Fire Bell Test

I’ve no idea where this originally originated, but it has stuck firmly in my mind ever since I first heard or read it, because it so goes against the grain of my organisation’s apparent understanding of what we’re here for. Actually that’s unfair. It goes with the grain of what we say we are here for; against the grain in terms of how policy, silo-working, performance monitoring and job descriptions are enacted in reality.

The Fire Bell Test, aka how to Sift and Winnow in Five Easy Steps.

Step 1. Be a high-powered brand new chief executive of a large and complex organisation.

Step 2. Think differently.

Step 3. Set off the fire bell.

Step 4. Re-group your entire organisation (imagine they all work in one building) in the car park and make sure they can all hear you.

Step 5. The Test. You say “We are gathered here today, because I am new and I want to find out what everyone does. There is no fire. Please listen carefully to my instructions – apologies if they sound harsh but this exercise is not about you personally. OK, listen up. Every one of you who was serving a customer before the bell rang, go back inside and carry on. When you need something from a colleague who’s not inside already, shout for them and they will come to you. Everyone else, you will stay outside until you are shouted-for by someone who is inside.”

I think of this story often and wonder how it translates in reality in the public sector, especially in this mid-spending review world where the default politician/CEO position appears to be that less funding automatically means less service.

We recently went through a restructure process in order to save X millions of pounds, and I was part of the change team helping shape the process of winnowing and sifting what functions the organisation should keep, do more of, do less of, or get rid of. Sadly, despite my encouragement, we were not at liberty to do this by way  of a Fire Bell Test – either literal or metaphorical. The rest of the team weren’t keen. Something to do with HR and Equal Opportunities, or human rights about having a clean, dry, sheltered place of work.

If the Fire Bell Test was ever actually done for real, I know I might be one of the last ones out there, shivering in the car park and wishing I’d put on my coat. But wouldn’t it be nice if all of our policies, job descriptions, performance measures, and organisational structures acted as if the customer’s “pull” on a service really was the only important thing?

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3 thoughts on “Fire Bell Test

  1. yes and thrice yes.
    thing is, there’d be people who claim that someone needs to organise the whole shebang, and then they’d appear with their clipboards making a mockery of it under a guise of making it run well and ensuring that there is a strategic overview of the whole affair. There would be people checking that when people inside were working with a customer, that the customer was on an official list of Authorised Customers, that Key Strategic Priorities are being met during the interminable carpark mooching.
    I know because, reader, I AM that clipboard holder.

    • Under the old regime, yes there would be clipboard clerks, but remember – this is Fantasy Systems Thinking Land, and your new CEO will not tolerate clipboards! (Unless your organisation manufactures them). So any strategic overview, reporting or measurement is not permitted unless the customer him/herself asks for it. But look on the bright side, at least clipboards could rovide some shelter. Pity the poor souls from petty cash claims – those boxes are tiny.

  2. Pingback: A load of old cobblers | thinkpurpose

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