Unexpected consequences

A warning to be careful what you ask for

I recently discovered this story about Direct Line and Churchill Insurance:


You can read the detail in the article but the gist of the story is that the management threatened staff that if an audit failed they could face disciplinary action. In view of that threat some staff ‘amended’ documents and forged signatures to ensure audit compliance. Sadly(?) it failed and the FSA discovered the subterfuge and fined the companies £2.2m.

So why do I share this? Because I have seen similar practices in our clients where the management diktat, designed to bring about improvements in performance, backfired when the recipients of the message made sure that the request was ‘complied’ with. For example, one engineering management team, when they realised that statutory and preventative maintenance schedules were falling behind set up a process to measure compliance by a ‘traffic light’ system. If the team was falling behind in the metric measuring compliance the scorecard would turn red, just missing and it turned amber and if they were on target it would turn green. The message from management was clear “we want the scorecard to be ‘green'” they said. Now I’m certain they meant that somehow the practices needed to change so that the maintenance had to be done in the time frame expected. I’m also sure that they would have accepted a gradual improvement and would have seen amber and red scorecards as flags to make improvements. But the message received was not about improvement over time but as a threat to achieve targets. So the maintenance team made the score card turn green by signing off all the PMs and statutory inspections without actually doing the tasks. Result? A green scorecard, the management were thrilled, “what a great performance” and the plant fell down months later when all the non-maintenance created trips and failures.

My message in this blog is to be careful about what you ask for. If it’s not clear what you want, why you want it and how you expect all of your people to behave then you might not get exactly what you really need. Think about what creative behaviour might be generated by what you ask for. Be certain that you send out the right message as it may drive the wrong and/or opposite behaviours with unexpected consequences.

Has this happened to you? How did you deal with it? Let me know.

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About the author

Dave Dyer

Dave Dyer is a principal consultant within the Operations Improvement team in ABB Consulting. His speciality is in bringing sustainable change and operational benefits to an organisation through the engagement of its people. He hopes to share good ideas and good practice, to inform and to learn.
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