RESPONDING TO an article on the outsourcing frenzy, a reader lamented that managers had forgotten how to manage: their first reaction was to look for packaged solutions that offloaded responsibility for anything difficult on to someone else. This resonated with the observation by a council chief executive that young managers were so reliant on targets they had become incapable of managing without them. Confronted by the need to use judgment, they were at a loss.
Such behaviour is part of the burgeoning phenomenon of management lite - managing by numbers and formulas rather than judgment and method. What this dumbing-down of the discipline means in practice was captured with brutal clarity last week in the Panorama investigation into apparently dubious food-preparation and labelling practices at Tesco and Sainsbury. To refresh your memory (if not your palate), the programme alleged that in some stores workers had altered sell-by dates, invented records and sometimes even reprocessed foods for resale. To which the companies replied, more or less in chorus, that they took such allegations seriously, were satisfied that these cases were aberrations, and had retrained staff to ensure they didn't happen again.
No doubt top managers believe that they are telling the truth. But let's unpick it a bit. Why would workers go to such lengths to protect Tesco's profits? Love of the company or loyalty to shareholders? According to the staff in question, time and understaffing pressures were one answer, while others feared for their job prospects if the stores went over tight waste budgets.
Yet we've known for years about the consequences of such a work climate. Statistician W Edwards Deming (whose UK Forum met last week to honour and build on his work) noted half a century ago that where there was fear, there were also phony figures. Targets are a classic substitute for the hard work and thought needed to understand real demand and how to organise work to satisfy it. They have the dual effect of conveying fierce performance pressure downward while absolving those at the top of responsibility for or knowledge of the methods used to achieve them. For those on the receiving end, it's their job against the integrity of the only thing under their control - the figures they give their bosses. As Deming noted, no prizes for guessing which is the casualty.
This is why, under any such a regime, whether the NHS, the police (the subject of the previous week's target nonsense) or shelf-stacking at Tesco, cheating is never just an aberration - the province of 'a few rotten apples' - but the rule the figures collected to monitor them are worthless and managers wholly unaware of what is happening on the ground.
While targets actively corrupt, as the same reader noted, many other management initiatives promoted by successive governments - BS 9001, EFQM, Investors in People - are more about assessment, conformance and verification than how to take action: clipboard thinking, in his words. Still others, such as the adoption of 'solutions' ranging from CRM and call centres to the current favourite, shared services, reflect a naive and gullible belief that technology and data can somehow take the place of reflection and method.
The hollowing-out of management helps explain some otherwise puzzling contradictions. In theory, with more university students at both undergraduate and graduate level studying business than any other subject, our organisations ought to be better run than ever. Yet there is little evidence of this. Rather, the ability to execute seems if anything to be getting worse. In the public sector, the debacles of Hips, junior doctors' appointments, botched Scottish elections and the Rural Payments Agency are a succession of cases in point. The setting aside of no less than an extra pounds 400m to project-manage the Olympics is an extraordinary vote of no confidence in the UK's ability to oversee large projects - but then again, after the Dome, the Scottish parliament and Wembley, it's hardly an unreasonable view to take.
Dumbed-down management does no favours to executives, those they manage, or the organisations they work for. In London recently, management writer Ken Blanchard described the job of leaders as creating a framework within which frontline workers could be trusted to use their brains independently of rules and regulations - the opposite of the Tesco and Sainsbury experience.
Managers are not mechanics who pull (or push) levers to make things happen. As Don Sull at LBS once put it, other than in finance, there aren't global business laws. 'There are useful generalisations, but in management, context, timing, personality and history are everything. The challenge lies in developing judgment, knowing which tool to use rather than reaching for the hammer every time.' It's not the counter staff who need retraining: it's the managers.
The Observer, 27 May 2007