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The importance of creating constancy of purpose to programme success

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Constancy of purpose
The first of 14 steps that management must take according to Deming [the guru of modern management methods and quality] is to create constancy of purpose toward the improvement of product and service. He believed, and argued passionately, that all 14 steps applied equally to small and large organisations, to manufacturing and services alike.

Constancy of purpose is vital in the context of organisational programme and portfolio management. We sometimes lose this constancy of purpose – what we are really all about - through the use of clumsy language. We talk of our mission, vision, objectives, aims, goals and strategies, attempting to create some form of hierarchy in an effort to convince our management-selves, and important others that it actually means something.

A clear definition is required
Phil Driver, in his Open Strategies approach, draws this together very nicely by creating a simple and easily understood framework to organise thinking about the purpose of projects and programmes. He states ‘organisations create assets [products, services and infrastructure]and enable customers and citizens to use those assets to create benefits [outcomes] for themselves’

In short, the purpose of any project or programme is to enable customers or citizens to create benefits. Period. In order to do this successfully the purpose should be razor-sharp clear and easily understood.

Andy Griffee’s recent blog entitled ‘Learning the language of projectspeak’ develops the idea of having to be bilingual as a Programme Director at the BBC. Much of our so-called strategic planning – what we intend to do and why – does not bear proper scrutiny and in many cases would be a candidate for nomination for the Plain English Campaign Golden Bull Awards.

Common purpose empowers
A common purpose unites and helps to ensure that the right things are done well. It is the basis of continuous in improvement in any system, including the removal of waste, and achieving an objective such as the transformation of American business and industry [Deming] or Delivering Public Services that work [Seddon].  

John Seddon provides a model that shifts our perspective from a ‘Command and Control’ approach to one based on Systems Thinking. What matters, and what gets results, is an understanding of the systematic relationship between purpose, measures and method. Deming talks of profound knowledge.

Measures should be derived from purpose (the customer’s purpose) and when those measures are employed work gets done and method is liberated.

Targets are generally unhelpful
He argues that meeting targets imposed from above has a tendency to drive in the wrong behaviours, lead to knee-jerk reactions and is actually counter-productive. Individuals can play the system and the system breaks down.

See for example the recent so-called shocking headlines ‘A & E waiting is the worst in a decade’ The NHS in England has missed its four-hour A&E waiting time target with performance dropping to its lowest level for a decade.

Figures show that from October to December 92.6% of patients were seen in four hours - below the 95% target. The performance is the worst quarterly result since the target was introduced at the end of 2004.

The rest of the UK is also missing the target and a number of hospitals have declared "major incidents."

What do consumers and users really want?
In the [Vanguard] method that Seddon espouses the covers are peeled back to expose the extent to which the real purpose of the organisation is being achieved through repeatedly checking with the users / consumers that they are getting the services they actually want?

He cites one example from Staffordshire Fire and Rescue where they asked the communities the direct question “what is the purpose of the Fire Service from your point of view?” The main response was to ‘put out fires,’ and, on second thoughts, prevent them in the first place!

From this they were able to move from a de-facto purpose of; helping partners to achieve their outcomes, performing against various indicator sets, supporting the work of Headquarters, fulfilling nationally imposed requirements to…

“Putting out fires and rescuing people, and doing sensible things to prevent fires and other incidents occurring.”

I remember from my own background in policing attempting to ‘boil’ down the changing management rhetoric from strategic plans, Divisional Performance Targets, and KPIs to a constancy of purpose - what people wanted us to do, and how we were going to do it. For example “that we would turn up when we said we would and actually listen to what they wanted.”

A clear purpose unifies and galvanises action
Having a clear purpose is unifying, and fundamental to achieving success. After all you have a much greater chance of achieving, or being able to claim or prove, success from your programme if you understand the system which you are seeking to ‘transform’ and your measures and methods are appropriate.

Kennedy’s decision in 1961 to commit the nation to a clear goal, of landing a man on the moon and bringing him back safely before the decade was out stands apart in history as an unequivocal purpose. In this case the measure was straight forward even if the measures were not!

A modern-day example can be found in the south of France today where the Iter Project, a mind-bogglingly complex programme, has a clear goal expressed as Q>10 that is, to deliver ten times the power it consumes – 500 megawatts from the 50 megawatts it consumes.

This brings me back to Deming, and the first of his 14 steps, that it is the first responsibility of management, and programmes [temporary organisations] is to create constancy of purpose. Ultimately, this is where success lies.


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