Headlines: March 28th, 2007



Civil Servants are being urged to do more to pursue ‘high reliability’ and to avoid becoming ‘failure tolerant’. The view has been put forward by David Tranfield of Cranfield University, the National School of Government’s Sunningdale Institute Fellow. He argues that efficiencies are best facilitated by steps to create zero tolerance of failure.

Professor Tranfield makes the case in a video interview with Bob MacLennan, the School’s Head of Strategy, which is published on its website, www.nationalschool.gov.uk .In the interview, he says focusing only on cutting costs produces low morale and can also lead to ‘a myriad of small organisational failures’. These may each be insignificant alone but together they create a dangerous failure tolerant culture. This is especially so when this happens in senior management teams.

During periods of cost cutting, he says, people go on cutting until things start to go wrong. Cuts are an important step in removing waste but they can give a covert message that failure is part of normal working practice. “Once accepted, particularly in the senior management team, this small cultural item can be dangerous. Having to do things more than once to get the right result is never efficient, but minor errors can cascade and when combined with a big slice of bad luck, the results can be serious and sometimes catastrophic,” he warns.

He suggests failure can be spotted and dealt with by following a series of management principles, including creating ‘information rich environments’ and says this has been the response of some leading global manufacturing companies. He uses the example of the minor failure of a component in a car, which can be traced back to the individual supplier or manufacturer, not only solving the problem but ensuring it never happens again. The equivalent in the public sector, he says, would be the development of high reliability in education where some improving schools have created an information rich environment with data being gathered on student performance across all subjects over the entire time they are at the school. This allows issues to be highlighted, tracked back and put right before difficulties show up when pupils take public examinations.

Professor Tranfield says efficiency gain has been an ongoing focus for improved performance but there have been few examples of initiatives focusing on reliability in management teams in the Civil Service over the last two decades.