As part of the development course I’m on at work at the moment, I had to put together a presentation. It could be on any subject at all as long as it was around the 10-15 minute mark. While I was thinking about what to do, BBC2 screened Adam Curtis’ fabulous “The trap: whatever happened to our dreams of freedom”.
It touched heavily on statistic driven culture so tapped a nerve in relation to the way things are going at my work right now. I decided to use this as a starting point for the presentation.
In the interest of clearing things out as the end of the year approaches, I’ve decided to publish the presentation here.
The slideshow and corresponding notes can be found below. Loosely, each numbered slide relates to the numbered paragraph, although due to some last minute editing to tighten it up and remove jokes which were falling flat, it’s out slightly. The presentations moment has passed so I probably wont return to it to fix these errors.
1. Thank you. For my presentation, I was going to look at my specific area, but I figured that by this point in the afternoon, an in depth analysis of how SJPB operates might just send you to sleep. So I decided to look at my job in a broader scale…
2. Which lead me to have a look at call centres in general, and, apart from the fact that its impossible to find a picture of a call centre worker where they aren’t grinning insanely, I had intended to talk about the history of call centres and how they evolved. But the more I thought about the topic, the more the subject presented itself to me that I should look at one specific area. It’s an area that many of us accept as a fact of working life, albeit one that is generally unpopular with workers but popular with managers…
3. Targets, Key Performance Indicators, Statistics…whatever you want to call them. If you work in a modern call centre, they’re inescapable. But are they the best way of working? Stats might measure that Tom sells more than Bob but it doesnt measure that tom will do anything to get a sale and many customers will never come back, whereas Bob gets to know his customers more so builds loyalty which leads to more repeat customers for the company. Still, looking at the stats, Tom is a better worker. Surely there must be a more accurate way of measuring things? Why do we even do things this way? I decided to trace back to the roots of this way of working in the hope of understanding it more. Surprisingly for such a dry topic, it’s history couldn’t be more vivid.
4. It’s a tale that encompases everything from cold war spies to the story of how Psychiatry became huge business in America. On the way, it touches on Thatchers Britain of the 1980’s and Psychologically disturbed Nobel prize winning economists having their life story made into Hollywood films. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
5. I decided to look back at the history of KPI’s. Believe it or not, much as we take it for granted that all aspects of life are in some way influenced by KPI’s, they are a relatively recent invention.
6. When we think back to the work life of our parents and grandparents, it is very different to the work life which we take for granted now.
7. It’s easy to look back through rose tinted glasses, especially when it is something which we only view through the forced optimism of post world war 2 western media but when we think of the average working life back then, we think of a job for life…
8. One of happy workers turning up to the office and working their hardest all day but already in the 1950’s the seeds were in place which led on to the targeted, performance driven workplace we all know today.
9. THE COLD WAR – After world war 2, much of mainland Europe was left devastated. There had always been a mutual distrust between Russia and America but it was through them uniting to fight the common enemy that ultimately led to the Nazi’s downfall. After the Nazi’s were defeated, much like is happening currently in Iraq, the victors had to create an interim government to run the country until a new governing structure could be put in place.
10. Since America and Russia’s political ideologies differed so much (Capitalism vs Communism), no agreement could be reached on the shape this government could take, meaning that ultimately…
11. the country was divided into capitalism in the west and communism in the east. The divide which can most simply be illustrated by the construction of the Berlin wall which cut Berlin in half from its construction in 1961 until its ultimate destruction in 1989
12. And I’d like to stress at this point that it wasn’t me who painted that!
13. The distrust between the 2 nations never reached violence but resulted in an ever spiraling arms race until the disintegration of the USSR in the late 80’s. the distrust, rivalry and espionage which resulted was dubbed the cold war.
14. In America, a government instigated group called the RAND corporation were largely involved in structuring the strategies of the US against the USSR.
15.When planning strategies, they had to try and predict as accurately as possible what Russia’s reaction would be to each of their proposed strategies, so they could decide the best course of action. A formula was devised which was hoped could predict with accuracy the likely reactions of Russia.
15b. This was called Game Theory and was outlined in the book “Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour” by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, although, was more famously refined by
16. John Nash, who won a Nobel prize in economics for his work which became known as the Nash Equilibria. Nash gained mainstream fame after the Hollywood Movie “A Beautiful Mind” was made about his struggle with mental illness.
17. The ideas and formulae of Game Theory are way more complex than needs to be explained in this presentation (which is just my way of saying I don’t entirely understand it all!) but, as the name suggests, takes its ideas from gaming tactics.
18. For example, Chessmasters are said
to always be thinking between 3-5 moves ahead. Before they make their move, they will consider the moves available to them. for each, they will consider how the opposition may react and what choices that leaves them, etc.
19. Obviously, it is achievable when trying to read the actions of an individual sitting a few feet in front of you becomes impossible when trying to anticipate the actions of an entire country. In order to try and predict with some degree of accuracy therefore, the models used by RAND were based on the assumption that everyone, even politicians at the highest levels would, when it came down to it, base their decisions and their actions on what was best for them, their family and friends first. Even if that contrasted what was best for the country.
Over time, the ideas of Game Theory, and the fact that we were all essentially simple computers who’s next actions could be predicted with a degree of accuracy began to take hold of the public imagination. But, in America at least, it really took off in 1972, when Science magazine published a paper called…
20. “on being sane in insane places” by David Rosenhan. Rosenhan arranged for 12 subjects to present themself at the doors of 12 different psychiatric hospitals across the US. They were told to tell one lie, then otherwise, act completely normally. That one lie being that they herd a voice which simply said the word ‘Thud’
At all 12 hospitals, the doctors assessed that the subjects were insane and commited them. Despite their protestations that it had been an experiment and they were in fact sane, in every case, the doctors refused to release them. It became obvious that the only way to get back out was to agree with the doctors that, yes they were crazy, but they were getting better.
21. He conducted a further experiments which all cast the psychiatric profession in a bad light and left its reputation in tatters. It destroyed the idea that psychiatrists were a privelaged elite with specialist knowledge. and, in an attempt to turn round its fortunes, a new way of diagnosing was devised. One which, yet again, incorporated many elements of game theory.
22. Since Rosenhal was criticising that doctors allowed personal opinion to influence diagnosis, questionairres were devised whereby people could accurately gauge their state of mind This was presented as being irrefutable since it was based on numbers and therefore cold, hard facts. based purely on the surface behaviour of humans. A system in which the diagnosis could literally be done by computer. a series of yes no questions. meaning they could be administered by lay people, not psychiatrists… the numbers would be fed into a computer and, instead of deciding whether someone was sane or insane, it would simply illustrate whether the subject demonstrated the characteristics of, for example Attention Deficit disorder or depression. They tested using hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Previously, psychiatrists had only diagnosed people who were recognised as needing help so this was the first time psychiatrists had analysed ‘ordinary’ people.
23. The results…more than 50% of normal americans sufferred from some kind of mental disorder. The public imagination was arrested by this, so the ideas of Game theory, where peoples behaviours were boiled down to simple, predictable behaviours was now seeing full mainstream acceptance.
24. The 70’s became the 80’s and on both sides of the atlantic, there was political change afoot. In america, Many of the RAND corporations workers had worked their way up through the political stratosphere and were in high positions of influence in Reagans administration. Over here, Thatcher professed an admiration of the reasearch and work of James Buchanan. In an attempt to revolutionise and modernise british culture, she set about selling off many state owned institutions.
25. it was obvious however, that certain institutions, such as the NHS were better served remaining under state rule. She had plans too, however to bring them in line. Rather than run them with the reliance that people would work their hardest through simple public duty, things were turned on their head so that, instead, workers would be incentivised. The theory, which was lifted directly from the cold war game theories, being that at the heart of it, people would make their choices through self interest and ultimately, by playing up to their selfishness their actions could be predicted.
26. The man she drafted in to overhaul the NHS was called Alain Enthoven and had been one of the key nuclear strategists in RAND during the cold war.
27. He devised a system whereby every job would be boiled down to its constituent parts. each part could then be set targets and, in this way, performance could be measured. through offering incentives, desirable performance could be rewarded.
28. Based on the Game theory notion that ultimately, everyone is selfish and looking out for their own best interests, the government decided that by waiving the carrot of better pay for those who met targets. They were then shocked to discover that productivity, rather than increasing as they had expected stayed more or less the same. The simple fact was that most of the doctors were already working as hard as they possibly could so there was little more could be squeezed out of them All the performance targets did was add to the overall stress of an already stressful job and, as we will see, led to some very unsavoury actions.
29. What started with the NHS soon spread through all aspects of society and was soon accepted as the normal way of doing things. This was the moment when Game theory truly took hold of western society. It could be viewed that this acceptance was vindication. and proof that Game Theory, and the statistic driven society and worklife that followed was truly the best way for society to be. However, time and time again, managers, faced with dire consequences because their department or organisation are not reaching the targets set to them, have demonstrated that the system is flawed. The main flaw in the system being that, with some creativity, the goalposts can be moved enough for the targets to be achieved.
There are many famous pieces of evidence which show how those in power, faced with the pressure of meeting seemingly unachievable targets playing the system to ‘massage’ the figures.
30. Lothian and Borders police drew criticism when targeted with reducing their violent crime. The figures fell drastically which was originally seen as a huge success. But when examined more closely, it was seen that they had simply reclassified many types of crime from knife crime to rape check facts so they were no longer considered ‘violent crime’.
31. As you might expect, the NHS are responsi
ble for some particularly memorable ones. When targeted with lowering the waiting time between entering Accident & Emergency and being seen by a medical professional, they introduced the ‘Greeter’. Anyone who has ever been in A&E and, after waiting for 5 minutes have had a nurse come out and have a quick look at whatever you are there for then disappear again will know what I mean by this. The sole purpose of the greeter is so they can put a tick next to your name and say you have been seen by a medical professional within the required timescale. Never mind the fact you might have to wait a further 2 hours until you are actually treated.
31b. When targeted with increasing the overall number of beds, in wards, in the hospital, they removed the wheels from stretchers and reclassified them as beds. Hallways and waiting rooms were reclassified as wards, meaning that you could be lying alone on a stretcher in a hallway but, as far as the government targets were concerned, you were on a bed, in a ward. Many hospitals also started re-prioritising and treating minor, easily treated ailments first just so they could be more quickly removed from the waiting list.
31c. Far more disturbingly, one particular hospital wrote out to all the patients who were on their waiting list for treatment asking if and when they had holidays booked. Most patients assumed this was to help with scheduling and duly filled in the questionnaire. The hospital then deliberately sent patients appointments for treatment which clashed with their holidays meaning that most had to cancel. because they cancelled, they would be added back to the bottom of the waiting list, resetting the clock and buying the hospital a further 6 months check that it was 6 months they were targeted with
32. So clearly, incentivised, statistic driven culture at best is seriously flawed and, at worst, just doesnt work at all. Time is spent playing the figures which could more productively be spent doing the job they are paid to do. If we get rid of this way of doing things though, what can we bring in to replace it? To look back now more specifically at IF/SJPB customer service again, could there be a better way of working?
33. I’ve devised a way of working which could drastically improve the way the contact centre operates. A way of working which would improve productivity and empower the staff to claim recognition for good work
34. The fact is that game theory is half correct. For some people, self interest does shape their performance and drive them to perform at a higher level. Typically, these people thrive in a sales environment. This is fine since the company needs good salespeople too. However, for people who’s skills lie in customer service, they have a different set of motivators. They are more likely to take pride in doing as good a job as they can in a customer service perspective and are left cold by targets. these are the people who don’t fit into the game theory models and for whom targets just don’t work. As a company, we should recognise this and innovate in creating an environment which fits this way of working.
35. The company eradicated all team coaches, leaving the day to day running of every team to just team managers. The team mangers job involves many activities extrenious to the running of the team meaning that, on any given day, the manger isn’t actually present a great deal of the time to see what the individual team members are doing. This means that they, and their own managers must resort to reviewing their team on the only information at their fingertips, that of statistics and targets. These targets are often on things which CSC’s have little control over, like how close to your break you actually go for one. if you are stuck on a call when its time for break, there is nothing you can do about it. This leads to unrest amongst those who are working hard to serve the company well and do their best in the customer, and therefore the companies, interest when they see those who, to their mind are performing on individual calls to a lower level than them, be recognised and rewarded by the business. we have a reward process in place but too often, this is focussed on those who bring new business rather than those who retain business. To those who excel in customer service, this is very demoralising.
36. By looking at every team in the business, and choosing the most experienced agent within that team as a ‘mentor’ and promoting their responsibilities accordingly, they would be tasked with being with the team constantly, without the distractions of meetings and other responsibilities and through a weekly, half hour meeting with the team manager, could brief the manager on those who were going beyond the call of duty to perform the high level of service which, as a company, we strive to deliver. This would take into consideration those unusual cases which don’t fit the normal, measurable criteria but are, overall good for the business and which otherwise go unrecognised.
The individual agent would be responsible for briefing the mentor in any cases they had dealt with which deserved special mention and the mentors main role would be to document this service and feed back to the manager. In this way, we could record, and reward, the true high performers within the company. Those who’s quiet, unrelenting work to promote the brand in the customers eyes as a service of world beating quality would no longer go unrecognised. The main targets could still remain but staff would now be measured on actual, measurable performance in customer service rather than arbitary measures of performance which don’t measure overall customer impact.
37 As a company, we must decide whether or not we want to be seen as first for customer service or first for sales. Sales, which is what our targets are currently based on, is a very powerful, influential (at least at executive level) way of measuring performance and certainly should not be ignored. But through accurately measuring service, and those who daily go out their way to provide a world beating level of customer service, we can retain more customers. Although offsetting is ultimately better for most customers, they still chase the best rates for mortgages. However, service is a great retaining power. Customers who like the service become loyal. loyal customers will stay with us beyond the end of their special rate mortgage and through to ultimate termination. Only through world beating service can we achieve world beating retention. this has the knock on effect of world beating profit. It’s a win-win situation. The client, the agent and the company all win. We can chose to be a company who constantly chases the lowest rate and the best marketing strategy to bring new customers in to compensate for those we have lost, or we can choose to reward excellent service…promoting excellent service has the knock on effect of making it seam a desiarable thing to do meaning even those who are self serving will rwealise it is the better aim than pursuing the arbitary targets currently imposed. With that mindset, the company can progress to a new age of world beating service.