Just one. The best

I love chess for a variety of reasons. The sheer breathtaking beauty of the game, as evinced here, in “Fatal Attraction”, Edward Lasker v Sir George Thomas nearly a century ago.  The characters it throws up, as in Jose Raul Capablanca and Efim Bogoljubov. And the way chess teaches us about cause and effect in a complex adaptive environment.

By the way, I’ve written about it before, but if you have any interest in chess at all, do play out Fatal Attraction. It’s a mesmerising game.

One of the reasons I like Bogoljubov is the outrageousness of his statements. In that outrage is truth. Examples: Bogoljubov had just won a remarkable game with the black pieces, and was asked how he’d done it. And he said “When I play white I win because I play white. When I play black I win because I am Bogoljubov.” Another time he was asked how many moves ahead he thinks. His answer? “Just one. The best”.

My interest in chess, largely kindled by an old schoolmate, Devangshu Datta, stayed steady through the years largely as a result of my interest in complex adaptive systems. When it came to analogies for root cause analysis and prevention of recurrence, I found chess hard to beat. I could sit down after a game and work out precisely when I started down the wrong path, what real options I had, how I could make sure I didn’t do it again. Chess was also good as a way of learning damage limitation, what to do when you have made a mistake.

I was reminded of this recently with all the brouhaha about healthcare in the US. Somewhere along the line, the focus of discussion appeared to deal primarily with the effciency of the curing process rather than the preventing process. Too often the same happens in the enterprise world. People are so busy getting better at fixing problems that they forget the real point, which is to stop doing what causes the problem in the first place.

Improving the speed and quality at which you fix things is a worthwhile objective: that is, if (and only if) things break down less often as a result. So when you look at repair processes, it is more important to look at why things break down, and to prevent them from breaking down,  than to focus on getting better at fixing things.

For some time now, we’ve been focused on the customer experience at BT. We looked at the way we dealt with customer requests, how often we delivered what the customer wanted, when the customer wanted it and how the customer wanted it. And we would take a close look at how often we got that right. A very close look. Because it affected what we took home.

That extreme focus has now begun to pay off: that’s why CEO Ian Livingston could tell the world last December that our complaint calls had halved since we embarked on the RFT initiative. Halved. In fact, that’s partly how we’ve been able to cut costs sharply.

The complaint calls coming in were a useful proxy for the number of problems we were causing. But we have to be careful. In large organisations, it is normal, understandable, even tempting to create an environment where the focus shifts from preventing problems to curing them. So before you know it, all the energy is deployed in fixing things, and not preventing the occurrence of the problem in the first place. That’s why you have to be careful what you measure, and how you use the measure. Finding out that you’re solving problems faster and faster is a good thing ….. provided the absolute number of problems is going down, and the problems aren’t repeating. Don’t get seduced by the message that you’re fixing things faster, cheaper better. They shouldn’t be going wrong in the first place.

So look ahead, be a Bogoljubov, and play that best right move. Concentrate on making sure you don’t make the mistake in the first place; the introduction of automation is a commonsense way of achieving this. As long as the environment is in steady state, this should be tractable. When you introduce change, then mistakes can be introduced, found, dealt with. As Esther Dyson says so often, “always make new mistakes”.

9 thoughts on “Just one. The best”

  1. “Always make new mistakes.”

    My question is, could the US do for its health care octopus what you say BT has done to hear fewer complaints from customers? Could a wellness industry trump the sickness industry?

    I liked it how you danced around between chess to US health to BT.

    I think in the age of social media, your conclusion is even more potent. Now people talk and they get heard. Like the old adage, prevention is better than the cure.

  2. Can’t remember which ending the game had. I think the pieces offer two possibilities, K gets out of the way or K castles. I loved the idea of castling to mate!

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