Monday, 6 June 2016

I'm Out

In just a few day’s time the people of the UK are being asked to make a monumental choice, Whether to remain in the European Union or whether to leave it. Personally, I am firmly in the leave camp. 

During the recent Buy Yorkshire conference at which I was both a speaker and panel chairman, I had the pleasure of meeting former MP, Ann Widdecombe. A diminutive, yet feisty figure who I think explained this perfectly. Better even than Nigel Farage whom I chaired the following day. 

In Ann’s view, the economics are far from certain. Neither side really knows what will happen. The key issues to consider are two-fold. Firstly, control of our own lawmaking and secondly, control of our borders.

The Remain Campaign seem to have most economists on their side, but I would bet that most of the organisations commenting have a vested interest in remaining in the EU. The only argument they have that seems to hold any weight is the economic one and personally I think even that is a bit weak. After all, we may lose some jobs if we leave, but then we will gain others. We may lose a bit of money but on the other hand we will not be paying mega-millions into the bottomless pit that is the EU.

Are we also forgetting the chaos that nearly erupted with Greece so recently and the fact that other nations within the EU are effectively bankrupt too? Do we really want to have any part of that when relatively speaking we are doing so well?   

For me, Ann’s two issues are the ones that matter. We are a sovereign and democratic nation and our Parliament needs to be able to legislate on its own terms without outside interference and the threat of punishment if it does not toe the line.  At the moment we have to take note of an unelected and hideously inefficient body within which 10,000 or more people are paid more than our own Prime Minister. This is not my understanding of democracy and I believe we should leave them to it. Why do we agree to pay these people to flit between Strasbourg and Brussels - two parliaments doing the same job less than 300 miles apart? And we foot the bill for all of it.

As for our borders, there is literally nothing we can do at the moment to prevent any EU citizen coming to live here. Don’t get me wrong, our country has benefitted hugely from workers from countries like Poland. The factory I had in Hull until recently would not have functioned anywhere nearly as efficiently as it did without them. But this is not the whole story. A Polish gentleman is employed in a business I am a director of. He works a few hours a day 3,4 or 5 generally, and he works at very unsociable times so he can’t do any other work. He is therefore in receipt of benefits, his children are educated at the tax payers’ expense and he and his family receive medical care from the NHS. And his contribution to the economy is minimal. Without a full time job which would allow his to support himself and his family, he should not be here. As things stand there is nothing we can do to stop him and as many more like him who are currently here and who may follow.

Germany may well wish to invite 1 million new citizens into its country and that is their choice. But understand this. Every one of these new German citizens can come to the UK if they wish. Many may well see the grass being greener. See how migrants at Calais will not settle in France but are hell bent on coming to the UK. Once they have EU citizenship we can’t stop them. I am not being racist here, just practical. There has to be a limit to how many people we can house, educate and treat within our overstretched NHS. Of course people are welcome if there is a genuine need, but we have to be able to control this and at the moment we just can’t. 

The average wage in Poland is €756 per month against €2330 in the UK. Just over 3 times. Now suppose in another part of the world the average wage was €6990 a month and any one of us could go there without any need to apply to move, speak the language, and so on. Then you would imagine a lot of our younger people might be off like a shot. This is precisely the dynamic we are dealing with. We do need overseas workers in the UK. Many of them put the indiginous workers to shame - but this has to be on our terms and not the free-for-all we have at the moment. 

Then there is the illusion of the single market. For many years I manufactured wheelie bins in the UK. This involved a large investment into what was a pretty competitive market. Few manufacturers make these bins in the UK, most came from Germany. So when we bid to supply to a UK council, German-made bins were sometimes the winners. But could we supply out bins to Germany? No, we couldn’t,

Our bins were made to a standard - EN 840 - where EN stands for European Norm. The norm that is, except in Germany where they had their own standard. And to get that standard you had to be a member of a private club where admission was at the discretion of the owners of the club. Not only could we not sell bins in Germany but their standard worked its way into a lot of tenders here and were it not for our astute challenges of the folly of this, UK companies would have been excluded from supplying contacts in their own country! 

I remember being asked to review a document from the EU Office of Harmonisation. They had taken it upon themselves to unify the colours, logos and placement of information on every waste and recycling bin within Europe. Clearly, it is very important that someone who separates out their waste in Greece should immediately be able to identify the correct bin when they might be in France. My response was that the colours chosen were not those used in the UK and it would take decades to change over, notwithstanding the millions of pounds this would cost. The idea was sent back to the drawing board where it will now incur more unnecessary expense for a fruitless and useless task. This is just bins, what else are these unelected teams of people pondering over in order to make our lives better and poorer? 

When I recently chaired a panel at the Buy Yorkshire Conference last month, I asked the audience (primarily of small business people) how they intended to vote. About 60% were for staying and the rest were split between leaving and being undecided. On day two, Nigel Farage and the local MEP were on the panel. I took the poll again at the end of the proceedings and only two people had changed their position - one each way. 

Along with others I am becoming tired of the scaremongering from both sides. The Remain campaign has had an unfair advantage from the start and so it is interesting to see the polls being so close. Sadly, politicians like Farage make being part of the leave camp appear extreme and this should not be considered the case. But people who are opposed to something are much harder to shift from their position than people who are for something - so the leave vote should be solid and should build.

I believe the UK has a much stronger future outside of the EU without being held back by its bureaucratic web of rules and regulations. I for one will be voting to leave the EU on June 23rd and hope that others will follow suit.


Sunday, 14 February 2016

Go on Musky - ban me too!

I have to admit that I smiled when I read about Stuart Alsop, the American venture capitalist, being banned from purchasing a Tesla Model X by the company CEO Elon Musk.

Alsop had attended a launch event for the new electric SUV and had waited one hour and fifty minutes for the event to start. The lack of an apology from Musk and the lack of the promised test drive in the Model X prompted Alsop to complain on his blog about the poor experience.

Elon Musk responded on Twitter by banning the potential customer from buying a car at all as he had been "rude". But Elon, you may make amazing cars and you may be a billionaire but without customers you are really nothing at all and this seems to me to be a poor way to behave.

In my experience, Tesla are not especially hot on customer service. In fact, quite the opposite. I have written about my test drive in a Model S previously - and it was a great experience. My interest was prompted by a friend who told me that you could request a test drive on the Tesla website and they would bring a car round. He had done this and it was worth a go.

Several weeks after I completed the online form and forgotten all about it I was called by Tesla to invite me to a test drive event at a hotel 10 miles and a good half hour away. They told me they didn't bring cars to people any more, I would have to go to them. Although this was a bit of a chore, I booked in and duly turned up.

On arrival I was told there were two models for test drives and I had been allocated the most basic rear wheel drive car with the lesser acceleration of the two models. There was no mention as to how this decision had been reached, but for the whole of the test drive I felt that I was missing something. Perhaps like going to drive a Mercedes S Class and when expecting the S500 being given the S280 instead.

The Tesla employee with me said that I could try the faster all-wheel drive model another time, maybe even on the same day if it was back. After a short 15 minute spin in the car we were back at base. The other car which had left at the same time was not back and using the Tesla app it was swiftly found - many miles away. So not only had they given me the car I didn't want but the other fellow was getting three times as long to drive as I had. Talk about making you feel valued as a customer!

We parted with the agreement that they would contact me when they were next at the same location and I would indeed drive the faster car. Several weeks later I got the call and was booked in. I mentioned my interest in the Model X too and that I would bring my wife along so she could see what this was all about. So they now should have understood that we are interested in two cars and Teslas don't come cheap.

Two days before the test drive was due to take place, Tesla head office called me to say they had double booked the slot and they were very sorry but it was me that had been dumped. Clearly the other customer was in the market for three cars or more. There was no other convenient time over the weekend for a drive so they agreed to call next time but this never happened.

I subsequently got an email giving 48 hours notice of the opportunity to test a Model S but this was too late to take advantage of. I replied asking to be called about the next date and asking what the current lead time was on a Model X. This was a few weeks ago and I am still waiting for a reply.

Not sure if I have been "rude" enough to offend, but the company are completely useless. They do not understand customers and have no clue about customer service. They do not deserve to have business from anyone. Now it is quite clear where this attitude comes from - the very top.

So, Elon. I would love you to ban me as well but in reality there is little point. We're sticking with our Beemers.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

How I became a spex maniac.

A lot of people want to talk to me about my spectacles. They are my style identifier and part of my personal brand. I like frames that are bold and unusual, not quite Dame Edna but different, well-designed and noticeable.

I have so many frames now that I have lost count. It is somewhere between 300 and 400, all with prescription lenses, but what everyone asks me (other than where I keep them – more on this later) is how I came to be so obsessed with eyewear.

It all started many years ago. I had needed to wear glasses from about age 15 as I stopped being able to see the blackboard at school. At that time there was little attractive to be had in spectacles. You got a free NHS pair which were the spare pair you never, ever wore and then something that made you look like an old man and which cost an arm and a leg. In my case a copper-coloured Rodenstock frame which was as good as it got.

Into my late teens, the optical market was becoming deregulated and frames were slightly more adventurous, lower cost and more widely available. I had a couple of Buggles-style frames followed by some Giorgio Armani, a Buddy Holly variant by Benetton and then some prescription Ray Ban sunglasses. The latter were worn at night exclusively as I went clubbing dressed in second-hand leather trousers and a slashed tee-shirt. Maybe I looked cool, who knows, but my eyewear was not attracting any attention.

I was on a shopping trip with my brother who needed some new frames. Visiting Brosgill Opticians in the centre of Leeds I noticed they had a handful of quite unusual frames. One particularly caught my eye. It consisted of a black cross bar with two black loops below for the lenses. I had never seen anything quite like this before but the black was a bit too stark for my face.

On enquiring if there were any other colours available, I was told that there were several in the range and I could order one but I would have to take it whether I liked it or not as it would be obtained specially for me. The frame, Pluto by LA Eyeworks, was duly ordered in gold.

Debbie Harry advertising the LA Eyeworks Pluto frame.

A few weeks later I was advised that the frame was ready for collection. However, the use of the word “gold” was somewhat inaccurate as the frame was really yellow as you can see. Of course I had to take it and tried it out on a couple of visits to the local pub. The reaction was unbelievable. Everyone was asking me about these glasses, they worked as an ice-breaker, conversation starter and attention grabber. 

Pluto frames. My "gold" frame is in the middle.

Once the initial excitement wore off I had to have another frame and this time bought LA Eyeworks Padre in green – one of my favourite frames of all time.

Vintage Padre frame
In 1993, Brosgills presented me with an invitation to a trade fair in Birmingham and explained that the entire LA Eyeworks range would be shown there. I should go and if any were interesting they would get then in on approval for me to consider at my leisure.

En route to the wedding of some friends, I visited the exhibition at the NEC and found a rather small stand dedicated to LA Eyeworks. It was manned by a someone I will never forget. His name, Alain Bekaert. Every frame he showed me he insisted I try on. In a thick French accent, he would say, “Do you lurve it or do you ‘ate it!”, no half measures for Alain. I “lurved” quite a few and they were delivered to Leeds a few weeks later. I think I bought four of them and by this point I was well and truly hooked. Everyone was talking about my glasses.

But as I was leaving the stand, Alain said something very interesting. He told me that there were only two designers in Europe I needed to be concerned with. One was LA Eyeworks which I now knew all about, the other was Theo. I asked him who they were and where they were. He was not very forthcoming, advising me that they were Belgian and I should go and find them.

Monday morning at the office it was my mission to locate this elusive brand. Before the Internet this had to be done the hard way. Directory Enquiries got me speaking to the Belgian Embassy in Eaton Square. They offered to look into this and several days later sent me a photocopied page from the Belgian Yellow Pages with an address and telephone number in Antwerp. I rang and asked if they had a catalogue, they did and they agreed to send one to me.

The Jiffy Bag that arrived a week later contained a kit to make up the catalogue. It remains one of the most innovative pieces of marketing I have ever seen. Each page consisted of a photocopy of a frame with typed information about the range of colours. The front and back cover consisted of an industrial carpet tile with the name “Theo” laser-cut into the front piece. Two nuts and bolts were provided to put the whole thing together with.

But not only was the catalogue amazing, the frames were like nothing I had ever seen before. I had to get to Antwerp and fast! As it happened in the coming weeks I had a planned trip to The Netherlands which was near enough. I was in Rotterdam on business, dealt with that then got a train directly to Antwerp where I emerged from the very grand Central Station and walked the 10 minutes or so up the Meir to meet Wim Somers at his small shop on Eiermarkt. He presented me with a vast collection and I left with seven frames. Six I bought, one was a gift, a frame called Cabiro in Canary Yellow which in fairness he probably would never had sold to anyone else as it was so crazy.

My vintage Cabrio frame in canary yellow

Theo frames suited me perfectly. Quirky, eclectic, sometimes eccentric, I began collecting them with an annual visit to the Antwerp shop. I also occasionally bought other brands. I was quite fond of Alain Mikli when they were being innovative and there were a few others too that caught my attention.

Over the years, the Antwerp shop has moved to larger premises, a trade business has been established in a nearby building and much of the work has been handed to Wim’s sons who now look after most things. My collection has grown too and I remain a big fan of their work.

A few years ago I arranged to go and choose some frames. I was arriving in the evening and rather than meeting in the headquarters where we usually met, they took me to the shop. There I met the company PR and marketing manager and a photographer too. My story was now their story and I was featured on the front page of the Theo newsletter wearing some rather fetching frames. A Theo client in Denmark likes this image and asked if it could be used in their store – so now there is a giant print of my head in an eyewear shop somewhere in Denmark. It doesn’t get much better than this!

√ėjhesten glasses and contact lens store in Kolding, Denmark
Now I am slowly documenting my collection and posting on Instagram @straightspex. I hope to have the whole collection there during 2016 and hope that this might be interesting and inspiring to people who love eyewear.

Oh yes, and where do I keep them? Actually, they do not take up a lot of space. I use sample cases which hold eight or nine frames. These make having a couple of hundred fames immediately to hand very simple and manageable.

Good eyewear is a wonderful means of self expression and getting noticed. Whether it is one frame well chosen or a number skilfully deployed, people will remember you for your glasses if nothing else. To me, it is an opportunity too good to miss.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Have I met my match in eyewear?

Recently I stayed at the Shangri La hotel at The Shard in London. It is quite an experience staying in Europe's tallest building, with the reception on 35th floor, a bar and infinity pool on 52nd floor and a couple of hundred rooms in-between.

During the course of my one night stay, I had three different rooms on three different floors of the building. That is another story, but the interesting fact about The Shard is that the lower down you are, the better the room is. This is because the lower floors are larger than the higher ones.

Having spent the night and following morning in one of their Iconic Suites, coming back to ground level is something of a return to reality as you have been literally up in the clouds. As I left the hotel, I spotted a blue Bentley Continental parked outside and it was surrounded by photographers.

As some of you may know, I like to do a bit of street photography. One of my favourite shots is to shoot a photographer who is in the process of shooting a scene. I quickly grabbed my trusty Fujifilm compact from my bag and started taking shots of one of the photographers who was in my line of sight.

He spotted me, came over and asked me if I would like to sit in the car. Initially, I declined. But as he was quite insistent, eventually I agreed. However, rather than user me into the driver's seat he took me round to the passenger side. On entering the car I was greeted with perhaps the loudest pair of spectacles I have seen for quite some time sitting on the face of a rather exotic-looking lady.

Without being introduced, I immediately asked about her frames. It turned out that they are Roberto Cavalli and although you can't tell from the photograph they were a lovely shade of purple. I had to try them on. Removing my blue Theo Grace frame (also quite loud) I put these outrageous spectacles on to then hear the sound of three photographers snapping away with their lenses stuck through both open windows of the car.

They didn't look bad on me but I don't think I'll be wearing them to a board meeting anytime soon.

As I had removed my host's specs she then grabbed another pair from the console. One of the Prada Baroque range. The car was literally littered with frames and I was advised there were yet more in the trunk.

Only then was I introduced to the driver of the car. She is Gracie Opulanza and this was a promotion for the Men Style Fashion website of which Gracie is the Head Editor. Her mission is to see men dress well all the time. Thank God I was well turned out that day.

Obviously, the conversation then turned to eyewear. Gracie has her own website, and there is loads of information on there about eyewear and how is can be impactful, eccentric and confidence-building. Nothing new to me, but a refreshing message for most people who do not appreciate these matters.

Those of you who know me will know I have lots of eyewear and the louder the better in my view (no pun intended). I lost count at 300 frames and I am now steadily documenting them with a selfie at day on Twitter (@planetstraight) and on Instagram (@straightspex). Most of my frames are by Theo in Belgium. Gracie also wrote about Theo in 2012. Well, I discovered them more then 20 years before that, so never let if be said that I am not a trend-setter!

That day I was patting myself of the back for reaching 7,000 followers on my Twitter account. Gracie has more than 45,000 on her account and nearly 200k on the Men Style page. Clearly a lot of people think she has something useful to say.

It is good to see eyewear coming into the mainstream and people now talking about glasses as a fashion accessory rather than something people have one pair of that is rarely updated. I have built a reputation for having eclectic eyewear and it has become part of my personal brand over the past 25 years. 

And whilst there is nothing more flattering than having the Paparazzi taking your photograph incessantly for several minutes, it was also good to meet a kindred spirit. Gracie, your glasses are wilder than mine ... for now, anyway.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Tesla - the future of motoring?

There are relatively few business people I am especially interested in. But now and again I come across someone who is different enough to gain my attention and I will happily read whatever I can about them. One such person is Elon Musk. Having read his recent biography, I don’t believe he is a very nice person, I think he is quite reckless and perhaps irresponsible. However, there is no doubting his vision and driven determination to achieve his goals.

Musk founded Space X, a private company, employee owned, that builds space rockets. Built from scratch in less than 15 years, this amazing business works for NASA and is developing reusable rocket technology. Its ultimate goal is to enable people to live on other planets.

Elon Musk is perhaps better known for his involvement in Tesla, a public company making 100% electric cars. No backup engines here, its all electric with amazing battery performance to mitigate the range anxiety associated with similar vehicles. Musk did not found Tesla but he was instrumental in its development and it is his vision that has driven the company into achieving many milestones and ultimately being profitable.

So, when I learned that a team from Tesla was going to be offering test drives at a hotel nearby I jumped at the chance. My BMW 7 series is now seven years old and it is a hard act to follow. Mine was a company press car, loaded with features and toys, many of which I am now quite attached to. Despite the very low mileage I will need to change in the next year or two. The forthcoming new Beamer looks pretty amazing but I am open to suggestions as to where to go next. The prospect of never filling up with diesel or petrol again (one of my pet hates) and not needing to take the car in for a service, other than once every year or two, is quite attractive.

Currently you can buy a Tesla Model S. There are other cars on the way - an SUV and a lower cost model -  but this is the only one you can have for now. It looks sleek, a bit like a Jag but sportier and the key is a small model of the car itself. I say the key but you just keep this little car in your pocket. As you approach your Tesla, the door handles - which until now have been flush with the door - pop out, allowing you to open the door. 

Inside the dashboard is minimal. There are only two buttons: one is the hazard indicator which apparently is a legal requirement; the other is a button to open the glovebox which offers a bit of symmetry rather than just having one button. Other than that there is a display screen behind the steering wheel and then what looks like a giant iPad on speed in the middle of the car.

Tapping the brake pedal then wakes the car up and the display shows a speedometer. There is no starting noise and no engine sound. Then you are ready to go. The car is simple to drive. A stick shift gives you P/D or R - so basically parked, forward and reverse. Foot down and the car takes off. Initially I drove slowly but once I got the hang of the car I put my foot down. The power was simply unbelievable with solid handing too.

Of the two cars available for a test drive, I was in the most basic lower powered model with rear wheel drive. This had a 0-60 time of 5.2 seconds. You cannot imagine that you are in an electric vehicle, the performance is stellar. The other model on site, a P85D with all wheel drive, does 0-60 in 3.1 seconds and if that is not enough you can get to 2.8 seconds with the Ludicrous Speed Upgrade - but that will set you back another £8,300. 

As well as driving like a powerful petrol sports car, the cars are loaded with tech toys. My test drive included the Autopilot (£2,100). This works much like my BMW intuitive cruise control by latching onto the car in front and following it. I use this feature a lot on my car. However, the Tesla will also change lanes, can stay in lane with automatic steering (although I didn’t test this feature) and according to the website will park itself too. Apparently if you are on private property, the car can also drive itself round to the door to collect you!

The 17 inch flat screen in the centre basically controls everything and has numerous menus and views, all customisable. Generally it shows a large map which gets data from GPS as well as Google - so you should always know where you are. It shows where traffic is bad and will obviously work as a satellite navigation system, also showing the directions on the dashboard.

I could change the steering from soft to hard, I also had the variable suspension (£2100) which had different options. If the suspension is raised to get onto a particular driveway, the car remembers this and will automatically do the same every time that location is visited. 

As there is no engine in the conventional sense, there are two boots, one at the front and one at the back. Both are large, the rear boot can accommodate two child seats as an option. And as there are no gears, the acceleration is also very smooth and very fast!

So what about that range anxiety? The stated range is 275 miles on the basic model up to 330 miles with the upgraded battery. This would be OK for me most days unless going on a long journey. There is a growing network of chargers and the Tesla chargers are free to use. Their superchargers will fill up the battery in around 1 hour. Home charging takes all night and you can monitor progress on your smartphone. So potentially, no running costs at all if charged on the public network.

As you sleep the car software may update adding features  that were not there before, such as the latest update which added automatic emergency braking. 

So overall, this car is pretty impressive. So what doesn’t it have compared to my own car and what would I miss? Tesla seats are quite good but mine are more adjustable, good if you suffer with a bad back. I have cameras on the front wheel arches which are great in blind junctions. Also, my back wheels turn the opposite way to the front ones at low speeds giving a very tight turning circle, the Tesla is a big car and would benefit from this. Cooled seats - possibly I could live without. The one thing I would really miss other than my soft closing doors is the Heads-Up Display which projects speed, sat-nav and other information onto the windscreen. I am really surprised Tesla does not have this as it is so useful, so safe and really looks to a future when you can keep your eyes on the road and not elsewhere.

You can get a Tesla for just under £50k, but you are going to want the all-wheel drive and an extended battery as well as some of the other options which are more like essentials. I think £70-80k is more like it, and you could easily get to nearer £100k without trying too hard. This is well into 7 Series territory and I suppose if it costs as much as a serious luxury car, then it should have all of the bells and whistles and not just some of them.

I’m still a Musk fan, I’m a Tesla fan too. He really has reinvented motoring and built up a car company from virtually nothing. This achievement cannot be underestimated. For me the car is a very attractive proposition. I’m just sitting tight until the features catch up with BMW which I sincerely hope they do. I would love to drive one of these cars without letting go of the clever technology I already use each day. 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A tale of two airports

With Leeds Bradford Airport claiming 50,000 passengers over the Bank Holiday weekend, I thought it worth sharing a few thoughts about our recent family holiday to Portugal. We try to use LBA as it is close to where we live and so very convenient. 

Leeds Bradford has a preferred taxi service that has access very close to the terminal building. Naturally, there is a premium charged to use this service against the various other taxi companies all of whom drop further away. We don’t live very far from the airport, about 8 miles, but a return trip with the official taxi service is pushing fifty quid.

You get dropped as close to the terminal building as is possible but then you begin to see the lack of joined up thinking. The trolleys, which disgracefully cost £1 to hire, are at the other end of the car park. The car park is open to the elements so when it is raining (and of course it was raining) you get soaked. All this whilst trying to operate a vending machine for large airport trolleys. It takes quite a tug to retrieve one. 

Into the terminal and mercifully it was quiet. We were thought security pretty quickly and then headed for the Yorkshire Premier Lounge. Unfortunately there was very little “Premier” about it. The place was rammed with people. Several tables had been reserved, presumably for pre-paying guests, compounding the crush. The place was a disgrace with food all over the tables and the floor. I think perhaps they had tried just a bit too hard with pushing the "all you can drink" element and the lounge was filled with the kind of people you don’t really expect to see in such a place. To be honest we were glad when the gate was called.

By the time we got to board the plane it was bucketing it down with rain such that even a short time outdoors would leave you soaked. It was bad enough that all the passengers had to stand outside in this deluge without any form of shelter,  but worse still that we all had to wait at the side of the pedestrian crossing until two passing vehicles had crossed. They didn’t stop for us. Passengers were literally soaked to the skin.

Once on the plane, the floor was soaking wet. A stewardess mopped it up and then chucked the bucket of dirty water onto my feet. There was no apology. A great start to the holiday!

Contrast this to our departure from Faro airport. Any vehicle can drop you next to the terminal. Trolleys (and they are free) are adjacent to the drop-off points. The VIP lounge whilst busy, was clean and the occupants were well behaved. Boarding the plane was via and airbridge so in the unlikely event it might have been raining, we would have stayed dry. 

It is great having an airport just 15 minutes from where you live, but looking at the overall experience here and at our destination, they probably need to try just that little bit harder. Passenger numbers are growing, but take them for granted and they will vote with their feet. 

Monday, 10 August 2015

Transforming healthcare for a better world

Around the time I was exiting my role at Straight plc, mid 2014, I was approached by Becky Malby, director of the Centre for Innovation in Health Management (CIHM) at the University of Leeds to see if I was interested to take part in a programme. This was called the Leadership Indaba and it would consist of four sessions spread through the following year.

According to Wikipedia, an indaba is an important conference held by the principal men on the Zulo or Zhosa peoples of South Africa. Our indaba aimed to bring together experienced leaders into a thinking space, to do good work and at the same time make an academic contribution. The ultimate goal being to support large scale change that would leave the world a better place.

CIHM seeks to reduce the focus on “reductionist asset stripping approaches to management” within the NHS and social care, instead finding solutions with the people that deliver and use its services.

The programme consisted of discussions where we would share our knowledge and try to come up with ideas to improve matters. At some of the meetings there were speakers who would set the scene for the discussions to follow. Of the nine participants, eight were from the health sector in various different capacities. Then there was me, an entrepreneur with no formal training of any kind but with many years of experience in running a dynamic and rapidly expanding commercial organisation beset with numerous challenges. 

Initially, I was not sure why I was there. But gradually I began to see the value of my involvement. In many ways I was from a different world to the rest and my perspective could therefore be fresh and challenging. 
My observations over the several sessions was that the health sector delivers some excellent outcomes but is beset with big problems which the current system seems unable or unwilling to deal with. I met fundamentally good people doing great jobs in their own spaces but I got the impression that they were all up against something bigger and somehow alien to their way of thinking or working that did not help them in their daily activities. 

All of our discussions were confidential and am not at liberty to share specifics. However, much of the conversation was around the perceived difficulty in repairing a system universally considered to be broken and both the terminology used and the apparent sense of powerlessness that senior leaders feel they possess would probably not be accepted in the private sector. 
My observations lead me to some conclusions. These are the views of an outsider but they reflect what I learned in the short few hours I spent on this project.
Firstly, managers need to get real. This is difficult because the NHS is not just a heath system but a political system too. I think this is fundamentally wrong and dangerous for patients who end up being the pawns in the actives of politicians. Having a clear remit of what needs to be achieved over a long term would be helpful. Ministers do not add value in this respect in my view. Where there is a bullying culture (and I believe that this comes from the very top) is needs to be dealt with. 

Next, the sector needs to understand why it exists and what are its desired outcomes. Too much focus is on attempting to deliver a cure, not enough focus is on prevention - which intuitively sounds like it would save a lot of money in the long run. Using big data, entrepreneurial management and incentives along with radical, qualitative-based procurement of goods and services will help to deliver a better service at a lower cost.

As an example, in Leeds, Age Concern is delivering an exercise programme to reduce the risk of elderly people falling and needing hip replacements. Using data they know how many people in their target group are admitted to hospital each year and they know that they will save the NHS money through this programme. This is not the job of the charity sector, unless the public purse is directly funding it. The NHS itself should be seeking to deliver such interventions, saving money in the process. But could such an intervention cause a problem? Idle surgeons, empty wards … you see why this may not be quite so simple.

Thirdly, I have understood that the most senior managers interfere with the work of their subordinates in such a manner that it impacts on their ability to do their jobs properly. Some of those managers who are succeeding are playing a game where they focus on what they need to do for their line managers and take little notice of the rest. Some of these areas are thriving. Senior managers and Board members should allow the professionals in their teams to work towards agreed outcomes in their own way as would be the case in any well-managed company. I am talking about effective delegation, not abdication of responsibility. The wider NHS could do well to learn from the places where a bit of rule bending is achieving great results. 

The patient must come first always and without exception. We have all seen what can happen with micro management and a focus on the wrong goals as was the case in Mid Staffordshire. The life of a patient must be the most important factor in any health professional’s thinking and if rules need to be broken to save a life they should be. I would go further and say there is actually an obligation to break the rules if a life can be saved. 

Finally, we should remember that the patient is a human being with the potential to transform his or herself given the right direction and teaching. I was told of people living in desperate communities with few facilities, no jobs and little contact with nearby population centres. This is sad and no doubt difficult for those afflicted. However, we must remember that these people are not destitute, nor are they hungry, they have the blessing of time to pursue whatever they want, something that many might be grateful for a little more of. In many cases they have a choice whether to be healthy or not. Somehow providing the key to self fulfilment would be the best investment that could be made in such people rather than waiting for them to become ill through poor diet, drink and smoking and then treating them for the resulting diseases. 

I remain an outsider to this sector but I have learned a great deal about its workings and its challenges. I see a problem at the top and a confused agenda as to what exactly should be delivered. This is not easy to solve but not impossible, Hopefully, those who can push an agenda of change forward will take note of what all of us on this programme have learned and have published in order to allow us to deliver our goal of leaving the word a better place.