Taught out

Ken Robinson at RSA

Ken Robinson (presenter of the excellent TED talk ‘Do schools kill creativity‘) has recently appeared onto the web in another presentation at London’s RSA on how paradigms need to change in education to keep up with the changing circumstances we face in society.

(It’s a long talk at 55 minutes but well worth setting aside the time).

This talk comes a week or so after an interesting story in The Economist into what – if anything – can be learned from looking at schools abroad (paywalled). In that piece, the Economist urges caution in merely borrowing shiny snipets from foreign education success stories, advising instead that education departments should look to leading performers (such as Finland) to understand the harmonious and aligned nature of the ambitions of unions, teachers, parent the government and so on, as well as the underlying cultural difference which underwrite much of the education success.

Robinson’s take is startlingly different. He’s sees he problem as requiring a fundemental change in approach. Our current system, he believes, is highly influence by the Enlightenment (a belief in the superceding power of reason) and the industrial revolution. Because of that background, our system is orientated around producing workers fit for an industrialised society. And, until recently, it has also been tightly geared to producing them in the right proportions: lots of workers, some middle managers, and a few doctors and lawyers.

Isn’t this exactly what school intake felt like, even as early as 11? As a class-decider? Wasn’t that even what it was like 10 years ago, getting through university admission.

But now, Robinson argues, when we are unable to make confident predictions beyond next Tuesday, we should  be looking to educate children more broadly in adaptability and creativity; we should be looking to remove our prejudices about the differences between vocational and academic; and we should be very wary of training lateral thinking out  of our children.

The school system, Robinson maintains, is also often very faddish. Is ADHD really on the rise? Robinson points to a map showing incidence of the  problem in the US. What we see is occurence strongly correlated to particular states where we would expect the most information overload. It is, in fact, he argues an epidemic of the faddish sort amongst parents and teachers.

Echoing some of the thoughts in Faris Yakob’s ‘I believe children are the future‘, Robinson points out that humans are the only species that imagines things; the only race that tries to predicts it future, or understand its position in the cosmic scale. And that this imagination should be cherished and encouraged, not stubbed out with Ritalin and other supressant drugs.

As usual, Robinson is incredibly engaging, amusing and insightful. But for me, the most interesting thought was about the concept of current schools as ‘industrial’ artefacts – not just in the structure of their output but in their methods and practices. In his talk, Robinson suggests that perhaps we want to return to something more organic (or agrarian?).

How do schools actually work? In many ways they do appear to echo mass-production industrial practicies. Children are batched through, they are treated in very standard ways. Defects are collected together at the end of the line, individual workers (teachers) do not necessarily have the ability to respond to different circumstances differently, the ciriculum is the same for every child (Henry Ford’s: ‘any colour, so long as it’s black’).

And, so, to come back to my other pet topic – should we actually be thinking about how we can learn from lean to empower teachers (as a group, not just as individuals) to create more individualised schooling, or to do more to shape the schooling which is available more to the individual child (engineering challenge I guess in Lean) that comes into the system. And how also can we minimise the inventory effect (grouping pupils by age in Robinson’s language).

Want to try some more Lean principles? What about: ‘deliver as fast as possible’; ‘amplify learning’ (from one pupil to the next); ‘decide as late as possible’ (that’s certainly not something that’s made it into schools in this country); ‘see the whole’; ‘build integrity in’….

The answer appears to be about allowing much more flexible teaching and marking to foster exactly the sort of creativity most kids are born with.

Let’s hope Robinson keeps on his crusade. And the educators start to learn from this – more radical -thinking, rather than just borrowing from our neighbours in Europe and the US.

Top down


An early theme in The Cluetrain Manifesto is the idea that command and control is simply outdated and outmoded in today’s organisations. In Locke et al’s view, this is because such structures do not allow for the speed and flexibility of communication necessary to align an organisation with it’s market. Other arguments are that these approaches to management prioritise personal ambition against business goals, encourage a lack of responsibility at the bottom of the pyramid and lead to inefficiencies and bottle necks in decision making. It’s easy to draw parallels with a lot of the thought processes of Lean Production or Agile Development.

I’d always assumed that the idea – of a hierarchical business structure of increasing levels of responsibility – was an offshoot of military methods of management. Agile guru Mary Poppendieck points us in the right direction in this essay. Funnily enough, you may notice that the title of article is ‘blame’, and the thesis being that command and control management is primarily orientated around assuring that blame can be correctly assigned for failure.

Poppendieck examines how the need to eliminate the worst mistakes drove generations to manage purely ‘by results’. However, this tends to lead to the blame (even when the problem is systemic) being assigned to the last person involved in the process.

At the time perhaps (to paraphrase Churchill’s famous), this may have been the worst form of management, except all the rest, leading as it did to some of the industrial revolution’s greatest achievements. However, it is peculiar that in even the most creative industries, it remains the so popular.

Just in time

 Starting the day, the agile way

I’ve been thinking about this topic – how the principles of lean manufacturing could teach us something interesting about marketing – for ages, but getting nowhere with writing about it.

Little things keep reminding me I need to get on with it. Like Amelia’s discussion about getting the most passionate customers involved in the marketing of the O2 Cocoon, George Parker’s scathing rant about Ford’s decision to allow its customers to pick more colours for their cars. And the latest today (buried amongst a huge volume of excellent posts all arriving at once) from  Russell Davies’ very interesting campaign piece on taking influences from outside the advertising echo chamber – and in particular from Agile, lean’s equivalent in software engineering – to actually find new ways to think about things.

In The Machine that Changed the World – the book which originally brought some of the secrets of the Toyota Production System (TPS) to the wider world, the authors discuss sales and marketing in the US and Japanese markets from a very academic stand point, as well as starting to extrapolate out what a ‘lean’ marketing system might look like in detail. That vision, written in the late 80s, is unbelievably similar to many of the ideas that are only now being adopted in response to the dwindling effect of purchased attention – or as Seth Godin has it, the death of the TV-industrial complex.

Of course, a lot of this comes back, actually, to product development, and building the right thing in the first place.

The number one manta of the lean movement is well known: ‘reduce waste’, the number two mantra is to fix problems immediately and relentlessly. What do we actually do – let’s be honest -in marketing in the UK and America? Does this description sound totally unreasonable?: we try and take the parity product our client has given us and create a layer of desire – either from a genuine product feature or benefit, or from somewhere else if necessary, to make people want to buy it. We then interrupt what they’re doing and shout that message at them. How often do ad agencies really go back to a client and say, ‘we can’t help I’m afraid, you’re product’s just too shit’?

How would it work if we actually tried to bring the user into the deep design process of the product and it’s marketing? Of course we’re not asking them to actually design the product themselves but we must understand what they want and need; what turns them on; what seems average, run of the mill, unexciting; what they would trade for something else?

We’re already seeing that happening, through blogs, good research and straight-forward customer intimacy from a number of companies, especially those who are changing their production methodologies so that new products can be released all the time.

Here’s another thought experiment. How about we try to rebuild the methods of making advertising in a lean vein. Here’s five things I think we can all agree would have to happen immediately:

  1. There’s three people we’d include fully in the actual creative process who are currently excluded – the client, the customer (and/or research company), and the production company (or internal production staff). And we’d include them in planning too, and briefing, and production. And no, the planner can’t stand in for the customer, the account man can’t stand in for the client, and the creative director cannot ‘stand in’ for the team who will actually do the work.
  2. Have you ever worked in an ad agency and watched a campaign go wrong? What do people really do when they see that happening? Do they try and fix the problem? Or do they just remove their arse from the firing line.  The closest I’ve seen to the TPS “five whys” of tracking down and elminiating the causes of defects was a marvelous phrase Charles Vallance coined (and lived up to) at VCCP: ‘tough on whingeing and tough on the causes of whingeing’. Having said that…How many times have you worked on an advertising campaign that was a crock of shit, you knew it wouldn’t work and customers would hate it, so did everyone else, but you just kept ploughing on anyhow. I’m going to raise my hand. Be honest!One of the tenants of TPS is the that everyone on the line can stop the process and raise a concern about quality. In fact it’s encouraged. This comes through to Agile and we add to it by ensuring the code must compile every day. Imagine the agency where every member of staff – from Creative Director to courier has a big red button on their desk to hit whenever they see a horrible campaign – there would be sirens going off all day.
  3. When a campaign sails through research, is that good or bad for the research company, is it good or bad for the ad agency, is it good or bad for the client? So often we have secret communities of interest – or more importantly disinterest – within the groups working on an ad. That’s how we end up with the compromise agreements that fill our screens. In order for us to do the best work, we need joint responsibility for the overall output. This is what Womack et all (MTCTW) refer to as setting targets “one stage up”, and would essentially tie all agencies fortunes to the success of the ad itself.
  4. There should be flexibility, within agencies for staff to move between roles. We’ve all met creatives who are ex-planners or planners who are ex -creatives and we know how well this can work. In terms of team responsibility, does the most experienced member of the team lead, facilitate or get to make all the decisions. There is a role for management in lean to simply enable staff, rather than have to constantly review and overpower their input.
  5. Finally and I suspect the only thing that ad agencies will like out of what I’ve just said, is the question of how should the client pay. On results? On time and materials?, as a fixed price?, On the value of the ideas?This is the hardest bit. And that’s because it’s the bit where ad agencies have spent the longest trying to re-invent the relationship in their favor. The truth, I suspect, is that if we could remove the fairy-dust approach most agencies strive for in the creative departments, and work really hard to help the clients understand what happens to get their campaigns done, and to get them right, clients would be happier to cough up for what that should really cost.It’s a real cost of their business after all. But the situation we’ve got ourselves in is exactly the same as the adversarial situation mass-production car companies have found with their downstream suppliers (like the gearbox makers).Procurement departments won’t pay for any product investment or insight, so suppliers (the agencies) spend their entire time concealing their real costs in production, or the creative development.

    Just because some agencies will say they’re giving away the creative for free doesn’t mean procurement departments should buy it, and a low theoretical margin within a suppler is not always the best business choice.

    Part of the point about payment is the question of what the relationship between clients and advertising agencies should look like. For so long as clients or agencies prioritize things that don’t matter to the customer (I mean awards, but there are all sorts of things that can creep into the relationship), that relationship will fail. And it mustn’t be carefree either. It should be consistently transparent how things are going and if mistakes are made. But that won’t happen when there’s always the threat of the client switching agency over an immediate short-term issue. And, if the client does find a problem in their relationship with the agency, they should be able to help get it fixed by working together on the detail, not just switching to a new supplier. In TPS, senior supplier team members are regularly co-opted into product development teams of the assembler. Couldn’t something similar usefully happen in the marketing world. Similarly, senior assembler team members are sent to increase understanding and efficiencies in the supplier. Would that really be any bad thing?

There’s a lot in those five points, and I’m sure there are hundreds more ideas that could be borrowed from the lean movement in the marketing and creative service sectors, as well of course in the actual marketing departments of client firms. But it will be incredibly difficult for  an agency to really embrace these ideas in these most traditional of worlds? It’s a shame, because it’s about time.

Better by beta

macy's in google street view

From the department of ‘in case you’d missed it’.

You really can’t turn your back on the Google chaps for five seconds. The latest addition to the mapping family, street view still needs a little polish but it’s going to be quite amazing, and they just keep getting the stuff out there, as quickly as they can get it done.

Also, not sure it’s entirely a privilege to be captured on the Google cameras: “John who’s that you’re with outside Macy’s?”