Careless Harm

Norman Jensen (onegoodmove) has found a great quote that he attributes to T. S. Eliot:

“Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm but the harm does not interest them.”

In my experience, this aphorism is particularly prevalent in business.

On the Ropes

I think I’ve become a fan of Alan Leighton, currently Chairman of Consignia (aka the Post Office), after hearing him interviewed by John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4 (On the Ropes). On the Ropes usually features people who have gone from riches to rags, or experienced some other personal failure in their life. In this case, it was argued that the Post Office is on the ropes and Leighton is the man responsible for turning the organisation around. Humphrys stressed Leighton’s reputation as a ruthless businessman, but most of what Leighton said seemed like common sense to me. Here are a few highlights:

“I believe fundamentally you shouldn’t pay people for failure.”

“All organisations I know, particularly those that are performing badly, have what I call layers of treacle or permafrost in them which basically stops stuff happening. You know, there are business prevention squads in most businesses. They go out of their way to stop things happening, and one of the things you’ve got to do is get around that.”

“In businesses, generally, the Chairman and Chief Executive create the context. They can’t do anything else. They don’t actually go and do very much. In retailing all the money is taken in the shops. It’s not taken in the head offices. So you have to get that piece of thinking around your head. Where does the money get taken? Who takes the money? Who does the execution? Well the front line, so this whole thing about people are business’ most important assets. It’s a sort of trite saying that everyone trundles out now and then, but actually it’s true. And if you actually understand it’s true and you get after it, it’s the only the way you turn businesses around.”

“…the execution has to take place at the front end and you’ve got to have the management who believe that too. You know lots of managers don’t believe that. Lots of managers think they’ve got a job by right. Their job is to bark out commands. Their job is to get people to do as they’re told. Their job is not to listen to what people say. Their job is they know best. Well in my experience the operators know best, and if you can get them to be involved in things then you get a better result.”

“The most bizarre thing about [the Post Office] is, this business is a monopoly. It’s got £8 billion of sales, it’s a monopoly and it loses £300 to £400 million pounds at the operating level. It’s happened over a period of time….[the Post Office] is so inwardly focussed it doesn’t think about the two things that count. If you don’t look after your customers and you don’t look after your people, you can be a monopoly and have £8 billion of sales and still lose a lot of money!”

“The most important thing is, do the right thing. If we do things wrong, we’re not going to sit on them forever, which is what’s happened in the past. We do things wrong, we get up, we say we did things wrong. We take the hit. We take the embarrassment, but we’re not going to continue to do something that is wrong.”

“In business turnarounds particularly, and in good businesses, most of the turnaround isn’t in huge, big programmes. It’s all about doing things better that you do everyday, and I’m sure there’s a lot we can do on the back of that.”

Although his comments make a lot of sense, these goals are very difficult to achieve in a large organisation, and I imagine the UK Post Office will be a challenge, even for an experienced businessman like Alan Leighton.

Fast Fatty Food

Here’s a legal case straight out of Ally McBeal, Fat Americans sue fast food firms. It seems a group of obese Americans are suing several fast food chains, accusing them of knowingly serving meals that cause obesity and disease.

“The fast-food industry has wrecked my life,” Caesar Barbar, one of plaintiffs, told the New York Post. “I always thought it was good for you. I never thought there was anything wrong with it,” he said.

Perhaps the fast food restaurants will use the same excuse.

Doomsday for the Domesday Project

The column on the BBC News website occasionally publishes interesting stories. The basis of this week’s story, No home for digital pictures, first appeared in the press in March, and it’s about the problems caused when technology changes too quickly.

Apparently, a visual record of life in the UK in 1986 called the Domesday Project has run into trouble because the medium on which the information is stored is becoming increasingly difficult to access, and the BBC thinks this issue will become particularly problematic for digital photography in the future.

“The problem is there will be no way to look at them [the photographs]. That’s because technology evolves so fast that any storage medium in use today is bound to become obsolete sooner or later. Finding the right equipment to retrieve digital images stored decades previously on obsolete media will become almost impossible.

In fact, it turns out that images stored electronically just 15 years ago are already becoming difficult to access. The Domesday Project, a multimedia archive of British life in 1986 designed as a digital counterpart to the original Domesday Book compiled by monks in 1086, was stored on laser discs.

The equipment needed to view the images on these discs is already very rare, yet the Domesday book, written on paper, is still accessible more than 1,000 years after it was produced.”

This comparison is interesting, but also rather misleading. Is the original Domesday book any less rare than the equipment that reads these laser discs? It may have survived a thousand years, but is the Domesday book really readily accessible today? Isn’t it kept under strict lock and key by the Public Record Office? Is it written in a language and script that most of us still understand?

Ironically, the best place for most of us to learn about the Domesday book these days is the Internet. In fact, the information contained in the Domesday book is now more accessible than ever before thanks to the very digital technology that is criticised in this story.

All technologies have strengths and weaknesses, and information technology is no exception. What this story really highlights is the need to ensure that important information is copied onto whatever media is most appropriate in the future. The difficulty is not posed by the technology, but by the need to define what’s important. I don’t know if future generations will consider a multimedia record of ordinary life in 1986 as important, but I’m pretty sure they’ll still consider the Domesday book worth saving.

Logical Career Move?

Osama bin Laden saying: Forget terrorism, I'm going to become an accountant!

My wife and I spotted the latest edition of Private Eye magazine in our local newsagents this afternoon, and the cover made us laugh out loud. The newsagent laughed too, and said that he’d pointed it out to a customer earlier in the week, but unfortunately the customer turned out to be just such a professional! (point to the image)


How do you like your toast? Delia Smith suggests:

“When the toast is done, remove it immediately to a toast rack. Why a toast rack? Because they are a brilliant invention. Freshly made toast contains steam, and if you place it in a vertical position, in which the air is allowed to circulate, the steam escapes and the toast becomes crisp and crunchy. Putting it straight on to a plate means the steam is trapped underneath, making it damp and soggy. If you don’t possess a toast rack you really ought to invest in a modest one.”

On the other hand I have just found the antidote for Delia’s recipe in a recent Letter From America by Alistair Cooke. In writing about the lack of toast racks in America (!), he attributes the following quote to Mark Twain:

“In the heyday of the industrial revolution it took the mechanical genius of the English to devise a receptacle which guaranteed to deliver in the shortest possible time toast that was both cold and hard.”

I’m with Mark Twain.

BBC Gore

The new television channel BBC4 is turning out to be very good. On this evening’s edition of Talk Show the American author Gore Vidal told a funny joke at his own countrymen’s expense. One of the US President’s advisors explained the difficulty of working with the French private sector by saying, “the problem with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur”!

You have to love this…

BT ChartHere’s an example of the level of service now available from British Telecom that I mentioned in my previous post about British efficiency. These charts illustrating my household telephone usage were produced on-line automatically at the press of a button! BT’s billing information has gone from one extreme to the other in the last ten years, and in the right direction in my opinion. I wonder what they will do for an encore. Does your phone company provide a similar service?

More Civil Service Stupidity

“The reform [of the civil service] should be thorough, radical, and complete.”
Rutherford Birchard Hayes (1822-1893), U.S. president

Here’s another example of stupidity in the public sector: E-mail ban for council staff. Members of staff at Liverpool City Council are not allowed to send internal e-mail messages on Wednesdays. Can you believe it? The suggestion is that they talk to one another instead.

Chief Executive David Henshaw “wants staff to solve problems more efficiently, rather than passing them on to a colleague via e-mail”, and of course everyone knows that the way to get things done in an organization is to hold lots of face to face meetings, right? This is another example of retarding technological progress because of human incompetence. Discipline the people, don’t take away their tools!

Some Very Local History

“You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings it did not replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.”
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, 2 December 1987

A photograph of Campden Hill Gardens, Kensington, London in 1905.
Looking south along Campden Hill Gardens, Kensington, London in 1905.

Earlier this week in the local studies section of my public library I found this photograph taken in 1905 of the street in which I currently live. Note the complete absence of automobiles and the tall chimney at the end of the road, part of an engine house that was destroyed in the 1970s. I live on the right hand side of the street, about half way up towards the chimney.

Some months ago just out of curiosity I searched for the street on Google, and I found a memoir written by Elizabeth Anne Slusser née Burbury (1915-1991), who lived in the house next door to mine from 1915 to 1939. Elizabeth Slusser appears to have had an interesting life. She was born in London to a wealthy and well connected family. In her memoir she describes annual holidays to Brittany and the year she spent learning Italian in a Catholic convent in Florence when she was just seven. She describes her home in London a little, and mentions her subsequently famous neighbours several times (Dame Marie Rambert and her husband, the theatre impresario Ashley Dukes, lived just across the street).

[Elizabeth’s parents met in Tasmania, but moved to England soon after marrying. Once settled in London her mother, Daisy Burbury née Guesdon, “founded a literary salon at 32 Campden Hill, Notting Hill Gate, which was frequently visited by Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Maurice Baring and others. There is a statue of her in the House of Commons as the Virgin Mary, with her daughter Norah as the infant Jesus.”]

Elizabeth’s memoir comes to an abrupt end in August 1939, but not before she mentions that her family’s home was one of the first in London to be destroyed by a German bomb in 1940. I can vouch for this fact because I now live next door to the four new homes that were subsequently built on the bombed site in 1955/56.

These four homes are all contained in what must be the single most ugly building on the street. In typical post-war fashion, the developers allowed function to completely overwhelm form, but then they compromised the functionality by squeezing far too many features into the limited available space. Each of the four houses was provided with a small covered car port, which cannibalised a significant portion of the ground floor and yet can only be used for the smallest of contemporary automobiles. In an effort to save costs, cheap and ugly materials were used to construct the building. Even the window boxes, which can probably withstand an earthquake, are made of cement and permanently affixed to the exterior walls with steel rods. What was the architect thinking?

Imagine my surprise then when during my visit to the library, I also discovered a 1962 article from Homes and Gardens magazine featuring the house next door. Apparently, it was the home of two television celebrities, Peter Dimmock and his wife Polly Elwes. He was a presenter on the BBC’s flagship sports programme Sportsview, while his wife presented a current affairs programme called Tonight.

A scan of two pages from Homes and Gardens magazine published in 1962.
32 Campden Hill Gardens in Homes and Gardens, 1962.

As you can see from the accompanying image (caution, it’s a long download at 644Kb), the article was illustrated with several images which give you a good idea of how it was furnished and a sense of what it must have been like to live there in the early 1960s. Ironically, Mrs. Dimmock is quoted as saying:

“A home should be warm and comfortable and reflect the personalities of its owners; above all it should look lived in – no museum effects for me. I don’t care for ultra-modern styles, they’re too apt to feel unfriendly.”

Well that might all be true, but did you look at the place from across the street before you moved in? Warm and comfortable? I don’t think so. More like sterile and frightening.

I don’t know when Mr. and Mrs. Dimmock moved out, but the house was sold late last year and in February workmen began to knock down all the internal walls and rebuild the insides from scratch. I wonder if the finished home will be “warm and comfortable” or more in keeping with its “ultra-modern” exterior?

I can’t wait for the new owner to move in next month, so I can recommend the local library.