and behaviours without judging. They have beliefs and values, but are very clear about their own boundaries and are relentless in commanding and controlling their own ‘mindspace’ – they understand how precious it is.

The only thing that we truly have to ourselves is our ‘mindspace’. What we fill it with determines our beliefs, values and the way we view and judge the world, events, other people and how we behave on a daily basis. If we ‘fail to be aware’of how we fill and use our ‘mindspace’ everyday, then we are out of control, left to the mercy of the relentless arguments in our own heads. 100% of workplace accidents and incidents that involve ‘human factors’ are caused by distraction. This is people distracting themselves in their own heads, with no awareness that they are doing so – because their mindspace’ is overloaded.  The first step to controlling our mindspace is awareness of how we judge and view our own thinking.

People in authority have POWER over other people’s behaviour.

Two things occurred this week that compelled me to pen this post. Both these occurrences are directly related to how much more powerful ‘imprinting’ has become with people’s behaviours as our world gets busier.

When I went to ‘psychology school’ a long time ago ‘imprinting’ was a phenomena that was associated with animals and how they learned to behave by watching their parents and other members of their herd, flock or troop (baboons). Humans were considered to be more sophisticated. I would argue otherwise, particularly currently in our world of overload where more than 60% of everything we do is unconscious, autopilot behaviours. Further, we are seeing significant increases with ‘social default’ behaviours, where people defer to what people around them are doing without ‘consciously making a choice’.

So what has prompted me to write about this? I reside near a busy precinct of cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. The main road is a clearway in the morning’s and two lanes of traffic relentlessly hurtle down this road in peak hour. What has been happening in the past few months is that increasingly vehicles are pulling into the side street stopping illegally in the no standing zone whilst theimportant drivers go and get a coffee. This blocks the entrance to the street for vehicles trying to enter as well as exit the street. My neighbor has almost been hit innumerable times trying to squeeze past these illegally parked vehicles.

I have been pondering why it is that this worrisome behaviour has seemed to have increased recently. A few months ago I noticed that an emergency vehicle began stopping in this no standing zone while its occupants went and sat down to have a coffee in one of the cafe’s. I have observed that this occurs on a regular basis. This week a very, very senior and recognisable politician came out from the cafe and proceeded to get into the chauffeured car that was parked in the no standing zone, and it quickly sped off. A few days later a different emergency vehicle was stopped in the no standing zone and its occupants were in the cafe. Whilst they were in the cafe an elderly man with a cane had to go around this vehicle to cross the street, and as he did so a car entered the street at a great rate and just managed to brake before hitting the old man. The occupants of the emergency vehicle inside the cafe were oblivious to what had just occurred. The old man was quite shaken up and luckily was helped onto the footpath by a passerby.

I realised that the reason for the recent increase in ‘cars’ stopping illegally ‘just for a minute’ to get a coffee was that the message from seeing ’emergency vehicles and officers’ and a senior politician just stopping to get a coffee was that this behaviour is OK. Well its not OK, as no standing zones exist for safety reasons – to protect pedestrians such as the elderly man, and for vehicles to turn safely from a busy road into a side street. The message to everyone who ‘see’s these vehicle’s parked in this manner is that ‘it doesn’t matter’ about the no standing zone – it is OK to stop for a five minutes to get a coffee. What these behaviours are essentially about is that ‘other people’ are not considered. Increasingly we see these sort of behaviours where people seem to be oblivious to the impact and potential consequences their actions have on other people. It is as though they exist in their own universe centered around their own needs.

This is the case, and in defense of all of those people who just ‘stop for 5 minutes’ they are not thinking about other people. As I pointed out above more than 60% of what we do each day is on autopilot, these people who ‘stop for 5 minutes’ are focused on getting to work – they are thinking of saving time, they don’t want to be late and other people and ‘consequences of their actions’ are not even on their radar. In short they are experiencing the debilitating effects of Busy Brain Syndrome – which reduces their awareness of their environment to their own insular little universe. This is why if the old man had been hit by the car – the occupants of the emergency vehicle would have been completely mortified, devastated that their ‘non-thinking’ and non-consideration of the possible implications of their actions led to possibly the serious injury or death of a pedestrian.