Thursday 28 March 2013

The British Disease and the Airblade Effect

The British engineer James Dyson is best known for his successful and rather expensive vacuum cleaner. It is successful because, unlike so many other vacuum cleaners on the market, it works rather well. The same goes for his Airblade dryer, an alternative to hand dryers which began appearing in public lavatories in 2007.

The old hand dryers used to take up to 44 seconds to work – or so Dyson claims. Actually, I have encountered many, especially on trains, that would happily maintain the dampness on your hands at great expense for hours under a pathetic breath of tepid air. The Airblade works differently: it scrapes the water off your hands with a powerful jet of cold air, and claims to dry them in ten seconds.

But here is the point: it uses 80 per cent less energy to do it. It uses more air but in an effective way. It works, so it costs less to run.

In the weeks since the end of the Barriers to Choice Review, I have been spending my time writing a very short book bout the submarine passage of the Dardanelles in 1915. I've also been spending my baths - a lazy but enjoyable habit - re-reading Robert Graves First World War classic Goodbye to all That.

Most of these are events a century ago, but the message always seems to be the same.  All the equipment by the opposing sides, from the grenades to the periscopes, were better quality on the German side than they were on the British side, at least for the first few years of the war.

I have been wondering why this seems to be inevitable in British history, at the same time as listening to the constant phrases on the radio news - "the Treasury has rejected" or warned or vetoed...  There seems to be a UK tradition of blind and pointless cost-cutting at the Treasury's behest - with devastating results, from our failure to invest in industry right through to our failure to invest in people.

Now, I've recently been working in the Treasury - admittedly as an independent reviewer.  They are highly intelligent, civilised and imaginative people.  And it is no criticism of any Treasury that they warn.  That's their job.  What is a problem is when that warning becomes a constant and powerful voice in favour of short-termism - and even worse when that voice has the power that the UK Treasury does.

So when I heard the announcement yesterday that all government departments have to bring forward plans to cut another ten per cent of their budgets, I thought - here we go again.  It's the British Disease.

I write this as rather an old-fashioned kind of Liberal.  I think the deficit is too high.  I believed the Labour government's management of public services has made them far too expensive.  I don't want the UK to fall into the pathetic powerlessness at the hands of international bankers that has been reserved for Cyprus and Greece.

But you can't just carry on cutting percentages.  As the systems thinker John Seddon says: when you try to manage services by managing the costs, paradoxically the costs go up.  I think I should re-christen this insight 'Seddon's Law'.

Unless there is a big idea behind the spending cuts - an idea of how it might be possible to bring costs down - then we will be right back into the British Disease, which means backwardness and ineffectiveness and probably bluster for another generation.

What we need is a revolution in effectiveness.  Do that successfully and we will be able to reduce ten per cent or more from public spending.  I've explained a little about how it might be done in my book The Human Element, and John Seddon's work is definitely a vital part of what needs to happen.

That is the reality of the situation.  Another ten per cent cuts without organised purpose means more costs in the long-term - and as the benefits and welfare changes come into effect, we will begin to see what an over-stretched services really look like.  It is the perfect time to commit the nation's services to effectiveness

Which brings us back to Dyson's Airblade.  It is a metaphor for the approach to spending we need.  If we have services that work like the old dryers, and need to be turned on over and over again before they have any effect, then it is hardly surprising they cost so much.

If we can have a revolution in effectiveness, which is bound to mean investment - possibly even revolution - then we can cut costs.  But we can't just play around with it.

Think about it next time you're drying your hands in a public place...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I have been noticing the Airblade more and more in airports and even my local gas station. Each time I use one I am always amazed at its performance! It's like a supersonic dryer that squeegees the water off my hands so fast it blows my mind how my hands can get dry from it! I am really happy how Dyson is doing what he can to help the environment with his efficient motors and unique Airblade hand dryer without heating elements. Very clever indeed!