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Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Shooting cows and sparing milkmaids, or how to put the cart before the horse: an expert demonstrates. And why I’m ending this blog shortly

Years ago when I whizzed around the world telling people what to do (a role for which I was astoundingly unfitted) I arrived one sunny morning at a Canadian airport.

The office head met me and drove me into town. He had quite a problem. The office was losing money hand over fist. I had no idea what to suggest but I thought maybe the trick would be to get rid of a few people. But who?

So I asked him about office numbers. He had a small creative department – the people who put together the ads and mailings and so on. There were somewhat more account handlers – the charmers who deal with the clients. And there were even more in the accounts department – they send out the bills and keep score financially.

I said, “Well, David Ogilvy says you should never have more milkmaids than cows. You have that - more account handlers than creative people. But you have even more people counting the buckets of milk, which is pretty amazing. See what happens if you get the balance right.”

So he did, and the business went on to prosper – as did he. He is now the worldwide head of that particular organisation.

There is obviously a hell of a lot more to what he achieved than changing the numbers. He is very good blues harmonica player, for one thing. But I was reminded of all this when I heard what they are up to at the BBC. 

Mark Thompson – he who gets paid well over five times as much as the Prime Minister – has a “programme” or “initiative” called “Delivering Quality First”. Pardon me while I throw up before explaining that they are doing this by shooting cows and sparing milkmaids. 

They are getting rid of over 2,000 people in programme-making (cows) but sparing all the executives (milkmaids). There is no shortage of milkmaids at the BBC; in fact so many there are 1,800 job titles that include the words manager or management.

I have stolen most of that from the Oldie magazine, which also reveals that despite all these managers, analysts, officers, architects, executives and advisors one senior correspondent revealed recently that “it is incompetently managed from top to bottom.”

This story reminds me of one of Evelyn Waugh’s best jokes, delivered after Randolph Churchill had had his appendix out. He remarked how extraordinary it was that they had managed to remove the one part of Randolph that was not malignant.

Lastly, I have noticed one thing in life – demonstrated by the BBC story – that far too often people mistake change for improvement. 

The people who run this blog have introduced improvements which make it much harder for me, so I’m going to move it elsewhere shortly.

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