Philip Whiteley's Blog

March 26, 2014

People don’t hate change. People hate stupidity

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 12:36 pm

I’ve nothing against accountants and finance directors, really I haven’t. I just challenge the idea that they should be the only ones in charge. The extent to which accountancy still dominates the way in which businesses are reported on, analysed and managed is absurd. We don’t travel to work via horse and cart or boats propelled by galley slaves, so why do we still use the quarterly report of the financial accounts – a 15th Century invention – to hold companies to account and analyse costs for the purposes of business planning?
It goes like this. You have an underperforming business. Profits are under pressure. Ah, the bean-counters say, some salaries are high and we have a lot of office space. If we reduce costs, we’ll restore margins! So they freeze or cut salaries and posts, and move to open-plan offices, hot-desking and the like. People will resist this, naturally. But people hate change! They tell themselves. So they impose change upon resistant people, and see if it works. If it fails, of course, they’ll blame the resistance, not the plan.
What such plans fail to incorporate is an understanding that an organization is a human community, not a set of resources with costs. And this community behaves in unpredictable ways. If you tot up the costs as they appear on the balance sheet you appear to have aggregate costs, but you don’t, because most of the bigger costs don’t appear, and they can go wildly up or down depending on how these complex sentient beings called humans respond to change. So if a wage freeze prompts people to start leaving in droves, costs shoot up, because high turnover is expensive (and routinely not measured). Very probably customers depart also. If an open-plan office is inappropriate for the business, because a lot of confidential conversations are necessary (I’ve heard this comment twice in the past few weeks from people protesting at stupid change), then a lot of time is wasted looking for meeting rooms.
The idea that people hate change is nonsense. It’s the most obviously wrong theory spouted by the MBA brigade (and there is fierce competition for that accolade). Human beings are the most restless, curious species there is. We are easily bored. We love change. That’s why we’re always looking at our smartphones and gossiping over a coffee. We want to find out what’s new and we’re disappointed if it’s nothing major.
What people hate is not change; it’s poorly thought-through accountancy-based reorganizations that damage the organization as well as our careers. We don’t hate change, we hate stupidity. Unfortunately, there is rather a lot of it.

February 26, 2014

Radio silence in aerospace

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 3:56 pm

Since publishing my ‘whistle-blowing’ dossier on apparent serious breaches of medical ethics and health and safety legislation in airlines, I expected a barrage of commentary and criticism from people in the aviation sector. Instead, I have experienced an eerie silence. A few former pilots and one current flight attendant have gotten in touch to express their thanks and share their experiences, but from the aviation industry and governmental transport institutes a policy of radio silence is intact.

I may not be an expert on aviation, but I am very experienced in spin. I know when an organization is hiding something, and refusal to answer direct, reasonable questions is an obvious sign. This extends, in the case of the aerotoxic scandal, to a refusal to acknowledge the existence of evidence that does not support their position, or in other cases to explain why they did not accept it. So a typical exchange of information between me and an aviation body goes something like this:

Them: ‘There is no evidence aerotoxic syndrome exists’.

Me: ‘But you were presented with evidence of toxic injury from fume events by eminent scientists and doctors on this date.’

Them: ‘Ah, but we did not accept that this evidence was credible.’

Me: ‘Interesting. What was the scientific basis for rejecting that evidence?’

Them: ‘We refuse to answer that question.’

Even if you want to support the industry on this issue, it’s not terribly convincing.

In response to my dossier, however, I have received emails sent directly to me from two very senior figures in the British establishment, who are in a position to make very big waves roll, and who informed me that they are investigating the issues that I raised. I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic about what will happen next, but some significant developments are at least possible in the next few weeks.

All I can do is stay on the case.

February 12, 2014

Credit to Boeing

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 6:09 pm

Since my post on Monday, which caused quite a stir on some social media discussions, a couple of people have pointed out to me that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has a ‘no-bleed’ system for providing cabin air, which eliminates the most obvious risk of a ‘fume event’. This was something I was aware of, but perhaps I could have put it in the piece. In 2007, in evidence to the House of Lords in the UK, the company stated:

“The Boeing 787 will have a no-bleed architecture for the outside air supply to the cabin. This architecture eliminates the risk of engine oil decomposition products from being introduced in the cabin supply air in the rare event of a failed engine compressor seal. In addition, this architecture improves fuel efficiency, thus reducing fuel burn and associated engine emissions.”

To the best of my knowledge, it has not referred to this aspect of the no-bleed architecture in a public statement since.

February 10, 2014

Vested interests, lazy journalism, and the biggest scandal you’ve never heard of

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 10:24 am

Last Monday, on the BBC documentary Britain’s Great War, presenter Jeremy Paxman highlighted the case of the munitions worker Charlotte Meade. She suffered from an industrial injury during the First World War, contracting ‘toxic jaundice’ from chemicals used in arms manufacture, and died within a year. Under war-time censorship, the press was prevented from reporting the case.

Not so long ago, the same Jeremy Paxman admitted that Newsnight, which he hosts, is a tad ‘boring’ on slow news days. The irony is that, if he were aware of the modern equivalents of Charlotte Meade, he would be without a slow news day between now and the next general election. His team would be reporting one of the biggest corporate scandals since corporations first came into being. It is also a political scandal, as I shall explain.

Over the past six months or so, I have been researching for a book on toxic injury from leaks of jet engine oil fumes into aircraft cabins. I never doubted that my client, former Flybe captain and chair of the Aerotoxic Association John Hoyte, was genuine. As soon as I learned that aircraft cabin air is bled directly off the engine feed, passing close by engine oil, I could see it was an industrial accident waiting to happen. Unlike most journalists, I have A-Level chemistry. The shocking thing is that it seems that aeronautical engineers do not; or at least, do not recall what they learned.

What has astonished me over the course of the past few months, however, has been the following:

  • Just how serious the toxic injuries are, and that jet engine oil contains organophosphates. It is similar in seriousness to WW1 cases of ‘toxic jaundice’, and the cause is every bit as clear. While most flights pose minimal risk, from time to time an engine seal fails and there is a leak of toxic fumes.
  • Just how common these leaks of toxic gases are. There is industry jargon for such incidents: ‘fume events’. On 12 November 1999 in Malmö, Sweden, both pilots nearly passed out and had to don oxygen masks. Yet there were no product recalls; no response at all from the industry; and there have been many incidents since. Just last Friday, a British Airways 747 had to make an emergency landing in Dallas-Fort Worth after a fume event. It is unlikely that BA or the Civil Aviation Authority will be issuing any press releases – or advising those affected of the chemicals to which they have been exposed. A BA insider says: ‘This fume issue is getting worse; the general standard of BA’s 747s is worrying.’
  • Just how many people are affected – certainly thousands; possibly hundreds of thousands of people, nearly all mis-diagnosed; many confused as a result of irreversible brain injury.
  • The extent of the industry’s cover-ups and deceptions. This includes directing airline medical officers to mis-diagnose with psychological causes.
  • The way in which every arm of the British state, including the medical establishment, has allied itself with those causing harm, rather than those suffering harm, in a chronicle of biased tribunals and disciplinary/grievance procedures, and denial of basic human rights, including health rights. Even the NHS comes out badly, as it refuses to acknowledge that chronic fatigue can be caused by toxic injury.
  • A failure rigorously to honour and police the ‘duty of care’ that is supposed to lie at the heart of health and safety legislation.
  • The collusion right across the political spectrum, including the main union set up to represent pilots.

What I had initially assumed was the plight of a small number of people to get their industrial illness recognized instead turns out to be a major scandal, raising profound questions about human rights and the accountability of democratic institutions.

Between 2008 and 2011 the UK Government pretended to investigate the matter. Having turned down a request for funding by Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross of University College London for a large-scale study into affected pilots, following initial research that showed alarming cognitive deterioration, the Department for Transport organized some studies that did not involve any fume events or any affected pilots. Researchers measured air quality on 100 normal flights (using a sampler criticized by one of the peer reviews). It revealed trace elements of organophosphates on some flights, and very high levels of (unspecified) ultrafine particles. Into the executive summary was inserted the phrase: ‘There was no evidence of pollutants occurring in cabin air at levels exceeding available health and safety standards and guidelines.’ This has been duly cut and pasted by Ministry of Transport mandarins into the minister’s statement after the report’s publication in May 2011, and by aviation industry spin doctors since, which was precisely the intention. British Airways kindly reproduced it upon the death of its pilot Richard Westgate, as seen on this regional ITV clip.

It is the same technique as the ’45-minute’ clause inserted into the ’dodgy dossier’ to justify the Iraq invasion. As cover-ups go, it is not even particularly sophisticated. It has, however, been enough to scare off lazy news editors, who want their scandals brought to them on a plate – a recent example is the Mid-Staffordshire NHS scandal, a story broken by David Cameron, not the media, and only fully covered since the publication of the Francis Inquiry. UK newspaper coverage of toxins in cabin air pretty much stops in May 2011, with the honourable exception of the Express.

The aviation industry goes to great lengths to cast doubt on the numerous studies showing ill-health from fume leaks; arguing that they do not prove causality; that there is ‘only’ a correlation and could be a coincidence. This is like saying that there is ‘only’ a correlation between road traffic accidents and head injuries. People are healthy, they get exposed to a fume event, they get sick, sometimes very badly sick, with the same chemicals in their body as you find in jet engine oil. Some coincidence.

By the way, I’m not an anti-corporate campaigner. I am pro-business. I think that there are probably too many workplace regulations. What we have is the worst of both worlds: honest, decent employers saddled with prescriptive rules on this or that way to handle a grievance procedure, while authorities fail to implement essential safety laws in an industry with high-level political connections, who play the jobs card with unions and governments when their insurers smell the possibility of compensation payouts.

As for the business implications, while there would be compensation payouts and upfront costs if aviation ended the practice of bleed air, there would be massive operating savings from lower staff turnover once they stop poisoning their employees – especially given the huge cost of training pilots. Nearly all employers grossly under-estimate the cost of high staff absence and turnover.

But one should not need a business case for doing the right thing, when the wrong thing is as wrong as this. I am ashamed that my profession, journalism, hasn’t done enough to expose this. The government doesn’t formally have censorship, but in the aerotoxic scandal, it hasn’t needed it – so far. I hope we don’t have to wait 100 years for justice.

September 18, 2013

Ethical success

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 2:29 pm

As part of its Management Futures series of blogs, the Chartered Management Institute picks up on the theme of ethical governance and management for its September feature. Like New Normal Radical Shift, it challenges the idea that ethical conduct and commercial success are natural opposites. The following is an excerpt:

For the past few decades, the matters of ethics and social responsibility in business have been put firmly in their place: a short section near the end of the annual report; a few minutes before the close of the Board meeting. Social responsibility has meant some charitable donations and volunteer days, perhaps creating useful photo opportunities for the PR department. It has been – and often still is – seen as very much junior to the big beasts of finance, strategy and marketing. This is changing, however. In the past few years, some highly unethical practices, often enthusiastically pursued as part of the quest for high returns, have destroyed much shareholder value.

Click here for the full article.

Click here to buy New Normal Radical Shift

(This blog was published simultaneously on the Radical Shift site http://radical-shift.net/.)

August 5, 2013

Why does the Left promote poverty pay?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 11:56 am

With the rise of zero-hours contracts, and campaigns for a living wage, it is distressing that so many wages are low, but heartening that living standards are at least becoming a political issue.

Some of the most vociferous campaigners, however, are unwittingly undermining their own case, by exaggerating the business benefits of low wages. The Guardian-Observer, for example, the leading centre-left news journal in the UK, gave the issue considerable coverage on 28th July, with news coverage and letter-writers angrily denouncing the ‘scandal’ of low pay. Some of the contributors, however, repeated the common error of assuming that wage costs = employment costs, and that it’s in the interests of the business to keep wages at a minimum.

I duly submitted a letter for publication pointing out this error, which unsurprisingly went unpublished. A full text is below. If you care at all about low wages – and about the cause of low wages – please publicise this.

Low pay is a perfectly avoidable scandal

I do despair when I come across Observer readers and trade unionists who enthusiastically promote low wages in the private sector. Many of your correspondents (Low pay is not only a scandal it disenfranchises the young, 28 July 2013), repeat the common assumption that low pay maximises profits. SJ Closs, for example, argues that the ‘only way’ a private company can reduce its costs is to reduce wage and benefit levels.

It turns out, however, that this is not true. The direct cost of employing people is only a part of total employment costs, and is often dwarfed by factors such as poor skills, weak leadership and low engagement.

After 15 years of writing and researching on the subject, I have come to the conclusion that the cultural belief in low wages as a commercial priority has three main culprits:

  1. Domination of accountancy. This leads to the false equation that wage costs = employment costs.
  2. Right-wing economic theory. Milton Friedman urged a ‘costs-based’ approach to management, neglecting matters such as employee engagement and skills.
  3. Left-wing economic theory. Karl Marx’s surplus value is the same zero-sum calculation as Friedman’s. It finds its contemporary shape in trade unions’ ‘social dumping’ argument, which also actively promotes low wages in the profit-making sector.

Neither Marx nor Friedman based their ideas on what actually happens in organizations, where some of the most ethical employers (WL Gore, John Lewis Partnership etc) are also some of the most successful.

Low pay is not just a scandal, but a perfectly avoidable one, created by centuries of bean-counting, Marxism and neo-liberalism. It has all been a terrible mistake.

Sincerely

Philip Whiteley

  • Our case study in New Normal Radical Shift, on how a living wage helped productivity and service standards for Marks & Spencer suppliers in Bangladesh, can be found on this link.

August 1, 2013

Readings and songs from Meet the New Boss: 7th September

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 1:47 pm

Special Announcement from Ampthill Writers 

An evening of readings and acoustic songs …. In preparation for the inaugural Ampthill Literary Festival, 2014

Have you ever wondered why work gets a bad press? Or why songs about hard toil and the nine-to-five make such a great soundtrack? Ampthill author Philip Whiteley presents readings, observations and a selection of songs on the theme of work, based on his award-winning publication Meet the New Boss. He will be joined by Peter Webster and Ross Fergusson, plus special guests, to play some classic songs, including: Between the Wars, Nine-to-Five, We Gotta Get out of This Place, and more.

Free excerpts from Meet the New Boss: http://www.whiteleywords.com/Phil/books/new_boss_extract.html

Buy the book here: http://tinyurl.com/okfvkjn

Ampthill authors – Screenplay writer Simon Michael and best-selling thriller writer Adam Croft now confirmed

Date: Saturday 7th September 2013. 08.00pm-10.00pm

Venue: Postern Piece Farm, Bedford Road, Ampthill MK45 2EX

Special note: The readings will be by professional authors. The music will be by professional musicians and singers. For the most part.

Admission free: but RSVP, as places are limited, to:

phil@whiteleywords.com or max@haymax.biz

June 4, 2013

My talk to Human Potential Accounting

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 10:55 am

On 23rd May, I gave a talk to a London meeting convened by Human Potential Accounting, to mark the lanuch of the Human Capital Handbook. One quote: “When both left and right argue that low pay maximizes margins, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a lot of low pay – something that, I would argue, benefits no one.”

May 30, 2013

Food banks, Big Data and a refusal to learn

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:25 am

Three articles this week, mostly depressing but with a glimmer of hope in one, offer a vivid portrayal of our technologically rich, economically unequal, debt-ridden, politically anachronistic and remarkably conservative and incurious society.

In The Independent, a report that use of food banks in the UK has shot up. The usual suspects are highlighted: delays in benefit system; curbs to benefit increases, pay freezes. Not mentioned in the report, for political reasons as the title is anti-Coalition, is the high level of personal debt in the UK, which soared under the last Labour government – and under the Conservative government before it – as a 2010 Bank of England Working Paper notes: up by more than 50% between 1987 and 2006.

Inventor Jaron Lanier, in a report that led to a lively discussion on the Radical Shift Linked-in group, noted how social media and other consumer firms are using Big Data to manipulate consumers. Simon Caulkin, spot on as usual, relates how corporations have been captured by the neo-liberal cult of only caring about shareholders, focusing on the short-term, and enriching a few.

There is one matter on which the neo-liberal zealots and The Independent agree: that extreme inequality helps the corporations. Over the longer term, especially, this is not consistently true. As discussed repeatedly on this blog and on Radical Shift, low pay does not maximize profits – this is a cynical myth supported by right-wing and left-wing economics. We have known since at least the 1930s and the Hawthorne experiments, that the way in which you treat workers is the single most important element in enhancing performance and the customer experience. The more ethical employers are also some of the most successful.

What is depressing this week is the extent to which there seems to be a refusal to learn: an insistence that low pay is inevitable or helps economic efficiency; that corporations cannot have a soul or a conscience; that only the state – itself massively indebted in each of the major economies – can help those on low incomes.

We have highly advanced electronic communications yet continue to neglect human communication. We think data is the hard stuff and relationships are the soft stuff. Corporations, keen to apply 21st Century Big Data, have yet to apply management research from the early 20th Century. Some progress. Half a century ago Martin Luther King complained that we had guided missiles but unguided people; we made progress in technology, but not in governance and leadership. Still the case.

I hate to be pessimistic, so now to the glimmer of hope. In Simon Caulkin’s piece, there was a report of a radically different vision of capitalism, one in which all of society stands to benefit. The head of McKinsey, no less, Dominic Barton said that capitalism had 10-30 years to reform itself. The business schools must follow suit. It’s challenging but not impossible. There are highly enlightened practices emerging from many supermarkets and consumer multinationals, especially on sustainability. You can read some examples in New Normal Radical Shift.

May 3, 2013

Left-right politics keeps wages down

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:37 am

One of the biggest misconceptions in management and politics is the idea that careers, good earnings and self-esteem only matter to high-flying graduates and the ambitious upper-middle class. One of the most heartening lessons I’ve learned in recent years has been the example of enlightened employers bringing better wages and careers prospects to people such as cleaners, security guards, gardeners and workers in clothing factories.

There are, however, two major obstacles to spreading this amazing and enlightening example. One is right-wing politics. The other is left-wing politics.

The misanthropic nonsense that has emerged from neo-liberals in the past half a century is a major contributory factor, with their absurd notions of people as ‘human resources’, or ‘cost units’. Outsourcing decisions have been based on the notion that it’s rational to transfer a service across the world to where the wage rates are x per cent lower. This is simplistic and risky from a pure business point of view, never mind the ethics.

But it’s also worth exploring the contribution of liberals in the arts, in maintaining the idea that an unfashionable job in a factory or shop or office is type of prison from which one ought to escape. I explore these ideas in Meet the New Boss.

Worse still, left-wing politicians, instead of challenging the exploitative neo-liberal business model, lend ideological backing. The recent fire in a clothing factory in Bangladesh was proof, left-wing bloggers thundered, that ‘capitalism’ puts profits ahead of welfare and safety. The fact that you can make more profits by treating workers well is something that the reactionary forces of the left and the right want to keep hidden from us.

As we describe in New Normal, Radical Shift, Marks & Spencer actually improved their margins when they moved to a living wage policy in Bangladesh.

Ed Miliband, UK Labour leader, has recently spoken in favour of a living wage policy, which is a mighty step forward. Unfortunately, he does not consistently believe in the business case. Just a few months ago, he predicted that people would be fired all over the place ‘if their employer didn’t like them’, should labour regulations be lessened even slightly; and he seems to think that businesses have to be bribed with tax cuts in order to implement the living wage.

A truly progressive policy would make living wages and enlightened leadership in the public and private sector the centrepiece of economic and business policy, as well as social policy. There is no benefit to low wages and miserable working conditions. NONE AT ALL. It has all been a terrible mistake, sustained by right-wing and left-wing political beliefs.

Excerpt from New Normal, Radical Shift:

Centuries of Marxists and neo-liberals claiming that exploitation is the way to boost margins, encourages the worst types of managerial style to be deployed. Employee relations can descend into a self-fulfilling, vicious cycle of mutual fear and threat, with management and unions seeing themselves as being on opposite sides of a conflict, each keen to get their retaliation in first. This unhealthy dynamic was the principal cause of the collapse of entire industries in some western countries in the 1970s and 1980s, and was largely self-fulfilling, based on inaccurate and cynical political philosophies.

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