Red-Deer-Stag-at-RutIn an earlier post David talked bollards - the wooden variety used on the roadside, that is. The ones on his street were forever getting damaged or knocked out of the ground by drivers of larger vehicles. It wasn’t their fault. They didn’t have enough space to manoeuvre back out.

During five years spent looking out of his window he had watched a succession of workmen turning up to put them back again. No matter how many times it happened the fix was always the same – a bigger block of concrete. It had gone on for so long that only one conclusion could be drawn: experimenting with solutions, learning and continually improving was not a management priority.  Which made me wonder what was?

I decided to ask a friend. In her job on the front-line giving advice and taking referrals for social services she has a ring-side seat on what managers get up to during the working day. “It’s like that bit in The Wire“, she said as we began our weekend constitutional walk. “You know, the one where McNulty finds a body drifting out to sea”. I won’t be giving too much of the storyline away so no need to ‘look away now’ if you have yet to view the programme.

US Cop Show

She was referring to the very first episode of Series 2. It’s the turn of the millennium and, when he is not binge drinking and cheating on his wife, Jimmy McNulty is a cop in Baltimore. Nothing much has changed in the US east coast port in the two decades since the eponymous song. For housing project residents it’s still as bleak as Randy Newman painted it: the city’s dying; oh man it’s hard just to live. It seems dying is easier – in the west of the city alone the police deal with 300 murders a year.

That’s a number McNulty’s boss, the hard-arsed Colonel Rawls, knows off by heart, it being the denominator for working out his squad’s homicide clearance rate. The detectives under his command are acutely aware of Rawl’s obsession with this statistic which he can quote anytime to within a tenth of a percent. Whenever it’s in danger of slipping he gets on their backs to wrap up outstanding cases. McNulty is obsessed with bringing criminals to book too. His focus is down on the detail of police work however and less on the stats.

He makes no secret of his contempt for those who put chain of command above doing a good job. “I thought you was real police”, McNulty chides senior FBI officers who decline to lend their weight to a prosecution case being built against drug gang leaders. News of this outburst filters its way back to Rawls who was already looking to get McNulty out of his squad. Feeling humiliated, and incensed that McNulty went over his head to meet the feds, Rawls loses what little patience he had left. At the end of Series 1 McNulty is demoted to harbour police patrol, a ‘sentence’ to the worst place he’d like to be.

Ebb Tide

As they approach the floating body McNulty spots that the unfortunate young woman has both legs broken. A jumper from the bridge reckons his crew mate. Once ashore this suicide verdict looks doubtful as McNulty notices that the woman has defence wounds. He leaves it to his former colleagues in western district to investigate. A day or so later he pays a visit to their office, the first time he’s been back since his demotion. He’s gone in search of detective Bunk, his drinking buddy, but he’s out on a call.

“Look who it is. Sailor boy!”, the departmental sergeant, Jay teases McNulty. After giving them the benefit of his views on their latest dead body McNulty asks them to tell Bunk he was there. “Have fun”, he says as he turns to leave. “We already had our fun dumping her on Bulmore County”, Jay shoots back with a hearty, self-satisfied laugh. “The County?”, asks a shocked McNulty. “You fished her out east of the bridge. That’s Bulmore County. She’s their stiff”, Jay explains. “You sold them on that?”, McNulty enquiries incredulously. “Rawls did”, Jay goes on, “he rang up their colonel and says ‘you’ve got a hell of a murder on your hands’.” This time McNulty does leave, looking like a man with a mission.

A few scenes later it’s early the next day and we are back in the homicide office. Rawls opens his door and steps out looking down at some papers he’s holding. “Sergeant”, he calls out almost coquettishly, “your floater’s come back.” In the preceding scenes McNulty is seen working through the night poring over maps of the habour and eventually faxing the results to Bulmore County CID. Rawls reads out the bad news – “some useless idiot in our marine unit reported to the County boys that the early morning tides and wind currents show the body went in to the water on the west side of the bridge”. To spare you their expletives let’s just say McNulty’s name is mud.

Wise Words

All this arguing the toss sounded very familiar to my friend who works in social services. On occasion the disputes are with counterparts in another town where the person seeking help has come from, usually recently. More often, it’s not someone’s claim to residence that is at issue; it’s whether what will help them is classed as social care or health care. The distinctions can be very fine, and the managers have to be adept at standing their ground with the local health service providers.

What’s at stake after all is their reputation as strong or weak managers. Quite naturally they pay most attention to what will come under scrutiny like avoiding budget over-spends and hitting the targets on the key PIs (performance indicators) that get reported upwards. It’s likely to be the same in the department responsible for those bollards outside David’s house.

As most organisations are set up to make the separate functions accountable to the ranks above, those who get on will have learnt, without really thinking about it, what the McNulty character in The Wire has not. As Jay pointedly tells him after triumphantly announcing the dumping of the murder case on the neighbouring police force: “It’s all about self-preservation, Jimmy”. For that a pair of menacing-looking antlers are, figuratively speaking, indispensible.

Tagged with:

W. E. DemingRecently someone from the Deming community here in the UK told me how he’d just come back from a visit with members of the US Deming fraternity. He said the general feeling among them was that ‘followers’ of Dr. W. Edwards Deming weren’t getting any younger and the pool was not renewing itself with sufficient new ‘recruits’. There was a growing sense of finality. Certainly, almost twenty years after his death, it seems Deming’s legacy is entering a different phase.

And yet, as is the way with these things, since I’ve been thinking more and more about our next NET2 session on Deming thought and practice, a steady stream of blog posts about the good doctor has been flowing into my feeds. I thought I’d share some. NET2 isn’t a ‘Deming Network’ per se, but we’re certainly pleased to play a part in keeping the man’s invaluable insights and thinking alive and seeking to ensure his influence continues long into the future. If you’re not overly familiar with his work, check out some of these links.

No Wonder Executives HATED Deming, Davis Balestracci

Evaluating Teachers, Lean in Alaska Blog

Mike Stoecklein’s Memories of Working With Dr Deming, one of Mark Graban’s LeanBlog Podcasts. Then from Mike’s own Gemba Walkabout blog there’s the post that led to the podcast, Reflections on My (Brief) Time with Dr. Deming, followed by I’m Not Hearing Enough About “Understanding Variation” and Circle Reports – Example of Not Understanding Variation .

W. Edwards Deming: The Man and His Message, Doris Quinn, PhD, Director Process Improvement and Quality Education (audio)

Deming: The Man Behind The Legend, Alan Clark

A CowThat was a phrase I heard a lot growing up in the (urban) wilds of the north of England. Mostly in the winter. This being the days before mod cons like double-glazing and central heating the warmest place was by the fireplace in the front room, the only source of heat in these houses. Unless it got really cold, that is, when an antiquated-looking appliance fuelled by paraffin was wheeled (literally) into service to take the chill off the back-kitchen.

On winter days, my Dad could often be found after dinner (aka lunch) by the hearth. It was his favoured spot for studying the horse-racing form in the sports’ pages. Vital data, as on his way back to work, he would be putting a (small) bet on. It was from this favoured spot that he would slightly chastise me for “letting all the the cold air in”. Once again I had not closed the door behind me after returning from a short (because freezing) trip to the ‘bathroom’ upstairs.

This memory of huddling round to keep warm came back to me as I read this passage about the veillees of nineteenth-century France in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State:

“The veillee, as its name implies, was a traditional pattern of gathering practiced by farm families during winter evenings, often in barns to take advantage of the warmth generated by the livestock and thus save on fuel…Given the fact that each member there possessed a lifetime of interested observation and practice (on successfully living off the land)… the veillee was an unheralded daily seminar on practical knowledge.”

Someone wondered aloud recently at one of our meetings: “how do you describe NET2 to people who’ve never been?”. Well, it’s like one of those gatherings of French agriculturalists. Just like them we “routinely exchange and preserve practical knowledge”. True, crops and produce are rarely mentioned but we are still, in a sense, talking about maintaining yields or getting better ones in our chosen settings. The big difference is that, if we own any, we leave our livestock at home. The warmth they’d provide is not needed as the rooms we meet in all have start-of-the-art heating and air-conditioning systems. So nobody minds if you don’t close the door behind you.


It’s sometimes said that your tongue can make you deaf. If you just spoke a little less and listened more you might just learn something. Most of us see the sense of that advice, though doing it maybe another matter. Me, I’m not saying! Another cause of ‘deafness’, much less widely appreciated perhaps, is the purpose behind what we do, whether that’s an explicit one or not. I’ll tell you the first time I truly recognised this.

A local council asked me to survey people in terraced houses without driveways for ‘off-street’ parking. Instead they had ‘on street’ parking schemes introduced after residents had voiced frustrations about getting somewhere to park in their road.  By buying a permit they could park within their local zone, but anyone else could only stay for 10 minutes.

The survey, as surveys do, asked about satisfaction and value for money. Many residents, it turned out, were not happy . They highlighted two main problems. For one, they didn’t like getting ‘penalty charge notices’, parking tickets to you and me.  They appealed against these PCNs and in 80% of cases they won.  That’s because the new permit they had ordered hadn’t arrived, or they just hadn’t stuck it in their windscreen yet. The other bugbear was finding they often had nowhere to park near their home, sometimes not even in the same street. If this was a residents’ parking scheme then it wasn’t working as they, the residents, frequently couldn’t park.

What happened next really confounded me. My response to the survey’s ‘customer insights’ was to immediately start thinking of solutions. Everything from painting parking bays on the street to allocating one to each house. Why else go to the trouble of doing a survey if you weren’t going to change things in line with the findings?  But try as I might, the best I got from my council colleagues was polite, slightly amused indifference. They just didn’t seem to care. Was I missing something? Well yes, I was and so were many of the car-owner residents.

It was my fellow blogger, Phil, who pointed out that the purpose of the schemes was not to ensure residents could park, but rather to stop non-residents from parking! That’s different. They were non-resident parking exclusion zones. These increased the odds that residents could park but didn’t guarantee it. The actual purpose behind the schemes meant quite simply that those who ran them were unmoved by the plight of their customers. They didn’t share the same purpose. Until they did, residents’ concerns would go in one ear and out the other.

Now, many years on, I see that this council calls them Residents’ Priority Parking Schemes.  This, no doubt, is to make the purpose as they see it clear. ‘Being in the scheme’, they state, ‘does not guarantee you a space but gives you priority over other vehicles’. So that’s that then. I guess they, unlike me, must be content to just ‘manage expectations’ – a phrase I loathe. But if they’d listened to the survey they would have come out with a different purpose. Who knows what creativity and learning this would have unleashed? A follow-up survey might then have shown less grumbles and gripes and more delight amongst the people they are meant to be serving.

So remember, your tongue isn’t the only thing that can make you deaf. In organisational life, the very purpose of your team or service, its reason for existing, could leave you hard of hearing.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.