Tuesday 24 February 2004

Metrics, Body Counts, and Tech Support Hell

Experience has shown that one really, really, really good way of getting a good system/result is to start with a reasonably adequate one, and have a half-decent but systematic way of making it better. This, in a nutshell, is what a lot of the guff and jargon about "process improvement" is all about.

You find it in all sorts of areas; for example, we have a system of Laws, and a Parliament to make new ones and fix old ones. There's more than a grain of truth in Lenin's "Continuous Revolution" idea.

In Sodtware Engineering, "Continuous Improvement" is the one technique that has a proven track record of making intolerable situations tolerable, fair situations good, and good situations outsanding successes. It's a technique that's being applied with considerable success to all sorts of business practices. But there are pitfalls....

One of the hardest things in all this is to figure out how well you're doing. Often your true goal is something impossible to measure directly. It's often something like "Happiness", "Customer Satisfaction", or "Justice". Even "Are we winning?". You need a Metric - a means of measurement - that has some reasonable correspondence with the unmeasureable or difficult-to-measure definition of success. You then make changes, and see how well (or badly) the changes worked by how the value of the metric changes. Reward areas where the metric increases, Punish areas where it decreases.

But all too often, what originally was a good (or at least plausible) Metric to start with becomes bad, and worse than bad, as people try to maximise the Metric at the expense of the ultimate goal. One of the very worst and most inhuman examples of this was the "Body Count" in Vietnam. The Idea - quite plausible - was that the US would best deal with an enemy by a battle of attrition. Simply put, kill all the Commies, and Communism wouldn't be a problem any more. (Whether this was desirable or not is another matter, one I'd rather not get into.) Anyway, the "Measure of Success", the "metric" by which performance was judged, was the report of how many bodies were left on the battlefield. Unit commanders that reported hundreds, with mass slaughter of the enemy, got promotions and other rewards for performance. Those who reported merely that there was no enemy activity due to a programme of mass innoculations, health-care and prevention of corruption got replaced. Soon it became a matter of professional survival for inflated body-counts, with no resemblance to reality, to be reported as a matter of course. Innocents were often targetted, not out of malice, but with a reckless disregard for morality, in "free fire zones", where any movement, be it by a civilian population, native wildlife, or enemy combatant was deemed to be enemy activity, and "serviced" with mass firepower. It sounds good on paper to report an enemy "Self-Propelled Logistics Carrier" as being destroyed, until you realise that what that actually meant was that a family's Water-Buffalo, or even one of the few remaining wild Elephants had been machine-gunned.

The above doesn't give a true or complete picture of the Vietnam tragedy, but there's enough truth in it to explain exactly why General Schwartzkopf was so adamant, even fanatical, about not giving "body count" data during the 1990 Gulf War. It also explains why the US and other Western forces have been so keen on "Smart Bombs" and other precision weaponry. Nothing can stop the unavoidable catastrophes of innocents being killed by faulty weaponry or misguided missiles, especially when said populace is being used as involuntary human shields againt an ethical opponent. But the butcher's bill can be reduced, as witnessed by the latest military actions in Iraq. And the military is working on ways to improve.

But the inhuman "Body Count" mentality survives in business practices. A recent article in Slashdot about Technical Support is an example. From the original article in Salon (Guarded by Adware) :
When we pick up the phone we're lying. We don't really work for the company we say we work for. Because of the expense of housing and running a technical support operation, many computer manufacturers choose to outsource the work. We work for one such outsourcer, though you'd never know it just to talk to us. To the customer on the other end of the line the distinction, while important, is invisible.

Outsourcers are paid by the computer manufacturer based on the number of calls they handle. The more calls we take, the more the outsourcer is paid. So naturally everything that happens in this vast carpeted warehouse of cubicles is done with an eye toward speed. Our managers stress something called "average call time," which is simply the average amount of time a tech spends on each call. They want us to be under 12 minutes. Our phones monitor our ability to reach this magic number as well as the total number of calls we take, the number of times we ask for help, how much time we take between calls, even the amount of time we spend in the restroom. In short, your phone is always watching you.

Twelve minutes can sometimes be difficult even if you know what you're doing. It is impossible if you don't have a clue. The stress of always being on the clock without really knowing how to do your job has already claimed a third of my classmates...
In the comments on the article is more information about this particular firm:
Just to give my fellow slashdotters an idea of what working for this company is like:

They employ over 5,000 of the worst possbile computer illiterates I've ever seen. most have never even seen the inside of a computer. they specificly say during interview "We do not prefer experience or certifications. We will give any one with computer knowledge a job but prefer that *we* train you"

They pay $11/hr WHILE logged into the phone, minimum wage when not logged in (which btw will be most of the time).

Security is soo tight there all employees are run through a metal detector coming AND going from the complex (would say building but there are 6 of them). I asked once why they did this they responded "to protect the employees from the employees" referring to a couple times people started shooting guns in the call center.

This company is evil incarnate. the place is a total sweat shop. 3-400,000 sq ft per building of cubicles. It's soo disorienting navigating the cubicle farm you have to go by the signs posted.

Oh and everything the article said about the place is true. yes they are one of the largest support providers, they do compaq, HP and IBM, plus bellsouth/comcast, directv, and a bunch of others. All they care about is getting you off the phone in 12 minutes (thats what the dead giveaway was, totall company policy, if you spend 15 minutes you have 3 supervisors breathing down your neck). they will even go so far as you find a reason to manually disconnect @ 13 minutes telling you to call back again.
Go read the whole article - the one who gets promoted to "Mentor" and then "Manager" is the least helpful of the lot, who disconnects after a few seconds (but therefore has a really, really high number of calls-per-hour "serviced"). The one who resigns in disgust is the one person who others rely on to actually help people.

See what I mean about Inhuman Metrics?

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