Business processes and process mapping 2

One example of this last tendency was the way in which the Probation Service held rigidly to the idea that cases should be adjourned for a minimum of 3 weeks if social reports were needed. One of my tasks was to turn the provision of social background reports into a more responsive and flexible process. There was good reason for an adjournment period in many cases but there were also a good many occasions when appropriate information and guidance to a court could be given simply and quickly. Introducing these changes brought me to take more interest in business processes and in process mapping. Microsoft Visio was very useful. It provided a simple way of turning processes into pictures that could be easily understood and shared. It allowed us to specify the separate actions within a process and to make clear who had responsibility for each action. New staff could therefore see how things worked and what they should be doing to contribute to the effective operation of the processes. They also enabled staff to cover for each other when illness, holidays or vacancies had to be managed.

‘Lean management’ rests on the twin foundations of the elimination of waste, and of respect for people. The effect of involving all staff in process mapping was to identify where inefficiencies or muddles were wasting time and resource, and most importantly to value the perspective of every team member. Administrative staff especially felt empowered and valued by mapping exercises, important in an organisation where they often felt diminished or taken for granted by ‘trained’ probation officers. They also helped people understand that their roles were part of a wider system, incorporating probation teams ‘in the field’ and other agencies and professionals in the Courts.


Business processes and process mapping 1


Coincidentally, I encountered the software programme, Microsoft Visio, at around the time I was introduced to a business consultant who specialised in ‘lean management’ and the examination of business processes. This was when I held responsibility for Probation’s work in the criminal courts. In this context, Courts are interesting in that their responsibility is primarily for ‘due process’ rather than for sentencing outcomes. (Judicial independence claimed by judges and magistrates is central to the British system. There is a debate to have about this about which I will write more later.

What tends to happen with probation work in courts is that the business processes depend on an ‘oral tradition’. The necessary know-how is often held by an experienced member(s) of the probation court team – this can often be an administrator – and this can be bewildering for new or inexperienced staff. (I recall being completely mystified as a student by what was going on in the magistrates court. Probation staff seemed to sit around behaving like clerks, taking notes about events that the Courts were already recording in exhaustive detail. There was also a bit of a culture whereby the court probation officer identified more with the courts than with their own probation service and drew status from that identification, and from holding to themselves the know-how so that others were kept in a junior role.) In such situations it is easy for things to go wrong if a key member of staff were sick or left. It is also common for historic practice to become fossilised and unresponsive to a changing context.


Outcome orientations and the use of objectives 3

Similarly, in management activity, it was often a good discipline to be specific about the outcome sought from that activity, and to be explicit about the steps that management might take to reach that outcome. It would also force us to consider how we might know a positive outcome had been achieved.

By way of illustration, it was only some years into the work of the NTA that serious attention was given to measuring outcomes. The Treatment Outcome Profile (TOP) was developed to make explicit a range of outcomes that would identify not just a temporary step away from drug misuse but a more resilient recovery in which employment, health, positive relationships, leisure and finances, were appropriately recognised.

Thinking about outcomes also led to a challenge of common and easy assumptions that monitoring outcomes was a management issue separate from the ‘clinical ‘ work with clients. My ‘mantra’ was for the latter years of my career, that ‘TOP is not a form’ – that is that the profile should be the basis for clinical work in which the client thinks about outcomes and helps to assess their own progress in treatment. There was significant resistance to this idea – all too often clinicians seemed more comfortable with the idea that outcome measurement was an unwelcome management imposition, than with an attempt to use that measurement to help the client make an honest assessment of their own progress, and to retain a focus on what they were trying to achieve.

Outcome orientations and the use of objectives 2

It is easy in the helping professions to treat outcomes as impossibly difficult objectives when working with troubled people. All sorts of interim objectives can be invented in the name of realism. For example, with chaotic drug users, it might be thought achieving regular contact and compliance with a methadone script would be a significant positive ‘outcome’ of the work. In practice, whatever the truth in such a view, it was letting the clients down. A life of ordered depression maintained by methadone is not an outcome that many drug users would regard as a satisfactory achievement. What’s more, that approach to treatment all too easily led to a minimal service of methadone provision with no other purposeful treatment input.

Working with someone in trouble to identify what they would see as a positive outcome was significantly liberating. In the cold light of hindsight , it is remarkable that little attention was paid to how clients saw a positive outcome – there was often a kind of collusion that the desired outcomes were obvious. ‘Staying out of trouble’, or ‘giving up alcohol / drugs’ were accepted as a shared assumption, largely unexamined, often used as a formula that would enable the client to feel they were giving the desired answer without having to explore what kind of life ‘staying out of trouble’ would be a positive outcome for themselves, nor how work with the probation officer might actively and positively contribute.


Outcome orientations and the use of objectives 1


As a newly appointed assistant chief officer, I joined a 3 week induction course along with around 30 others who were setting out in their exalted role in Probation. In those days, the Home Office thought 3 weeks in a hotel to learn about senior management was a good investment. Extraordinary! The Home Office, staffed as they were with some of the country’s brightest and best brains, had this tendency to imagine that we ‘foot soldiers’ on the front line of social problems knew nothing about management, and so they would turn to the latest fashion in management theory consultants to teach us the basics. We would therefore have to sit through lectures / exercises that often seemed like ‘Noddy’s Guide to Management’. Our task was to get through these sessions without getting too delinquent or abrasive, holding firmly to the principle that ‘all experience is useful’ (a principle advocated by an earlier generation of trainers at the start of my time as a probation officer – what a useful principle for a trainer……)

It so happened that the fashion on this occasion was for a couple of likeable Irish lads who had realised that an emphasis on ‘outcomes’ would be very attractive to a Home Office and the ministers who were no doubt often being advised that things were ‘complex and difficult’. Crime policy then, as now, tended to be driven by the need for ministers to have a ‘magic bullet’ that would cut crime and stop re-offending, and by the suspicion that probation officers were woolly minded liberals who wanted to help offenders, and cared little for outcomes of reduced offending.

The consultants were on to a good thing however, and despite all the heaving against open doors, and earnest coverage of the obvious, there was good sense in making us focus on outcomes, and countering the ease with which issues of process could dominate our attention.

Project Management

Somewhat later in my managerial career, I was introduced to ‘Prince 2′. This was in some ways at the opposite end of a spectrum to Peters’ evangelistic fervour. There were however a good few evangelistic enthusiasts for Prince 2 as well – interestingly in my organisation it was the computer manager who was especially excited by Prince 2, almost as though it validated his rational and structured role amongst a whole range of emotionally driven social work / probation managers. Prince 2 was highly focussed on bureaucratic systems, structures and processes – forms, meeting structures, timetables, evaluations.

What captured me however were the opportunities that Prince 2 seemed to offer:

  • to ‘democratise’ management activity in the sense that staff could be drawn into participation with work that I wanted to advance and get recognition for the roles they played.
  • to increase the transparency of my activity as a manager; staff drawn into the management structure of a project would be receiving reports and commenting on the progress of management activity.
  • to involve people in a focus on outcomes, including intermediate process milestones.
  • to increase the ‘political’ impact of my work. This was both because Prince 2 projects by their nature had a more explicit profile in organisational life, and because the adoption of such a fashionable project management approach had a sort of kudos in internal organisational politics.

‘Management by walking about’

Management seems to be especially vulnerable to ‘fads’. These were most likely to be influential if they contained within them significant truths. The next few sections came out of my running up against these fashions as I went through my career – these are the ones that ‘stuck’.

Tom Peters was for a while the ‘go to’ charismatic management guru who seemed to offer some key insights about effective management. No doubt they had particular attraction to me because they seemed to offer solutions that fitted with my prejudices. As I struggled and rebelled against a growing bureaucracy and its focus on data and structure, Peters’ evangelism for people centred behaviours in managers was just what we wanted to hear.

Peters’ 8 themes were:

      1. a bias for action and problem solving
      2. getting close to the customer
      3. fostering innovation and nurturing ‘heroes and champions’
      4. treating employees as the source of quality
      5. hands on, value driven management
      6. ‘stick to the knitting’
      7. minimal HQ staff
      8. loose / tight properties – shop floor autonomy and central values

Some themes were more attractive than others and the idea of managers staying close to the human reality of service delivery rather than being remote and concerned with data and structure, was especially seized on.