You’re General Shinseki.
What happened to him could happen to you. Here’s how to prevent it:
But first, let’s get two facts straight.
Fact #1: The scandal at the VA isn’t that the VA provides awful care to veterans. Veteran satisfaction with VA care is on a par with private-sector care. An acquaintance who heads a chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Association and has been involved in the current inquiry confirmed for me that care quality isn’t an issue.
Fact #2: Nobody in the VA delayed care or treatment. Veterans seeking care were scheduled into the earliest timeslots available.
The “scandal” is that managers throughout the VA required staff to fudge the numbers to make it appear the agency was meeting its required service levels.
The VA’s leaders, from Shinseki on down, didn’t act on chapter 3 of the KJR Manifesto. They didn’t, that is, avoid Metrics Fallacy #4, which is, in case you need reminding, extending organizational metrics to individual employees. It’s a fallacy because the moment you do you won’t be able to trust your numbers any more.
What was true for Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay at Enron is just as true for a low-level manager at the VA: When your performance is gauged by numbers, you have an incentive to fudge the numbers, which in turn makes the numbers useless for gauging organizational performance.
If you lead a large IT organization I’d bet good money it’s happening to you right now.
Start with time tracking. Employees all know that if the numbers show they’re under-utilized they’re more vulnerable to the next round of layoffs. Think they don’t allocate some of their open time to various categories of doing something productive?
Of course they do.
Now think about Agile. Many Agile variants use some form of backlog management, the “backlog” being the project’s to-do list of desired new or improved system capabilities. These are usually described in terms of “user stories,” which describe what’s needed.
Each user story receives a consensus degree-of-difficulty rating from the Agile team. Agile teams become very good at this, which in turn means Agile projects forecast delivery more accurately than traditional waterfall projects.
It has to be tempting to use weighted user-story development time to rate developer performance.
Resist the temptation. Succumb and here’s what you’ll get: padded degree-of-difficulty estimates, slower development because developers will live down to their inflated estimates, and inflated performance numbers, because of the same padding.
Then there’s the Help Desk. Help Desk managers have a lot in common with VA scheduling managers, in that the amount of staff time available to resolve reported incidents is often quite a bit less than the time needed. Think your Help Desk staff don’t quietly close incidents they’ve touched but that aren’t really resolved, to make their close rate look better and their incident backlog smaller?
Which brings us to the most astonishing aspect of this whole sorry mess: General Shinseki apparently acted like a manager, not like a leader, and not a very good manager, either.
Shinseki, that is, relied on reports, his 12-level chain of command, and extensive time spent with the VA’s regional medical directors.
None mentioned the metrics-fudging. Why would anyone expect them to?
Generals are supposed to know that if they want to know what’s really going on, they need to talk to the soldiers. I’ve encountered no hints that Shinseki did much of this.
Look, fudging management reports to make performance look better is a time-honored tradition in the world of organizational dynamics. This isn’t a scandal in any meaningful sense of the word.
If there’s a scandal, it’s that the metric that mattered most … a metric on which lives depend if it’s the VA, and your relationship with the business depends if it’s the Help Desk … was jeopardized by the insistence on measuring individual performance. That metric? Demand/Capacity. So long as it’s enough less than one to cover day-to-day variations in demand, veterans will get the care they need when they need it and users with failing tech will get the fixes they need.
Turns out, in the VA it’s nowhere close.
Which in turn reveals Shinseki’s true failure.
The VA budget has increased significantly during the past two administrations, yet somehow that budget increase hasn’t turned into sufficient capacity.
With money to spend, Shinseki and his predecessors failed to make sure it was spent hiring and retaining doctors and nurses. That’s a scandal.
I trust the parallel is clear.