Re-thinking Continuous Improvement

HERE is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. A.A. Milne.

I was at an event recently in Birmingham that showcased Wolverhampton, Stoke-On-Trent and Rugby’s planning services. For these councils an improved service is best achieved by 1) changing the way you think about what you do; 2) re-defining your purpose from the customer’s perspective, and 3) changing what you do to achieve the purpose and make continuous improvement part of ‘how you do things’ (not knee-jerk projects every 18 months).

The event lead me to conclude that continuous improvement is not actually possible in most places because of the way we set up and deliver our planning services. I believe we’re unwittingly committing ourselves to mediocrity, the status quo and missed opportunities because we won’t change how we think. I’ve also realised that there’s a large hole in the work I’m doing on a new performance framework. Let me explain what I mean – inspired by the stories of these 3 councils.

We’re products of our environment

Our hosts in Birmingham asked us: why is it that on team away-days our people think outside boxes, build rafts and solve puzzles, but on their return they carry on doing the same old things? Because most of us behave according to the constraints and norms of the structures we work within. We survive by reinforcing assumptions about what is normal and if we feel a bit insecure, we’ll glance sideways at our neighbours and take comfort at seeing them doing the same things. We won’t change our behaviour until the norms and values of the system we operate in change and only then if we’re involved in designing the new order. This is about ‘un-learning’ what we hold to be true, designing something better and then re-learning the better way as ‘normal’.

Why continuous improvement isn’t possible

We normally make improvements to our current ways of working, rather than first asking ourselves whether how we do things is right in the first place. And we measure our success against targets that bear no relation to our purpose. This means that our improvement projects run the risk of simply making us better and faster at the wrong things and the main agent of change (or ‘continuous’ improvement) is whether or not we hit a target.

In this world, improvement projects are primarily triggered by a period of poor performance against a target. It leads to a kind of ‘boom and bust’ approach to improvement. It is not continuous improvement. And, because most improvement projects are focused on change within the current way of working, we see many useful but fairly un-ambitious ‘solutions’ like revised validation lists or standard conditions wordings that tinker around the edges of problems, rather than addressing the root causes. Or we buy an ‘IT solution’.

So what?

Regulars to this site will know that I have been working on a new performance framework for planning. RichardPritchard has most recently contributed on the subject here. I have now realised that all the laudable stuff about moving councils away from targets and measuring better things won’t properly address the continuous improvement problem, unless they are a catalyst for making councils re-think and change the current systems they operate within.

To help my own thinking about what different could look like, I have sketched out a few ‘scenarios’ reflecting some of the ‘norms’ of planning service delivery – the ways of managing and operating that in my mind keep the status quo. Then there are some suggested alternative approaches for those of us ready to think and act differently. The beauty of this stuff is you’ll have heard it all before, several times probably.

Planning Service Scenario 1: ‘We’re no longer driven by 8 and 13 week targets’

Many places have held a staff meeting where it has been agreed that targets are no longer the focus, and that issuing decisions as soon as possible is. In the same places nothing is done to reflect this change of stance in the structures that the staff operate within; NI157 continues to be the de facto performance yardstick, reinforced by the small industry that creates performance reports for management and councillors and obediently sends performance returns (suitably gamed) to Government.

It’s no surprise then that in nearly 4 years of analysing thousands of planning applications, 11th hour decisions and withdrawn applications remains the norm in most places.

The point is, no matter what we tell ourselves, if we continue to use things like NI157 to demonstrate how we’re doing, then our processes and people will always bend towards that goal. When we hit the target we are happy and report positively but do nothing (no need, we’re providing a good service right?), and only when we miss it do we think about making a change.

Putting the lack of an up-to-date plan to one side, this may explain why, despite performing quite well ‘on paper’, our relationships with customers and agents aren’t always that great, and why councillors can be critical because despite our regular reports of ‘top quartile’ performance, they often get it in the neck about planning when they are out on the door.

Thinking differently

Measuring what really happens, for example the real ‘end-to-end’ (e.g. receipt to decision) time of making a decision will show you that many cases that hit the NI157 target actually take a week or two longer in reality. And if you consider the discharging of conditions, then the real end-to-end time can stretch to extra months in some cases. The reasons are numerous, but for starters, around half of applications received by councils are usually invalid. You can begin to see why the perceptions/truth about service delivery are often at odds with your performance reports. The 13 week target is back in vogue because of designation. Obviously this can’t be ignored, but please see this as an opportunity to engage with developers early about their proposals, and start using tools such as planning performance agreements and extensions of time to add value to the process of development, not just to ‘take them out of Government’s stats’. On a related note take a look here at the ever pen-ready RichardPritchard thoughts about understanding how wisely we are spending our negotiation resources.

Measuring end-to-end times tells you what actually happens to an application and is a good start in demonstrating that all may not be as well as your stats indicate. The most disturbing thing you’ll find looking at this measure is not the average decision time, but the ‘range’; why is it that sometimes we can issue a decision on similar applications in 52 days and sometimes it takes 97? It shows you there is inconsistency, but it also shows you that there is potential for change and improvement. But, it is not a solution in itself – unless the data alarms you enough and prompts changes to how you operate, then you are just swapping a target for a measure. Decision times are affected by many different parts of the whole process, take a look at Scenario 2-6 below – this is where we can begin to see some solutions to wildly inconsistent processing times.

Planning Service Scenario 2 – You’ve designed your processes to  maximise efficiency

Applications are picking up and planners’ in-trays are filling. The pressure is on to process applications quickly, so it is important that performance is managed so that no one is slacking. We’re spending a lot of time again agonising over what the optimum number is for ‘caseload-per-officer’.

For efficiency, we’ve carved up the handling process, dividing the labour. Experienced planners don’t have to worry about the ‘small stuff’ at the beginning of the process and can concentrate on the more important work once the application is in the system and ready to work on. Specialists can get on with specialising. The risk of things going wrong is managed by several quality checks along the way by managers and a final one for luck before each decision is issued.

Soon enough, looming piles of work, more in the pipeline and many plates spinning takes its toll. Staff end up being carefully performance-managed into focusing on how quickly they can move cases off their desks, or how long they can avoid doing something. The default methods of communication become the answer-phone and the defensive, jargon-heavy letter with the get-on-with-it-yourself link to ‘the website’.

The myriad of hand-offs in the process mean that no one has a proper perspective of a development which causes delays as officers at each stage ‘catch up’ and argue with what happened before they saw it. The lack of ownership results in mistakes. So we introduce more checks which add more cost and delay, which in turn adds more pressure which leads to more mistakes. You see the pattern…

Staff end up primarily concerned with covering their backs rather than doing good useful work. Our focus on speeding things up has slowed things down and we end up just controlling risks rather than addressing the reasons they exist in the first place.

Thinking differently

Re-arrange the work so that professional planners own and manage development proposals and applications throughout the decision-making process, including any pre-application work and even validation. Instruct them to focus on what’s in front of them and do the best possible job, leaving the head of service to worry about the pipeline. Give them responsibility for making decisions, and operate within a set of principles, something like:

  • Take time at the beginning to understand what the customer is trying to achieve
  • Get the application ‘clean’ (ready to work on) and ‘start now’
  • Validation; work to the legal minimum. Ask: is what’s missing going to stop this? Would a quick visit or phone call sort it out? What else can be progressed while we’re waiting?
  • Focus fully on what’s in front of you; complete a piece of work before staring something else.
  • ‘Pull’ specialist/more experience support in when needed.
  • Performance management will focus on what we’re learning, not how much we do.

Sounds expensive? All that experience at the front end? Talking to customers, phone calls and visits instead of letters, taking time to get it right. It’s a costly business letting planners do their job properly. Compare it to yo-yo-ing correspondence, chasing, waiting, duplication, re-submitting etc. and then judge. And that’s before considering the positive effect on customer service, staff morale and processing times.

Planning service scenario 3: It’s normal to attach Conditions to your Decision Notices

Conditions are increasingly being seen as the enemy. I agree to some extent, but it’s more about when we impose them that is a big problem. A decision notice with conditions isn’t really a decision is it? It is a means of getting a permission out of the door quickly (targets again) but not that helpful to the customer. How many times are conditions a surprise to our applicants?

Thinking differently

Instead of issuing planning permissions, aim to issue ‘Permissions-to-Build’. It will change the way we think about using conditions. Using our experience we get in early – if conditions are likely to feature offer applicants the chance to ‘discharge’ them before the decision is issued. What can happen? They refuse, but at least been offered a choice. They say ‘Yes’ and it possibly adds time into the process prior to the decision – BUT the applicant is happy (it’s their choice and they get a permission to build), and it’s ok because we’re not working to targets any more. No more chasing up conditions, or leaving them un-discharged and leaving neighbours and communities upset.

Planning service scenario 4: Consultees hold us up

The consultation process can be frustrating and cause delays but it’s out of our hands right?

Thinking differently

One council made a study of consultee responses. These were divided into two main categories; those that created more work (65%) and those that helped (35%).  Looking closer at the 65% gave an insight into three things; what it is consultees typically worry about, the situations where these are likely to arise, and where it was the council itself that were typically unclear. Understanding these things allows means we can anticipate and address issues earlier and more proactively. Planners ‘own’ the issues and ‘push’ consultees rather than passively waiting for a response. A little understanding on both sides makes for better relationships.

Planning Service Scenario 5: We provide a Pre-App service 

In many places PreApp is a ‘separate’ process, with its own set of rules and levels of service. That’s fine and useful. However, nationally, inconsistent approaches to charging and quality of advice make many pre-app services less than useful. This does not send out a good message to those developers working nationally or across several boundaries.

Thinking differently

Until you can guarantee some level of quality, are clear about the value you are adding and can explain your pricing structure, then can you really justify charging developers for talking to you? Some places, as an investment in development, don’t charge for their time, have stopped calling these engagements ‘Pre-App’, and  just decided to make themselves more accessible. Good pre-app in these places is simply ‘make your experienced planners easy to talk to’. Controversial.

Planning service scenario 6 – ‘We’re a customer-driven service’  

A quick one to finish. We like to make declarations like: ‘we are a customer-driven service’ and ‘the customer is at the heart of everything we do’. Noble stuff but does it really translate as: ‘Our processes are driven by customers prompting us to action because they keep chasing us for information’?

Thinking differently means experiencing an idea, not copying it

None of what is outlined above is new, nor is it that useful if all we do is tinker with what we already do to incorporate a few of the ideas. Wolverhampton, Stoke and Rugby will tell you that the major part of re-thinking your service is to leave everything you know and hold dear behind and start re-designing things from scratch.  You’ll all be familiar with the approach these councils followed:


It is a nice straight forward approach, and it needs an investment of care and time to do properly and fully. Re-thinking traditional approaches is uncomfortable and some of the ideas created are unpalatable (e.g. putting experienced people at the front of what you do). Room is required – you’ll tie up some of your best people doing this – so a dip in service levels is likely while this work is carried out. And bringing people with you lends itself to ‘rolling-in’ changes gradually, not ‘big bangs’. Everything you learn about your service using this approach comes from ‘experiencing the change’ – this is why the process of how to re-think can be learned but the results and solutions have to be your own.

This is a selection of what our host councils in Birmingham have achieved from re-thinking and changing what they do:

  • End to end 3 x quicker
  • Householder applications 30 days to decision. Adverts: day 1 approval
  • No refusals, appeals, time-driven withdrawn applications; why refuse anything – it should not have got that far
  • Enabling investment – relationships with developers improved
  • Complaints minimal

Building learning into everything we do

I am not arguing for change for change’s sake. I am arguing for setting ourselves up so that improvement becomes part of what we do – it’s built in to how we deliver the service. The important thing about the ‘thinking differently’ ideas above are not the ideas themselves but the fact that the people doing the work – your planners – are involved in creating them and given the freedom to change them when they stop working. The only worthwhile performance framework will be the one that supports this ongoing learning process.

Final thoughts: There’s no more business-as-usual; planning has to get on the front-foot

I really believe that now is the time now to stop tinkering, stop coming up with new strategies to deal with old problems and start the process of re-thinking the old problems away.  I think we also have to recognise that mediocre and even good performance are often the very things masking the real issues, and preventing us ‘continually’ improving.

I can’t help thinking that (apart from maybe out of date plans and no genuine 5 year housing land supplies) a large part of the reason that planning continues to be seen as the ‘thing-that-needs-to-be-fixed’ is due to the fact that our improvement strategies are un-ambitious and focused too narrowly on the wrong things.

What’s the Catalyst?

In my experience, and understandably, most effective and far reaching change projects like these come as part of larger corporate-wide reviews. And/or they need to be instigated by strong managerial leadership combined with some political bravery and backing. A new performance framework can’t do this job on it’s own – it has to be part of a catalyst/stimulus for change. For our (Planning Advisory Service) part, our future support work has to go beyond supporting councils to get better at the status quo and help them acquire the skills and confidence to think differently. It’s a tough one but I’ll keep going with it.

Bump, bump, bump…

I think there may be opportunities for councils that feel they’ve gone as far as they can go; they’ve cut to the bone, they’ve changed all they can and now business is picking up they are left under-resourced. I could accept their point-of-view if I thought the government had gone as far as it can – it clearly hasn’t and resources will continue to shrink. These councils need to think and quick about how they are going to cope.

Let’s not go forward for too long like Edward Bear; too busy bumping to question whether there is a better way. I am up on Merseyside next week – I have a group of councils there that I am working through these ideas with – I will report here soon.


2 thoughts on “Re-thinking Continuous Improvement

  1. Pingback: This is Quality Part Two: Planning Quality Framework: flexible…agile…worthwhile | Planning Advisory Service

  2. Pingback: This is Quality (Part Two) | Planning Advisory Service

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