Where are the system specialists in UK? The amber light for UK today

EPS

If you are an accountant or financier, EPS means earnings per share. If you are a staff manager or systems designer, EPS means events, patterns, systems.

Events, patterns, systems

Here we are in November 2009, a good year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and two years after the run on Northern Rock.

Events

Each of those is an event. People on the front line had to respond. They stood in the queue to get their money out of Northern Rock. They carried their belongings in a forlorn cardboard box out of the Lehman building.

Events are about doing. What we do brings them about. What we do deals with their consequences, good or bad.

Patterns

Two banks going under (and later more) may or may not be part of a pattern. In this case, we have a pattern.

As soon as people made a “run” on Northern Rock, many of us will have asked, is the ea pattern? And if so, what shall we do about it?

Many of us sat down immediately to review the stability of our own banks. We checked out all the rules and moved our money about so all our eggs weren’t in one basket.

Patterns are about asking questions. Is a pattern emerging? If so, what are the forces behind the pattern? How will the pattern effect us? What does knowledge of the pattern allow us to turn it into an event ~ to do.

Systems

And as soon as we had moved our own assets to safety, we asked the next question: why? Why and how did we run our affairs so they led us to this peril? How was it that we missed earlier patterns and did not take evasive action earlier?

For ordinary people, systems are about pondering. And for some ranting and raving. Professional systems designers and staff managers review the information systems alert the people who “do” that something needs “doing”. We review the information systems that trigger, or failed to trigger, question. And we review the information we used to look for patterns.

Events, patterns and systems correspond to the three circles of managers.

Do-ers

On the front line are those that do. They need information to warn them of events and to manage events as they unfold.

Managers

One step back are managers. Their job is not to ask whether the doing is getting done ~ that is the job of doers. Their job is to look at patterns.

They might compile the information on whether the job is getting done and feed it to the frontline. But if the job is not getting done, they should ask whether the right information is being delivered at the right time.

System designers

A second step back are system designers ~ managers of managers. They neither control events nor deliver information directly.

They ask another question: will the system of doing, pattern detection and information give us the patten of events that we are able to manage?

Many people start to glaze over at this point.

What kind of work do you like to do?

Doing is busy and immediate

Most people work on the front line. They like it there. It is busy, active, sociable and very very immediate.

Good management works ahead of the action using information from days gone by

The old saying, though, is that without good governance, life is nasty, brutish and short.

Let me illustrate in everyday terms with the smallest act of good management. An irritation shared is usually quartered. When someone is carrying a heavy load, we stop to help. It takes us a few seconds and it makes a huge difference to easing their day.

When we have the right information at the right time and the right place, everyone is able to do more, more quickly. Manager might not carry the heavy loads themselves, but they will have alerted people that someone needs help, or found out whether the heavy load could have been broken into parts, or worked out whether it would be cost effective to get in some machinery.

Managers work ahead of the action by using information from days gone by. They still see what is happening. They see results and often dramatic results. But they are not doers.

Managers miss doing

In many organizations, managers come from the ranks of doers and they resent not being part of the old team. And they resent no longer having the thrill of immediacy. In some organizations, like universities, they resent the sharp loss of status because doers – those who do research – know that managers are unable to do.

In most organizations, managers also have the power to order, rather than advise, doers. Managers are also paid more.

Higher status & greater authority makes sense when we are unable to manage without first having been doers.

Increasingly though, it makes no sense at all for managers to be paid more than the people they manage. Take air traffic controllers, for example. They are unlikely to have been jet pilots. Air traffic controlling and flying planes are two different career paths which are learned and maintained separately. For very limited periods, air traffic controllers are able to give orders to pilots, but this is only a pragmatic arrangement. A system has been worked out where you “take a number and wait your turn”. Air traffic controllers are announcing the pilot’s turn ~ not telling them how to do their jobs.

We see instantly from this example that more people prefer to do ~ fly the plane ~ than control. That is how it should be. Nonetheless controlling is an important job for those who have the temperament to do it.

System designers are removed from the action but think up the system

And now you walk away, a little bored but satisfied that you understand it all. You’ve forgotten the system designers. Who thought up the system of air traffic control? Who investigates when something goes wrong?

Well, the third tier are widely despised! We don’t do. We don’t control. We are rarely seen until after the action and then only when things have gone wrong. We are the system designers and we come in two forms: the forensic – the after the event crew ~ and the designers.

Either way, our job is look at the system and ask whether it delivers a range of situations that are doable and controllable.

Obviously there are few of us. We aren’t needed every day.

The ongoing work of systems designers is seen more obviously in process plants. Highly qualified engineers design the plant and are on hand to advise when the process limps. When the system becomes luggable, or otherwise incomprehensible, the engineers are called in to reveal the more obscure ways of getting things to run smoothly again.

Design work is even more interesting because it is done ahead of time. Design work in human systems often attracts people who have a lot to say about the world. They don’t necessarily fit in well to systems work simply because the world rarely obliges us by doing what it is told!

Good systems designers are savvy. They leave plenty of room for the system to wrap itself round people and the way they do things. System designers have a good sense of side-effects, they have a sense of how long things take, and they understand the stop-and-go nature of human affairs.

But note, systems designers exist!  They’ve designed every thing you use. Banks. Post offices. Roads.

They check everything you use. There are engineers out there right now checking that the bridges are safe. There are doctors running medical “seeing ahead” to possibilities you cannot imagine. There are auditors checking businesses and banks to make sure your money is safe.

Where are the people who designed our systems?

What has puzzled me during the scandals of the last two years is that we haven’t heard much about the system designers – both designers and forensic investigators. I am not sure why we have this silence.

We are left with the impression that system specialists have been taken out of the system and the top level managers who are responsible for overseeing them haven’t being doing their job.

An amber light for the great system of the UK

For me, that is the greatest “system” amber light in UK today.

Why aren’t the system designers more visible?

Why don’t we point clearly to work units, to degree courses, to professions whose very job is to make sure life is doable and controllable?

Isn’t the lack of trust that people have in UK politicians precisely because they cannot see where decisions are made?

Who designs the system? Who checks that it is running? Point me to their offices!

Education level that was good for the top 3% is now necessary for all but the bottom 3%

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. — Soren Kierkegaard

Good to remember!

Though most people are better living forwards that understanding backwards

In industrial psychology, we distinguish between “tracking” and “diagnosis”.

Take a pilot landing a large plane, for example. They assimilate a lot of information, that changes before they have time to put it into words, and bring the plane down, hopefully, to a gentle landing at high speed.

When, God forbid that something goes wrong, highly trained investigators will come in to work out what happened. The investigators aren’t likely to be pilots and the investigators probably don’t land fully laden passenger jets.

We have specially trained people to think backwards

In factories, we make the same distinction. We have hands-on people who keep complex, continuous flow plants going, safely.  It’s as demanding as landing a plane.

Yet, the day the process breaks down, we call the process engineers. They work out what went wrong and bring science to bear to figure out what the factory managers can do to get the plant going again.

The two people groups aren’t interchangeable. Simply, the managers think forwards. The engineers think backwards.

Usually the engineers are more highly educated. They often earn more.

But they aren’t “line”. And the “line” thinks they are egg-heads because they can’t do the “real thing”.

So it is funny that we have to be reminded not to think backwards. Most of us don’t. Most of us can’t. We need experts for that.

In the future, we might have to do thinking forward as well as thinking backwards

What has been puzzling me recently, or truthfully what is in my in-basket marked “puzzles”, is how the “design-thinking” approach to management will change this divide.

Take Toyota, for example. Every worker on the assembly line is capable of doing quite sophisticated experiments.  They use statistics equivalent to Honours in any subject except statistics itself.   The two types of work seem to be merging.

The idea of ‘failing informatively’ will also change what professions like engineering and psychology learn and contribute in the work place. We will not only be required to diagnose what went wrong. We will be required to play a more hands-on role in moving things forward.

This is the age of statistics

The attitude of Google to data makes simple A B experiments a day-to-day job rather than the job of an expensive graduate. The burgeoning use of good visuals makes statistics a discipline of communication.

I sense there is more to this change than I am saying here. What is clear though, is that the education levels that used to be regarded as the preserve of the top 3% of the population are now necessary for all but the bottom 3%.  Necessary. Not optional.

How can every child learn statistics?

So what are we going to do about illiteracy in Western countries?   It amazes me that people who cannot read books play computer games quite well.

So I doubt this is a real problem. We need to get kids into factories where they see statistics being used

And then they can teach us!