Rejecting feedback a corporate ‘true crime’

Exed Formation continue à l'Ecole polytechnique. By Ecole polytechnique
Exed Formation continue à l’Ecole polytechnique. Photo courtesy of Ecole polytechnique.

What if junior staff and those far from head office knew more than their superiors?  It’s an impolite question which may offend those who have worked so hard to get to the top.  But it’s an important question to ask.

In February 2016 the Government of Canada implemented the Phoenix payroll system, and it was bungled from the start.  According to the Auditor General’s report in Spring 2018, mistakes were consistently made by three Phoenix executives that negated the input and information coming from those lower ranking than themselves, and those who did not work in their particular bunker.  Auditor’s reports make for great reading, because they are often “true crime” page-turners of corporate malfeasance.  Let’s take a closer look.

The Productivity of New Employees at the Miramichi Pay Centre

The first stage of the Phoenix project was to centralize staff working with the old software, then the new software would be brought in.  But the project team chose Miramichi, New Brunswick as the geographic location for centralization.  The previous system was staffed by people all over the country, so the move to Miramichi was a tough sell.  Many experienced pay advisors chose not to move.

Because of the move, there was a loss of experience and a drop in productivity.  A lot of staff were new.  Think to the first time you have done anything – you’re slower until you hit your stride.  It takes months to get on top of the work, after which you eliminate errors and do things faster and easier.  But there was no allowance for this ramp-up in the Phoenix schedule, and no anticipation this time was even needed.  Prior to the move, each pay advisor could handle an average workload of 184 pay files.  After the move, productivity dropped to 150 files.

This was troublesome because Public Services and Procurement Canada had expected productivity would rise to 200 files per advisor.  This gap played out on the grand scale.

…Miramichi pay advisors could handle a total of about 69,000 pay files, not the 92,000 files the Department had transferred to the Pay Centre. …outstanding pay requests were already increasing because of centralization, and pay advisors in Miramichi were already complaining of excessive workload and stress.  …Even though pay advisors were less productive than what was expected of them, Phoenix executives still expected that their productivity would more than double when they started to use Phoenix. [Paragraphs 1.71-1.72]

Some Interpretations on How to Mitigate a Tactical Blunder

If information was shared and accepted, there might have been a clear opportunity to overcome the problems at the Pay Centre.  Centralization required either the acceptance of a downshift in experience level and hence more staff would be required. Or they could allow additional time for expertise and productivity to slowly build.  As a third alternative, centralization would need to include locations where there was an established labour market.

But these are all tactical solutions to tactical problems.  The strategic issue is that powerful people were negating information that was coming from the ground.  It’s a “no complaining” mindset.  And because the tactical complaints were real, leadership decisions to negate these voices caused tactical problems to overpower strategy.

Yes, Org Charts and Internal Audits are Important

The larger and more complicated a project is, the more important internal audit becomes.  The Auditor General’s report asserts that a proper audit prior to implementation “would have given the Deputy Minister an independent source of assurance…  that could have resulted in a different implementation decision.”  There were guidelines in place for independent review, but the review was controlled by three Phoenix executives.  Those executives determined the interview questions and the list of interviewees. The interviewees chosen were all members of the Phoenix project team, who were under the thumb of those same executives.  So, watch what you say…

The project had significant problems with governance and the chain of command.  The organizational chart shows a reporting structure that bottlenecks through the three Phoenix executives who in turn reported to the Deputy Minister.  There was no direct line to the Deputy Minister that was unfiltered by those three people.  Say anything you want, and they’ll pass it along.  Or not.

The Fake Consultation Meeting

In order for a meeting to be productive, you need the right people in the room and freedom for those people to share information and opinions.  However, the key meeting prior to implementation was rigged to provide one-directional information flow.  The briefing was January 29, 2016 when 30 deputy ministers from across government were told that Phoenix was about to be implemented.  Fourteen departments and agencies provided feedback prior to the meeting that they had “significant concerns with Phoenix”.  But the people leading the project assured those in attendance that all the issues had been resolved.  Critics were cautioned that any delays would cost too much money and cause a knock-on series of additional delays.  They were going ahead.

The project’s leaders didn’t have to try hard to win people over.  That is because Public Services and Procurement Canada chose this particular briefing meeting because it did not have any decision-making authority.

As an information-sharing and advisory forum, the Committee could not formally challenge the information it received from Public Services and Procurement Canada or the decision to implement Phoenix. [Paragraph 1.100]

All subsequent stories were about pay advisors struggling to get out from under a backlog as their workload doubled while grappling with a new piece of software.  In the story of this project’s failure there is little discussion about the quality of the new software itself, because the project was eaten alive by the landscape.

Appropriate Leadership Styles in Information-Heavy Strategic Efforts

It’s too bad there weren’t low-level people who were free to speak their mind about how things were going.  And it’s curious how high-ranking people could develop a lifestyle where they never talk to lower-ranking people.  Why do leaders do this to themselves?  I know that democracy can be unpleasant and messy.  And egalitarianism involves a lot of extra work.  But for senior people to be so single-minded in their goals that they would bar feedback from those they are affecting goes beyond arrogance and into strategic self-harm.

It’s like reverse-provincialism.  Provincialism is the notion that there are people living in remote areas who are less sophisticated and overly concerned with their local issues, to the detriment of higher-level goals.  But what if people in the provinces and remote pockets of the hierarchy are the ones who have a better grasp of the truth?  What do we do about high-level people in head offices who know nothing about what’s happening in the field?  What do we do about people who think their big fancy plans are brilliant and best, when they are really just playing fancy board games for which the only prize is a slightly more expensive used car.

I know what we should do with these people.  We should teach them.

2 thoughts on “Rejecting feedback a corporate ‘true crime’

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