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.

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