It’s a mantra intoned in every management article ever written. ‘Success in [fill in the blank] depends on unwavering commitment from the top’. ‘Without senior management initiatives are unlikely to succeed’.
In other words, if you’re a middle manager with ideas about doing things differently, forget it – at least until you can find a top manager to sanction and champion the changes.
Obviously no one told Inspector Simon Guilfoyle.
In a recent presentation, he described his experience as an practical ‘operations inspector and systems thinker’ who in September 2010 took over responsibility for a staff of 80 policing the busy north-eastern sector of Wolverhampton.
When Guilfoyle took over his sector, a patch ‘busy even for Wolverhampton’, including a district well known for guns, gangs and serious organised criminality, this is what he found.
Officers were hardworking but harassed, with the heaviest workloads in the town. Crime rates were high (not totally down to the police) and service poor: to meet the numbers (x arrests, detections and stop forms a month) officers inevitably focused on doable cases rather than difficult ones, and backlogs ate up capacity to deal with new ones. Performance data was useless as a guide to activity because it made no distinction between noise and signal. There were conflicting priorities. Seven operational teams worked as individual units, unlike criminals, who nipped happily across boundaries. Bureaucracy and the rule-book had gone unchallenged for years, fostering a culture of risk aversion and disempowerment, with inevitable effects on morale.
‘There’s so much we do to make our own job harder, stuff that generates more work and is no value to the public,’ sighs Guilfoyle. He blames the poor service on an anti-systems approach to service delivery, in particular the target-driven performance management.
So what did he do?
Guilfoyle explains it far better than I can:
‘I went to Wolverhampton and got rid of some waste. It’s not much more scientific than that.
‘I can’t do much about what the force or government are saying about targets and so on, but I can do whatever I can locally on my sector.
‘The first step: take out from people’s performance reviews numerical targets and all those arbitrary measures of achievement.
‘I pointed out to the sergeants that if I needed to know what happened overnight I could press a button on a computer. I didn’t need to know what they did or planned to do on a daily basis. If there was a really interesting job to do or that had been done, great, I’d love to hear about it, let’s celebrate and let the community know. But I don’t need to know they’re patrolling the hotspots because that’s what I expect them to do.
‘I believe strongly in organisational trust and devolved opportunity. Sergeants are sergeants for a reason, and however much I consider myself still front line, these guys are on the ground every day, and I need to trust them to be sergeants and do their jobs without me leaning over them. They know their staff and their patch better than I do, so let them get on with it. Let them sign off their overtime, they don’t have to report back to me on normal activity.
‘Clear priorities. We’ll target the things that matter most to the community. You know what I feel about targets, but you can’t do everything so you have to have priorities. Let’s go for serious acquisitive crime, which is a problem in our sector. And anti-social behaviour – we know who the main offenders are, we know the hotspots, let’s use the data about crime patterns intelligently and react to what’s there to react to, not stuff that isn’t there. Clear priorities, everyone’s going in the same direction then, and we’re making value judgments about what to put further back in the queue. Of course all crime is important to the victim, but we have finite resources and priorities where certain offenders and certain types of crime are causing more harm to individuals, and it’s right that we focus on them.
‘Because officers at the time didn’t have the capacity to address them, we were carrying the largest workload in Wolverhampton on existing enquiries. Some of this stuff was growing hairs – crime reports from 2008-2009, for perfectly straightforward stuff. Unfortunately it was still ongoing, so the public was receiving worse service [while officers attended to it]. The likelihood of resolving any of the cases had totally vanished, because the victim had moved away or the CCTV footage had been erased. I asked the sergeants to review all existing crime reports, and we filed a third of them. The public tends to be pretty realistic when you say let’s get real about the theft of a Mars Bar three years ago. There was a lot of support when those decisions were made, because there was a minimal chance of bringing anyone to justice.
‘Professional judgment. The optimist’s view – mine – is that people join the police to do good and help people, and then we ask them to leave their brains at the door, we constrain them with prescriptive doctrine and process. They’re robbed of professional judgment. I really wanted to embody in my sector, we trust you as professionals. If you need to lean on the sergeant or me do so, but 99 per cent of the time you can deal with a house burglary or road traffic accident or angry caller on your own because you’re a professional and that’s what you do.
‘That was stage one.
‘In January 2011, as a result of the initial changes there was extra capacity which allowed us to set up – from our existing people, we were never going to get any more – a proactive team which could address issues across borders within and beyond the sector. So now we have a capacity where you have local ownership of individual neighbourhoods, but also the proactive team to do extra things on top of the daily business.
‘We’d slashed the workload by one-third so that was manageable, and it’s being managed effectively so we get through it quite fast. Service is better, officers are more visible so in theory that should drive crime down a bit. Then one of the extra things we did: before January we had a massive list of people wanted on warrant, escaped from prison, had failed drug tests, who – guess what – were probably responsible for much of the crime. We’d never had capacity to deal with them before, because we were chasing our own tails with waste activity.
‘Having taken waste out, we’ve taken the new team, a sergeant and eight PCs, and set them loose on the guys who are doing the cash-in-transit robberies, burglaries, gang activities and class A drugs.
‘Yes, in one sense we’ve ‘created’ crime by finding these people, but we’re now addressing the root causes of crime, the drugs activities fuelling house burglary and cash-in-transit robberies, for example. We’ve tackled emerging trends like stealing lead off roofs – a 90 per cent reduction of one crime type overnight, because we found out who was doing it and locked them up… There’s now no one on the sector wanted by prison or failing to attend a drugs test, they get locked up straight away so they’re not out committing extra crime.
What’s the picture in north-eastern Wolverhampton now?
‘Here’s a Statistical Process Control [capacity] chart, showing the incidence of serious acquisitive crime.
‘The first step change coincides with the initial changes, the second with the introduction of the proactive team. Coincidence? Maybe, I don’t know. I can tell you it’s the same 80 people working on the sector as before, they weren’t bad people then, but they couldn’t get things done because they were swamped in waste. As Deming said, 94 per cent of it is down to the system and 6 per cent to the people who work in it. All I’ve done is said, let’s stop doing this because it’s wasteful.
‘To summarise. It’s a two-stage process. Analysis took about five minutes. The check phase was so obvious because I was already within the work, so I was able to see without having to look from an outside angle.
‘Stage two, once we got things under control, let’s see what we can do with the extra capacity.
‘So there are two questions to consider.
‘Is it rocket science?
‘Were these crime reductions a coincidence?
Acutally there’s a third question. Do you still believe it’s impossible to change anything as a middle manager? Take a leaf from Guilfoyle’s book: just do it.