I have commented before on the lamentable failure of parts of our public services to keep pace with demand, to recognise the big improvements in customer service elsewhere, and to tackle the high error rates they currently experience. I have been visiting some factories recently and seeing just how far the private sector is getting with high quality and reliability. Manufacturing is well advanced with total quality systems, as it has to be to stay in business. Firms use the Kanban techniques (cards or other devices triggering action when needed) first developed by Toyota in the 1950s to control inventory and work flows through the factory. They use Poka Yoke techniques, also pioneered by Toyota to prevent mistakes, by â€œidiot proofingâ€ processes. Many now use a variant of Motorolaâ€™s 6 Sigma system pioneered in the 1980s for total quality management, training leaders to collect data, and manage continuous improvement. The only acceptable level of defective products leaving a factory is zero. Keen inspection and checking regimes aim to remove any failures or wrongly made parts. In order to cut waste and improve efficiency, the private sector is aiming for well under 1000 defective parts per million in what it does, and seeking to eliminate almost any that are not properly made first time. It is aiming to find them all and understand why they failed before any reach the customer.
Meanwhile the public sector stumbles on as if none of this had happened elsewhere. We accept large numbers of people contracting serious diseases in NHS hospitals, we put up with very high error rates in tax calculation and benefit assessments and allow poor performance in a whole variety of areas. Error rates can easily exceed 10,000 per million and in some cases like secondary infections in hospitals might reach much higher levels! In a well run supermarket queues are monitored and more tills opened up if the time you are waiting gets too long. If you hit Immigration and Customs at the wrong time of day you end up in a huge long queue which no one in government seems to care about. If you ring a private sector phone line there should be rapid response, with call monitoring, to make sure your call is captured and answered promptly. It is true that some of the less competitive large companies have poor phone in arrangements for some of their services, but a competitive business has to have a phone system which works well and is monitored to ensure speedy response. Compare that with the problems my constituents and others experience trying to get through to Benefit offices or the GP booking line, where delays can be huge and redialling on a regular basis a necessity if you to have any chance of getting through.
The defence of the public sector is that they are doing more difficult things than the private sector, so the same standards and techniques cannot apply. I do not accept that defence. The quality systems developed in the first instance for smart manufacturing could apply similarly to the public sector. Keeping the place clean is one of the first principles of good factory management â€“ so it should be of a good hospital management. Modern factories in some industries have to be run to clean room standard, where tiny particles of dust and fluid have to be kept out of contact with the products. Ensuring a proper workflow, so that everything is done to the time required by the client and customer should apply to public sector customers as well. After billions of spending on IT the NHS still does not have a reliable and comprehensive system for ensuring smooth work flow to all hospitals in a way which guarantees speedy treatment to all patients.
There is nothing intrinsically more difficult about planning a benefit system than running an insurance company, nothing inherently more difficult about running a public hospital than running a private one, and nothing that more difficult in running an Immigration system than running an employment agency. The public sector needs to wake up, and wake up quickly, to how much better the best of the private sector has become., They need to understand the whole approach. Concentration on good work planning, managing quality and good housekeeping, are complemented by believing in the people in the business, giving them scope to be responsible for their own work and decisions about how it is done, and allowing people opportunity to develop with career progression and offers of suitable training. The best of the private sector is not afraid to admit mistakes and seek to remedy them. The best know they are not good enough and are striving to be better. The complacent will fail. We are in urgent need of some of the magic of total quality and full involvement of all staff in continuous improvement in public service. We need the leaders in public service who can do this hands on day by day crucial work, instead of writing more memos, demanding more resources and employing more management consultants.