Passport renewals

I have just renewed my British passport which had eight months remaining but will be under the required six months remaining during a forthcoming overseas trip, so I had no choice but to renew. I notice that the new passport runs from the date of application and not the date of expiry of my current passport. This effectively means that my ten year passport was actually only valid for 9 years and 4 months. Doesn’t feel like an equitable way to treat those of us that are compliant and follow the rules!

LNER electronic seat sensor system

One of my regular themes is how by having more information available to us the less information we have, especially where technology is concerned.

It was interesting to observe the apparent confusion amongst travellers yesterday when boarding an LNER service in Kings Cross bound for York. The train was using the electronic seat sensor system which comprises an LCD readout at eye level over the seats that indicates if the seat is reserved or available. A great step forward from paper tickets applied to the headrest of the seat you would imagine. However, the unit has a double screen indicating availability in pairs of seats (fine where seats are in pairs), but adds to the confusion when deployed over single seats (in first class carriages), as infrequent travellers aren’t aware if a blank screen is an indication availability, or its just not working. These units also check if the seat is being occupied several times throughout the journey and to do that its sensors need to be positioned directly above the seat. A single screen version would be better suited to this seat layout or a simple blanking plate or sticker over the redundant screen to clearly show its not in use. A perfect example of a great idea deployed badly. This should be simple to rectify LNER!

Organisations get the ‘IT’ they deserve

I have long believed that organisations get the Information Technology (IT) they deserve.

So, it’s been interesting to observe the apparent horror expressed at the vulnerability of the NHS systems to the recent Cyber-attacks. More so, the reaction and apparent surprise that a major corporation might have a degree of reliance and dependency on its computer systems, and the level of disruption that can be experienced directly by its users when things go wrong. In this case medical staff, doctors surgeries, operating theatre schedules and alike; the end users inconvenience (consultations, referrals, and lifesaving operations cancelled or deferred); the financial impact of historical underinvestment from ransoms and panic refreshing of outdated and insecure infrastructure. Yet despite this dependency, accompanied by real and not imagined distress, it’s almost impossible to believe in this electronically and technically connected world that so many organisations still don’t understand the significance of ‘IT’, and more broadly ‘Information Systems’, and consequently make irrational decisions about how they are managed, used, and the organisation structures that surround them.

How frequently have you seen CIO positions removed from the top table or restructured and subsumed within the Finance hierarchy? This isn’t just the preserve of foolish organisations or even those riddled with ‘technical debt’, it inhabits even the best of organisations. Ironically, its most likely to occur after a significant ‘IT’ implementation or success where an information system is at its core. The behaviour of ‘satisficing’ develops and fools the decision makers to abandon the very behaviour that made them invest in, and support, a successful system.

The recent press headlines regarding breast cancer screening errors have been revealing with phrases such as ‘IT blunder’, and ‘Computer failure’ receiving prominence, yet buried deep within the articles only passing mention of failed administration processes, or lack of quality control by the process owners. This raises a very real and recurring issue of organisations not taking responsibility for the technology they deploy, especially where that technology comes into direct contact with their customers or service users. It’s almost as if ‘blaming the computer’ in some way exonerates them from any obligation.

Despite what might appear natural, obvious, or common sense, rarely prevails especially when it comes to business processes and technology. When observing processes through the lens of the customer there is much to suggest that organisations ignore their requirements; make it worse by applying technology badly; they disregard the way people naturally behave (especially during emergencies); they regularly fail to observe good Operations Management principles; they communicate badly, and despite soliciting feedback then don’t handle complaints well and can often end up including an ombudsman and regulator. Why were concerns from anxious women who obviously missed breast cancer screenings ignored? ‘The computer says no’!

By ensuring that the technology is robust and fit for purpose organisations can get the ‘IT’ they deserve, but when it isn’t of the required standard then this shouldn’t be inflicted on their customers too.

Thank you for reading my post. I regularly write about operations management, technology, and how those two things don’t always serve customers well.

Comparators and metaphors

I’m constantly amazed at the use of some quite random objects as comparators typically when describing size and scale. You know the sort of thing, “it’s the equivalent of two ‘Olympic’ size swimming pools”, or “it’s the length of 10 double decker buses parked end to end”. I’m not entirely sure that these references are at all helpful, as how many of us could visualise and compare something to the size of a swimming pool, let alone an ‘Olympic’ size swimming pool which is traditionally longer, and their scarcity probably means less people have actually seen one! We rarely see a double-decker bus in our area anymore, but if we did then it would apparently take 470 of them to fill the deck of the new aircraft carrier that’s being built for the Royal Navy! I get the point of contextualising what is being described but the comparator should make it easier to visualise and understand and not worse.

A similar thing happens with metaphors (i.e. a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else). Carol Kirkwood (BBC Breakfast Weather presenter) prefaces any Met Office weather warning when using the red, green, and amber traffic light metaphor as a proxy for the severity of the weather, but then completely devalues the benefit afforded by the use of this metaphor by having to describe that the ‘Amber’ warning is one step up from the ‘Green’ warning, yet not a severe as the ‘Red’ warning.

Boarding Aircraft

Anyone who as an interest in business processes and has spent endless hours in airports will know that the procedures we are forced through when travelling (in particular by air) are laborious and inefficient, and many a time I have redesigned the processes in my mind to be more efficient, traveller friendly, and time saving. So I read with interest the article on a faster way of boarding planes could save time and money (“Please be seated”, The Economist, September 3rd 2011). Of course to many of us this would seem a good way to proceed, and I’m sure I remember Lufthansa undertaking trials of boarding window seats first (although not in alternate rows) more than twenty years ago. However this approach is fatally flawed as it assumes that passengers have the will and ability to be compliant and disregards completely human nature. Why does Dr Steffen think that the lure of making passengers lives easier would be sufficient incentive to change their behaviour when the very same passengers can’t stand behind the yellow line around the baggage carousel when they retrieve their luggage; or think we can stop those that have perfected ‘silent’ seat belt unbuckling to ensure they can be first out of their seat to get to the overhead lockers; and imagine the anxiety of them not being able to stow their luggage in their preferred overhead locker near their seat as the space had been taken up by earlier boarding passengers? It also raises an interesting issue of families being asked to board separately which could be a challenge when small children are travelling. Great idea if it wasn’t for the passengers!

Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Act 2012

The Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Act will temporarily suspend Sunday trading laws from 22 July 2012 to the end of the Paralympic Games on 9 September 2012. The suspension will mean that shops with a floor space of more than 280 square metres will not have any restrictions on Sunday opening hours for eight weeks. After this period, the restrictions will revert back to the current position. Source: CIPD

The more information we have the less information we have…

Driving on the M1 Southbound I came across an electronic overhead sign that read:




The intention of this sign was to inform motorway users that it would take 15 minutes to reach the M6 motorway should they travel the 17 miles by going via the M69 which connects both routes.

By being able to travel this 17 mile journey in 15 minutes assumes that your speed must be averaging just over 60 mph (i.e. approximately a mile per minute). Ordinarily this would have been very useful information, but at that particular time the overhead gantry speed signs were flashing ’40’ MPH, and the actual speed, due to SWOT (sheer weight of traffic) and congestion at a major confluence of two motorways, was less that 10 mph. It made me reflect on the incongruence of these signs, and question what was the point of an ‘informational’ device that is clearly giving incorrect information? What I really needed to know was the ETA under the road conditions that prevailed at that time and surely the sign should be dynamic and take its inputs from what is actually happening on the motorway in order that it gives accurate and helpful information?

Having recently acquired a BlackBerry the immediacy and ‘always on’ nature of information, when you have constant access to it as opposed to the natural time delay until the next time you fire-up your laptop, has heightened my awareness to the inappropriateness of some of the information we receive. Three examples:

Amazon sending me special offers to purchase Dan Browns new book ‘The Symbol’ when I had already pre ordered it from them several weeks earlier and was expecting it to be shipped automatically when available. So although Amazon can tell me what books ‘others who also bought this book’ have purchased they can’t recognise what I have already purchased. Or Pink Elephant Business Parking at Heathrow Airport sending special offers for parking but not recognising that my car was already in their safe keeping at Heathrow T5 Business Parking having been pre-booked several weeks earlier and their number plate recognition system had automatically matched my arrival at the car park to the pre-arranged booking.

But the most annoying incident was when trying to buy foreign currency from Travelex on-line using my Netbook computer. I got to the part of the transaction that uses 3D security but the pop up screen requiring me to enter my VISA security details was ‘pinned’ in a fixed position on the screen. Scrolling down didn’t reveal the foot of the box containing the ‘send’ button. After aborting the first transaction I realised that I could change the zoom level on internet explorer to show more content in the screen and hence reveal the whole box. On repeating the process at the pop up screen I changed the zoom level to reveal the button, only then to get the unhelpful message that my ‘card could not be processed‘. Could not be processed now, for ever, or was this because I had aborted the first transaction, or was there a problem with my card? Typical of on-line sites these days there are no telephone numbers published for you to make an enquiry so I rang a 24 hour Visa number to find out. Several calls later and only having threatened to cancel my card did I discover that Visa had rejected the transaction as, what appears to me as quite normal card behaviour, had conformed to a pattern typical of card fraudsters, i.e. that I had made a small transaction (£4 cardholder not present transaction to Birmingham Library for a document search), and was then trying a much larger transaction (to purchase foreign currency) so they had put a ‘stop’ on my card, very useful as I was just to depart to the US on vacation! What is the point of the security number, and the additional 3D security if it isn’t to validate my identity? How long before the validation requires validation and then further validation, and how do you know if your typical card use imitates fraudulent usage patterns?

Now for those of us who have worked in operational roles we can no doubt rationalise these situations with simple explanations. In the motorway example the two systems are probably quite separate and rely on an operator sitting somewhere in a control room, or worse two operators in two separate control rooms, making a cerebral connection between the motorway conditions and the messages that need to be displayed, but this didn‘t happen. For Amazon and Pink Elephant an extract of those clients who had already placed orders or bought their services should have been run and removed from the mailing list, but once again this didn’t happen. And finally a set of rules applied to a purchasing transaction procedure should also be matched with all the correct security information having been provided – but once again it didn’t.

No matter how you view these incidents they are the subject of process or service failures, and when viewed through the lens of the customer or end user they just don’t work, albeit for all manner of rational reasons be they technological, human, procedural, or design. Their consequences, while in these examples might initially appear minor, I believe could have far reaching ramifications for potentially both the end user/customer or the organisation providing the goods or service. The motorway sign we now no longer trust or believe is the one we ignore that tells us of fog ahead that has caused an accident we are hurtling towards.

Customer anthropology

There is a wonderful scene at the beginning of the Blues Brothers film where Jake Blues is being released from the ‘Joliet Correctional Center’. He is escorted to a collection point at which he is reunited with his personal belongings. He ignores the sign on the wall informing inmates ‘when waiting for clothes stand on the line. Do not move beyond the line at anytime’. Blues disregards this advice crossing the line as he approaches the counter, only to be pulled back by his two burly minders. When required to sign for the return of his possessions, with both feet now firmly rooted behind the line and someway from the counter, like a tree being felled he falls forward, makes a human bridge with his stiffened body to place his ‘mark’ on the receipt.

I can’t watch this film without being reminded of the inability of people to follow instructions or observe the protocols given as part of the services they are receiving, and for this reason I’m turning my attention for this edition of ‘Thinking Aloud’ to the behaviour of ‘customers’ rather than the service providers. Unfortunately, unlike Jake Blues, their minders are not in attendance to help them observe the rules!

I’m intrigued, and constantly amazed by, the mistaken belief that the public will ‘toe the line’, and abide by the rules or conventions, or more practically to observe lines applied to floors, roads, and walkways in the forlorn hope that they will be observed. [For the avoidance of any doubt, ‘line’ is being used here to denote a visible mark or symbol often painted upon a surface, as opposed to the American interpretation of a queue of people]. The airport baggage collection carousel being a particular favourite, as this never fails to throw up a succession of people who just can’t bring themselves to do something as simple as stand ‘behind’ a line. The line is  designed to keep passengers a little distance from the carousel (for their safety and the comfort of other passengers), yet there are always those who will push in front of you to take up ‘pole position’ right at the front of the waiting crowds, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake as they clumsily manoeuvre their trolley through the crowds into their ringside position, obliterating everyone else’s view of the luggage as it  approaches, and then being too close to the moving belt to be able to manhandle their luggage from the carousel without cracking the shins of those standing about them. Ruining the process for everyone else but hey, they are OK!

This preoccupation with lines continues. ‘Keep back from the platform edge.  Passing trains cause air turbulence. Stand behind yellow line’ decorate platforms at many stations, yet passengers continue to stand on the very edge of the platform even when high speed trains pass through the station without stopping, severely compromising their safety, and no doubt testing the nerves of the poor train drivers.

The unattended taxi rank between London’s St. Pancras station (or St. Pancreas as my grandmother called it), and Kings Cross, is a joy to behold. At the head of the queue the rank comprises three ‘bays’ from which you can access a taxi, allowing three simultaneous ‘pick-ups’ thereby increasing the speed of turnaround and efficiency (in theory)! Despite the bays being clearly marked and numbered, for most it appears beyond their capability to recognise the process and adhere to it. And oh the anxiety if you are fourth in the queue and you are now faced with the dilemma of leaving the security of being at the head of the main body of that queue to take up position at bay #1 in readiness for the next trio of taxis to move into position. You have to hope that those behind you follow your example and move into the shortly vacant bays 2 and 3, rather than squeeze between the barrier and kerb to take the fourth and fifth taxis in line, thereby completely confusing everyone around and ‘stealing’ the taxi that was meant for you! So much for Disney Corporation building ‘lines’ (i.e. queues) that pass by the place where you join a ride so that you can observe the process before you engage in it (Disney obviously never tackled the problem of taxi ranks)!

Motoring related examples are, of course, too numerous to list here but these days does anyone adhere to ‘lane’ discipline as set out in the Highway Code? In particular, joining from the left has become a game of chicken; car parking a contest of spatial awareness to see how many parking bays can be occupied by a single vehicle; box junctions a tessellation puzzle (i.e. how many vehicles can you get into a limited space without overlapping); and distance chevrons on the carriageway of the M1 intended to encourage separation from the vehicle in front, has become an open opportunity for other road users to precariously thread themselves between you and the vehicle in front.

So why do we think that the sort of people who would avoid washing their hands after going to the toilet; dispose of their chewing gum in the urinals; or forget to turn off the taps after use (three regularly occurring notices in men’s toilets), will alter their behaviour because of a notice giving them instructions to do so? And have you ever counted the number of items shoppers have in their baskets when they are in the ‘5 items or less’ queue.

I’m always acutely aware when travelling by air of the cacophony of sound as the seatbelt sign is turned off after landing and everyone rushes to release their seatbelt. However, I’m even more amazed by those who have perfected the ‘silent’ seat belt release, whereby they appear to be compliant but are in fact ready to depart the aircraft prior to landing. My wife was reminded of the importance of these ‘rules’ as her hand was crushed between a fellow passenger’s bag and the armrest of her seat as he attempted to retrieve his overweight hand luggage from the overhead locker before the aircraft had come to a complete halt. He then lost his footing as the aircraft lurched towards the gate dropping the bag on her hand in the process. She was not amused although was badly bruised!

What hope then for honesty boxes (also known as an honour box)? Although, I did come across some interesting research recently (Bateson, Nettle, & Roberts 2006)[1] which appears to show that using the image of a pair of human eyes in the signs and notices associated with a honesty box in a university coffee room dramatically increased (by up to three times) the money collected for drinks taken, thereby providing evidence for the importance of cues of being watched, and the effects on cooperative behaviour.

So how do these examples inform those of us that design processes where customers are involved? What is it we assume the customer is capable of when we design processes, or do we have to design for the lowest common denominator? Our assumption that common sense will prevail, is perhaps to abandon that common sense. Despite all the good design principles the everyday operational issues often take control, with the associated consequences.

[1] Bateson. M., Nettle. D., and Roberts. G., (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biol. Lett. (2006) 2, 412 – 414. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0509.