Managing performance and the “thermocline of truth”

Posted on September 13, 2018 by Fiona Corcoran. Tags: ,

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Fellow train nerds will have been watching with interest the ongoing debacle that is the year-long delay to the £15 billion Crossrail project in London. This new east-west railway should be opening this December, but the announcement came a few days ago that this would be delayed by a full year.

Those working in local government will probably be familiar with this – failure and delay suddenly bursting from a clear blue sky. In a few short days we can go from senior officers telling us that all is well to resigned head-shaking and “critical paths” being elongated by weeks, months, and longer.

How does this happen? Are senior managers lying to us? Are they incompetent? Are we just terrible at asking the right questions?

Crossrail provides some answers to that problem. It is not, after all, a piece of work devoid of project management. It is a “megaproject” – one of a handful of large-scale infrastructure projects, globally, whose costs run into the billions. The amount of planning, design and assurance that has gone into it is extraordinary – as is the amount of internal and external oversight. So what on earth has happened, and what can it teach us about how we work in local government?

It is probably as well not to run through the detailed reasons for the delay. A magisterial dissection of the technical issues in play can be found at London Reconnections – and it was that blog which actually turned me on to the title and concept behind this post. Because the reason why failure appears to happen suddenly, and without working, is down not to a will on the part of managers to cover things up – but because of a fear of failure, and how failure is perceived.

This is dubbed the “thermocline of truth”. Senior managers are used to seeing performance scorecards with the usual red, amber and green indicators. Responsibility for each of these indicators will sit with a specific, named member of staff – a person who knows what an issue, or a service, on the ground really looks like. That person will be the one tasked with moving that indicator between red, amber and green.

But say that things are starting to go wrong. Nothing major, perhaps – a few slipped deadlines here or there. An indicator, or indicators, for which you are responsible are sitting at “amber”. You could – perhaps should – move them to “red”. But red indicators trigger all sorts of unpleasant things – escalation of matters to Boards, the production of recovery plans, and so on. That will only take you away from the job in hand – why, having to report upwards all the time might make your job more difficult. So, this quarter, you’ll elide the problem. You’ll keep it at amber and trust that you can drag performance back up.

Except you can’t, and twenty other managers in other parts of the business are making the same judgment about their own performance, and as each quarter rolls by you are making progress but you are falling further and further behind… but that score stays at amber.

And then, suddenly, at some point, the dam breaks. Lots of small delays, minor problems, have combined to create a bigger problem, one that is almost existential. On that, in this case, involves a year’s delay on a project that is meant to be complete the three months. And it happened not because the performance management system, the project management system, wasn’t in place – but because managers didn’t trust that system to help them.

Management systems only work when the people who use them understand what they’re for, and their value. The Crossrail senior engineers and project managers will have worked with complex project management systems their whole lives – they will recognise how critical they are. But in not passing the problem up the line they aren’t thinking about how their work fits in with that of others. Once this sets in everything else breaks down. Importantly, the big, strategic governance – that, in local government, might be carried out by elected members – is worthless. When the information that is fed into those high level systems is less than accurate… you can guess the rest.

What’s the solution? Perhaps, rather than churning through performance scorecards (and we have published, repeatedly, on the shortcomings of such an approach) scrutiny should be doing two things.

Firstly, looking at the culture of performance and project management within the authority. Much is made in the management literature of the Honda production line system where any line worker, no matter how lowly, can stop the whole production line if they recognise a problem. Councils are not production lines creating widgets but there is something here about empowering junior members of staff to flag up problems without fear that it will lead to adverse consequences – for them or the service they deliver.

Secondly, speaking to front line staff directly. Not just to get a handle on how they monitor their own performance but to get their views on the issues and pressures they experience in their own work. Such managers will often have little contact with members – heightening that level of exposure can only be a good thing.

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Author: Ed Hammond, Director of Research, CfPS