Christmas is the time of good cheer, goodwill to all and long distance travel. And so it was for me this Christmas. My journey from the South of England to Edinburgh was relatively easy with only a few delays despite the awful weather encountered. That is it was relatively easy until we hit the outskirts of Edinburgh where the by-pass was closed because a 4×4 had been placed on top of the barrier in the central reservation having left its rear axle 50 yards down the road (more about this later). At this point I did reflect on the fact that however bad the delay was for me, someone else was having a day much worse than mine. As we sat stationary on the by-pass we heard a warning on the radio that there was chaos in the area and that the road should be avoided if possible. Once again the warning had come too late for those of us already stuck!
This imposed pause in my progress gave me a moment to reflect. My tired mind wandered a bit until it latched onto the idea of chaos. Was the traffic situation really chaotic? As far as I could see it was not. I take from chaos theory that chaos is seen as being when patterns in the activities or interactions are not recognised due to their complexity. As far as I could see the traffic was in a clear pattern of two lines as far as the eye could see both in front and behind me. The pattern was clearly discernible and so could not be described as chaotic.
My tired mind now wandered in another direction. It thought of the metaphor of a journey that is often used to describe the essence of performance management and of its relevance to my current situation. I looked at my speedometer, my mile counter, my engine revolution counter and my fuel gauge. What I could see was that I was not moving, I had done over 400 miles, the engine was still running and we probably had enough fuel to make it to the next fuel station. Quite frankly none of this information was what I wanted to know at that point. What I wanted to know was when we would start to move again. As it turned out, I had plenty more time to muse and so I did.
As the engine and the time ticked over I started to wonder about the relationship between my engine speed and the rate at which my fuel stock was being depleted. In distance terms I knew that, if I set off at that moment, I had enough fuel to make it to the next fuel station. I could relate fuel level to distance travelled as this is the more normal calculation. Now I needed to know how time related to fuel consumption, I had an abnormal situation where the data made little sense to me. I therefore decided to just live in hope. What this reminded me was how situation specific data can be and if the situation changes then the utility of the data also changes. The pattern I knew became a pattern I did not recognise and so my normal became abnormal. As the delay lengthened I started to become more concerned about my depleting fuel stock. To me a normal journey had entered a zone within which I was now vulnerable to running out of fuel. Before the suspense becomes too much for my loyal reader, the traffic started to move and so the situation changed again. I was soon able to see that I had recovered my position, I had exited my zone of vulnerability, and I saw that I would make it to the next fuel stop. The abnormal had become normal as I exited this temporary zone of vulnerability.
So what about the 4×4 stuck on the central reservation with its rear axle 50 yards down the road? Well the first question was: how come it ended up there? Two additional factors need to be considered at this point. The first was the weather which was awful. The second was the presence on the other side of the road of what is known as a “traffic safety vehicle” (to you and me these are “mobile speed cameras”). What I surmise had happened was the driver had seen the van, reacted like every other guilt laden driver and slammed on the brakes. The result was clear for all to see. If we now look at these events in the terms used to describe my temporary fuel crisis, we would describe the event as follows.
The driver of the 4×4 had been carrying out a normal activity and, it is presumed, felt enough in control to proceed at the speed he or she was doing. They were not consciously thinking in terms of the jeopardy they faced but rather in terms of the journey they were looking to complete. However the journey did contain potential jeopardy. This ranged from being late for a meeting to death. The moment the driver saw the speed camera they recognised that they were in a temporary zone of increased vulnerability. They saw an immediate source of jeopardy (a conviction for speeding) without recognising the jeopardy of destroying their vehicle and so they slammed on their vehicle’s brakes. In this event we see the presumably well intentioned actions of an external party changing something normal into something abnormal and inducing a pattern of behaviour that was not recognised (and so could be labelled chaotic). [Just as a side note, I wonder whether such a possibility had been included in the police’s risk assessment that must have conducted when they were siting the camera.]
So now we recognise another zone of temporary heightened vulnerability (speed cameras) to add into the consideration of my journey that is not covered by my standard set of performance indicators. For those of you who do not know the A1 road between Berwick upon Tweed and Edinburgh, it is littered with speed cameras. As I have done this journey a number of times, I know to look out for them. As I was driving a van I was not rushing. In addition, the poor weather meant that I really was not rushing. Despite these facts, every time I saw a camera my immediate reaction was to brake and then check my speed. (I therefore have great sympathy for the driver of the 4×4.) I also saw the cars in front of me doing something similar. On each occasion we must now recognise that a normal journey enters a temporary zone of vulnerability where, if a number of factors align (speed, road conditions and tyre conditions for example), the abnormal may happen.
What we can see from these two examples is that the pattern of what is normal, as set by the standard indicators, may disguise what is now not so obvious. At one level of abstraction, a normal journey can be represented by a summary of distance, time taken and fuel consumed. Most journeys can be represented in this way as major mishaps (such as accidents) occur in only a very small percentage of the journeys undertaken and few of us will ever experience such events for ourselves. By a process of induction, we come to see journeys as a routine covering of a distance in a time which belies their true nature. If however we look at any journey at another level, a different picture appears. When I was taught to ride a motorbike there was great emphasis placed on defensive riding. Because of the vulnerability of those who ride motorbikes, I was told to assume that other road users would try to kill me and therefore to ride how conditions permitted rather than how I might wish to. Every journey became a series of vulnerability assessments (based on road layout, other road users and the unpredictable behaviour of those adjacent to the road) rather than as a single planned journey. As such, the pattern of vulnerability assessments is unforeseeable and may be described as chaotic and therefore, in this context, normal can be seen as being chaotic.
High reliability theory suggests that if unwanted occurrences are to be avoided, those making decisions need to open their mind to possibilities that they might not normally foresee. To do this they are encouraged to seek alternative perspectives. Performance management might be seen to be one perspective that views the organisation’s activities at one level of abstraction. At this level the organisation is seen to be ordered to the extent that if A, B and C are done then the desired end result will be achieved. However at another level of abstraction chaos is seen as being normal. Plans and systems need to be constantly adjusted to cope with patterns of activities neither foreseen nor understood (hence they can be described as chaotic). To be practicable, performance management must work on a simplified model of the system that it is designed to control. However there is a danger that managers become deluded by this illusion of control. I would suggest that it is vital that managers constantly remind themselves that their management system may at any time be thwarted by a system that is, to a large extent, chaotic and, if they do, they are less likely to be taken by surprise when something unexpected happens.