Nov 27, 2006

Off the leash

You haven't lived unless you've been to the Chicago dachshund races - don't worry, these are ordinary pets not subjected to any race-related cruelty. My son Chris and daughter-in-law Natalie took us, their Maltese Fritz and their doxie Mona to the Barking Lot last week to see if Mona could compete. She's about as tiny a dog as you can get, so we hoped they'd have a tiny-dog class of racers.

We got to the Barking Lot's spacious Big Playroom and found about 50 dachshunds milling around, with a few of their non-dachshund friends. There didn't seem to be any breed discrimination. The owners stood or sat among their pets, who came back for cuddling every so often. Then some people with both dogs and kids started coming in. One little girl stood in wonder and said, "Look at all the DOGS!" The kids milled around with the dogs.

One little boy fell in love with Mona and followed her on all fours, but Mona trotted along as though she didn't have anyone shadowing her. Some dogs allowed kids to pick them up, and eventually Mona gave in and let her friend hold her too.

What was surprising was that the dogs were all comfortable in their pack, smelling each other and moving along to meet other dogs. Only one dog was aggressive, and Fritz seemed to want to approach him time after time. The aggressive dog's owner had his dog on a leash, and was getting pretty irritated with Fritz. Chris and Natalie had to go get Fritz and carry him away several times.

Chris said that they'd made the same mistake of keeping Fritz on a leash when they first started taking him to the dog park. (Chicago has everything.) He said that if the dog knows you've got his back, he feels safe in going after the other dogs. When you let him off the leash, the other dogs behave in such a way that he learns his place and happily joins the pack. If you've watched the "Dog Whisperer" on the National Geographic channel, you've seen the same thing.

After the dogs and people hung out for about an hour, the races began. There was a four-lane track and the dogs ran several heats, and then had the playoffs. One of the dog's owners held the dog at the starting line, and another knelt at the finish line with treats and encouraging words. At the start, four people rolled tennis balls down the lanes to help the dogs get the picture. Mona ran about three feet and veered off the track to socialize again. Fritz got to run a heat, although his win didn't count since he wasn't a doxie. Eventually five-year-old Hannah won the trophy.

Believe me, I struggled for a lean lesson so I could report this event in this blog. Finally I realized that if you let people off the leash in the workplace, they'll find solutions to problems and develop effective social groups (we call them teams). Traditional management is about chaining you to a machine or a desk and cutting off informal social leadership and problem-solving. And the doxie races show it's not worth it to ask people or dogs to compete and come up with a single winner. It's about the pack itself succeeding -- in this case, to just get along with each other and have fun.

Sorry, I don't have any pictures, but for more dog behavior fun, go the the Barking Lot website and click on the webcams link. Loading will take a while, so do it when you can wait, and also expect to install some ActiveX things. The username and password are posted on the site.

In the webcam video, you'll also notice the Barking Lot's continuous maintenance processes - the people with mops erasing the territorial marks some of the dogs want to establish. Click "refresh" if the dogs and people appear to stop moving. It's actually a pretty crappy site, but dog care, not website operations, is the company's core competency and business objective.

So maybe businesses and other organizations should just let things go to the dogs.

Nov 15, 2006

Back to the welfare office

Reluctantly, I went back to the welfare office (Family Independence Agency, soon to be renamed the Department of Human Services) to get proof that I'm not suspected of child abuse. (See my past few posts for the whole story.)

It was less crowded, so the wait was shorter this time. While I waited, the clerk on one side of the counter was in discussion with two women and a social worker on my side of the counter. One of the women had come in to get her food stamps, but was told her case was closed and she wasn't getting anything. That's why a social worker had been summoned. There was a bunch of discussion about why you couldn't get food stamps with a closed case, and why the case's social worker couldn't be contacted, but the woman said she'd been told she could get them. (I'm guessing at some of this, having arrived in the middle of it.)

There was some unproductive back-and-forth, until the clerk - who had a computer terminal, while the social worker did not - volunteered that there were really two different case numbers for the woman. Apparently this was pretty unusual. It seemed that the records of the second case number revealed that the woman's case had been transferred to the very same case worker who was telling her she couldn't get benefits.

The woman was told she could get the food stamps if she came back the next day. It seemed the other woman couldn't be helped either. She wisely asked the clerk who her social worker of record was.

Some of this, of course, was going on as the same clerk was looking through a stack of envelopes looking for mine, and naturally she forgot my name at least once and had to start her search over again.

There was also a piece of paper taped on the counter where I waited that said to be sure to allow 2 to 3 hours to submit an application for benefits. I didn't notice the sign anywhere else, so it seems like you might have to wait in line to get the application, then have to come back because you didn't have that much time to stay there.

Why does this system assume you can just come back day after day to get what you need? That means you need a car. It means that you have to find a babysitter, or bring your kids with you. It means more time out of your life you might have needed to study, or do your grocery shopping, or cook or clean. Or maybe look for a job.

Luckily for me, I'm done with the system - but our taxes are going to continue paying for waste. In a sense, as taxpayers, we're the customers looking for value as much as the clients are. We want our fellow citizens to be protected from some of the consequences of being without funds, and we're paying too much. The clients are paying too - with their time, their self-respect, and the taxes they paid in the past and will pay in the future.

Iowa is tackling the problem. I've e-mailed a person who reported on improvements in their DHS system, and hope to hear how things can work better.

Nov 14, 2006

More about checking my fitness for being a volunteer

Reading the application instructions again for my volunteer role as a tutor in a residential school for girls, I see that the school will perform the criminal history background check that I wrote about in my last post. The clearance from the Family Independence Agency Central Registry is a different thing. That registry lists anyone named in complaints to the Children's Protective Services in which a preponderance of evidence of child abuse perpetration is found. It's a state law that this clearance be provided before an organization's staff or volunteers can have contact with children.

I'd consider that a "monument" that can't be easily moved aside. However, the clearance can be requested by mail as well as by visiting the office in person. That's not included in the school's volunteer application instructions.

You need inner resources to be able to handle situations like the welfare office, and all I can imagine is being told that it DOES actually take a full week to get the cleared form, and wasn't ready Monday as the worker told me.

On a gray November Michigan day, I'm just not going to go there. I'm even more grateful that I'm not out of work, out of money, and without a place to live. It's a place without hope, and doesn't have to be that way.

Nov 13, 2006

Background check

If you read my last post, you'll understand why I'm procrastinating about my return visit to the local welfare office. My excuses are that my husband has a day off for Veterans Day (that's Michiganese for start-of-deer-hunting-season day), and I can spend time with him. Besides, they're probably closed too, don't you think?

It will surprise no one to learn that the Michigan State Police has an online service where you can look up anyone and see if they have a police record or warrants, if you know their date of birth, social security number, and driver's license number. Unless you have a greater level of clearance, you can't see what the charges or warrants are. It costs $10, payable by credit card, and the fee is waived for nonprofits. It was amazingly simple and took me less than 10 minutes to learn that my record is clear. I printed out all the relevant web pages to take back to the volunteer coordinator at the school, and am thinking of the most effective approach to take with her.

The lesson is that systems change, and it's easy to be unaware of a new way to accomplish a task. When people are overloaded (muri), they don't have the chance to explore improvements. So they don't improve the system, and the overloading continues. It's not the people in the system, of course. It's the organization's culture - "The way we do things around here" doesn't include enough learning and experimentation.

Nov 9, 2006

Welfare waste

I doubt that many of us visit the welfare office very often. I ventured into one yesterday – not down on my luck, fortunately, but on a different waste of time. I told myself I’d learn something, and I did.

First, why did I go? I am applying to be a volunteer tutor at a residential facility for girls whose families can’t care for them, nor can they fit into the foster care system. It’s imperative to protect the girls, and volunteers have to jump through several hoops, one of which is a background check of some kind. This is done at the Family Independence Agency, which in Michigan means “We’ll give you some money, but get off your butt and get a job because it’s not going to come forever.” Sounds lean – or mean – doesn’t it?

First thing you see is security guards. It will become obvious as I tell the story why someone might flip out and get violent. The guard behind the desk directed me to the same “Reception” line as everyone else stood in. Darn, I thought there'd be someone who could do it right away because it was so simple. Luckily, there were only about six people ahead of me. As I waited, I observed.

To my left was a human inventory holding area – about 60 chairs, arranged in rows, with about 20 people occupying them. Occasionally, one of them would approach the desk to ask why the wait was so long. Between the clients and the workers there were about three people behind the desk who were supposed to deal with the flow, and they looked harried and sick of the whole thing.

Every few minutes, one of the people waiting would be called to the desk and some actually dispatched to see their social worker. Some of those waiting who pulled the andon cord, so to speak, succeeded in getting their social worker paged or e-mailed a second time and were put back into the process flow.

Among the staff, there was a lot of walking around, a lot of paging and e-mailing of social workers, a lot of interruption when the social worker responded, a lot of waiting and a lot of frustration.

A couple of stories:

A woman in line behind me needed to get something to her social worker that day or her utilities were going to be cut off. There was supposed to be a drop box she could put it in, but naturally she didn’t trust that process and wanted to put the envelope in the social worker’s hand. I would too. But an unnecessary wait if the system worked. We all looked around, and eventually saw that there was a table with slot in it with a dingy label saying “drop box,” but there was no assurance that it was the right drop box or that anyone even emptied it on a regular basis.

When I got to the counter, the clerk was immediately interrupted by a message from a social worker, so she called the person who'd been waiting to the counter while I was shunted aside. This was a man in a wheelchair, apparently partially paralyzed, accompanied by a companion who had some sort of helper role. The clerk told him that the social worker said he didn’t have an appointment, and that message seemed to mean that the man had waited for nothing and would have to come back. He held out a blank benefit application and tried to say that he just needed help filling it out.

The clerk admonished him for signing in on the appointment sheet. How would you know? I wouldn’t. She asked, couldn’t the other guy help him? The man said he couldn’t. Then she said he’d have to wait while she found someone to help with the application. How many unnecessary obstacles can you count for both the clerk and the applicant?

Back to me. I produced the form, which the volunteer liaison told me I could just have them sign upon seeing my driver’s license. Of course, that turned out not to be true. I needed to show my social security card. She repeatedly asked if I had it, or had something else with my social security number on it. All I could do was repeatedly say with a helpless note in my voice that I didn’t, and I hadn’t been told to bring it. (And most of us have heard that we shouldn’t take anything with the number on it with us if we want to avoid identity theft, but I didn’t want to say that. I didn’t want to make her mad; she was the only person who could help me avoid another wait.)

She was clearly frustrated and said she had told the school before that people needed both forms of identification. She thrust a piece of paper toward me that had a few lines of text, one of them covered with magic marker, and wrote at the top in big capital letters, “ALOUD 1 WEEK,” with a phone number at the bottom and the name of the school. Apparently I was expected to take that back to the school so they’d stop making the mistake. How did it become my problem? Whatever. She grumbled and decided to accept my form anyway. Oh, I could come back and get it Monday. Maybe that’s what “ALOUD 1 WEEK” meant.

My empathy for all the people in this situation was growing. It was frustrating, to the point of anger, and humiliating for the people who needed help. There are a lot of people getting laid off here in Michigan, and more people like this man in the wheelchair who shouldn’t be subjected to these obstacles and long waits. I'm sure there were a couple of malingerers or cheats among them, but that's beside the point.

And, it's taxpayer money being wasted. Someone probably thought that laying off some FIA workers would be a good way to save money. Thus, inadequate resources to keep up with the process flow.

What percentage of people would at this point, leave the office and never come back, and never even tell the school why they dropped out?

I still needed to get three references. And, since I needed a TB test, the liaison had taken me to the clinic after I met with her (good) to get part one of the test, and I needed to go back to have the test read.

More potential drop-outs from the volunteer recruiting process.

I decided to calmly keep on, and besides, I was getting interested in all the ways these processes could be improved – not that anyone was likely to care.

Tune in early next week for the rest of the story, after I visit the FIA again.

Oh yes, it does say on the very wordy "How to complete the Volunteer Application" to take your social security card when you "drop off" the form at the FIA. The reason for the check is to ensure "that there are no pending or substantiated child abuse charges against you." I agree that protecting the girls is paramount. But why not add the instructions to the badly Xeroxed page that the FIA form appears on?

It's a lesson in going to the gemba. You can't really understand the process until you've walked it.

Nov 3, 2006

Pull vs. push for global health

My recent retirement has given me the opportunity to go through all the issues of the New Yorker I'd been saving. An article by James Surowiecki in the December 20, 2004 talks about a pull system for pharmaceutical research. Great Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer promised to buy up to 3 million doses of a successful malaria vaccine for the developing world.

Research is more often funded by grants for work someone says they are going to do, whether it's successful or not. That means the taxpayer underwrites a lot of waste, if waste is defined as work that doesn't result in a usable product. The money is pushing research.

Pharmaceutical companies don't fund the research because there's no payoff. Where the drugs are needed, there's virtually no money to pay for it. Where there's no money, there's no customer and no market, whatever the desperate need is. There's more money in arthritis in the developed world.

So Britain's promise ought to spur competition for the hundreds of millions of dollars or pounds at stake, the pull of a customer initiating the processes that build the product the customer needs and is able to pay for.

Will it work? Sadly, like other simplistic notions, it may be doomed. Andrew Farlow at Oxford authored a report, The Science, Economics, and Politics of Malaria Vaccine Policy, in April 2006 that exposes a lot of flaws, especially where it became an "understanding" with Glaxo-Smith-Kline.

But it sounded good, didn't it?

Nov 1, 2006


I found examples of stupidity and cupidity in a recent scan of the news:

At the beginning of the Gulf War, F15E fighters used a $4.6 million targeting device to locate and destroy Scud missile launchers on flatbed tractor-trailers. A camera took nearly-perfect pictures and the Air Force believed nearly 100 Scud launchers were destroyed. When a team went to verify the kills, the actual number was zero. The targeting devices did not distinguish between missile launchers and decoys or oil tanker trucks. Malcolm Gladwell, “The Picture Problem,” The New Yorker, December 13, 2004

In the 2000 and 2004 elections, survey data seemed to reveal a “culture war” represented by red states and blue states. Other survey data showed that almost two-thirds of people in red and blue states believe big corporations have too much power, and many in both states believed protecting the environment was important. The two groups were only 12% apart on issues including gun control and the death penalty. Thus, characterizing the American public as polarized is a misuse of data. Rodger Doyle, “Myth: Red-Blue States,” Scientific American, November 2006

A candidate for Oklahoma state superintendent of schools said book manufacturers should use Kevlar in textbook covers so students would be able to use them as shields in school shootings. “Perspectives,” Newsweek, October 30, 2006.

Pfizer’s new drug Caduet® is being marketed as a handy combination of a high blood pressure and a high cholesterol reducer. It contains the calcium channel blocker Norvasc® and the statin Lipitor®. A 30-tablet supply of Caduet (10mg Norvasc and 10 mg Lipitor) costs about $100 at 10mg of Norvasc costs about $65 for a 30-day supply, and 10 mg of Lipitor is about $75, so the combination seems like a bargain. On the other hand, while there’s no generic for Caduet, calcium channel blockers can cost as little as $10 per month and the statin lovastatin is about $30. That means you ought to be able to save 40-50% by buying two generics together, and much more if your health insurance has a low co-pay for generic drugs. Pfizer ad, Parade magazine, October 29, 2006., October 31, 2006, BCBS formulary, October 31, 2006. FDA, October 31, 2006.
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