The Edward I approach to running call centres

Dec 15 2009 by Philip Whiteley Print This Article

A story in this month's Harvard Business Review was heartening in its initial impact, but depressing upon reflection. The article, To Be a Better Leader, Give Up Authority, reported on how two large manufacturers had improved results by giving up a dictatorial, cost-measurement approach to management in favour of empowered teams.

It was heartening because it illustrates the power of this enlightened approach, but depressing because this knowledge has been around for at least half a century, and W Edwards Deming's spectacular results with teamwork at Japanese manufacturers.

Why does it keep having to be reinvented, before managers relapse and implement failed hierarchical models? I have some ideas as to why in Meet the New Boss which looks at the wider cultural influences that encourage a cynical approach to management.

Another problem is technology. IT systems appear to make dictatorial, cost-based management easier and more efficient. Many executives are misanthropes, and the prospect of replacing people with gadgets is a fatal lure. Their anachronistic business theories are based on the pretence that people are a resource manipulated by the company – when in reality it is the other way around.

In the past two decades we've had wave after wave of introductions of mediaeval management practices under the guise of 'modernisation'. A paradox.

Most call centres are based on an approach that involves measuring the process, rather than customer satisfaction, including even internet providers, as I have found recently. They treat the customer with disdain, and prevent call centre staff from being able to solve customers' problems. It is as though the past 50 years' research on management had never occurred.

They use IT as a castle wall – automated phone systems, automated generic advice – to protect the people with accountability from any direct contact with their customers, the way Edward I built castles to protect him from the Celts.

Because everyone has to have broadband, telecoms providers have a captive audience, and are able to treat customers the way feudal barons treated peasants: easy fodder for the poll tax.

Has it never occurred to the business process re-engineering geeks that this is a vicious circle? That if you got the service right first time, by skilled, empowered teams – as demonstrated by Deming half a century ago – you would not have so many calls to deal with?

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