Build or burn?

Service Level Agreements make me groan

Although management as a profession has done its fair share of damage to the English language, most of the time I’m quite taken with some of the expressions.  A neat phrase can make otherwise clunky concepts more readily understood. For instance,  I wish I had the imagination to dream up a better phrase for ‘new ways of working’. My favourite bit of management-speak is ‘behind the curve’.  It’s got everything: elegance, a hint of mathematics; a sense of change and dynamism.  The last place anyone wants to be is behind the curve.

There are however words and phrases that make my heart sink.  ‘Risk assessments’ are one, ‘quality assurance’ is another, but the one that really kills me is ‘Service Level Agreement’ or SLA.

Unfair?  Ok, the phrases themselves aren’t ugly.  Neither am I against taking risks, doing things right, or customer service.  What bothers me is they have come to embody the exact opposite of these behaviours.  In seeking to give objective measurement of something that is dependent on the character and competence of those performing the task, they end up doing the opposite.  By being heavy on ‘process’ and demanding a papertrail to evidence the process, they provide an organisation with assurance it is doing all it can.  Assurance is a faulty walking stick: lean too heavily and it will collapse. 

There are lots of examples of this. Take ‘Prince2′ project management methodology.  I once inherited a project from someone who must have swallowed the Prince2 manual.  For the uninitiated, this is basically a description of best practice for managing projects.  You can’t say its wrong.  What’s wrong is that in thinking that by following the Prince2 methodology, the project will be well managed.  In this particular project I inherited an elaborate framework of people managing sub-projects and reporting progress in a standardised way that could itself be easily summarised.  These reports were being issued, chased up and completed with exemplary timing.  The only trouble was the project wasn’t making any progress.  That example is a bit unfair. The person following the Prince2 methods was a temporary appointment.  People were just being polite in filling in his forms until a permanent appointment was made.

These process-heavy, highly evidenced, activities do seem to attract a certain type of person and if that was the only problem then it wouldn’t be more than a slightly drag on productivity.  But they are more dangerous than that.

I recall sitting in board meeting after board meeting where the manager in charge of fulfilling customer orders was continually under attack from the sales and marketing people.  This logistics manager had reams of data explaining the precise % of orders fulfilled against despatch dates.  It was always 90%+.  Given this was an export business, with production coming from many different factories, this wasn’t too bad.  However, the sales people kept saying how many complaints they received about our customer service.  The debate became increasingly unpleasant as time went on.  What I recall most clearly however was the way in which the language both sides employed missed each other so completely. One side was talking objective statistics; the other was reflecting the emotions of their customers.  Looking back from a distance of 20 years I now realise that the source of the problem lay in the management of customer expectations which was the responsibility of the sales people that were being so angry in their attacks.  I wonder why the chief exec didn’t intervene.  It just shows you the importance of personality in these situations.  The logistics managers was a nice, logical man.  He didn’t stand a chance against the more charismatic, and aggressive, sales people.  I think the rest of us, myself included, enjoyed the spectator sport a bit too much.  That was quite a ‘political’ company as I recall.  Fun to work in, but you needed to be prepared to fight.

This story illustrates the danger of applying metrics and an objective, evidence-based approach to any area of human endeavour.  It risks entirely missing the point.  And why Service Level Agreements make me groan is that they not only distract you from this human element, they give you the firm impression you’ve got it all under control.

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