‘Bob the Builder’: Push vs. Pull analogy

Let’s suppose that I have the first world problem of having my home bathroom renovated. Lucky me.

I (the client) want others to do this work for me. I’m not competent/capable of doing it myself, so I contact a qualified builder.

Now, given this ‘scene setting’, I want to compare and contrast two vastly different ‘system designs’ in dealing with my need – I’ll label them as ‘Push’ and ‘Pull’…and I’ll then use my builder analogy against many a conventional service system.

Note: The Push and Pull concept can be used in several ways. In this scenario I am using:

  • ‘Push’ as the client being pushed around an inside-out focused design (as if they were merely a ‘widget’); and
  • ‘Pull’ as ‘value’ being pulled towards the client by their helper (builder), making for an outside-in flow.


So I’ve contacted ‘Mike the Builder’ and he comes round to take a look. We have a dynamic discussion about what needs doing, my design preferences, and any constraints I have (e.g. timescales, site access…dealing with the dog!).

The conversation comes to a close…

Builder Mike: “Great, thanks Steve, I’ve captured what I think you need. I’ll write that up and pass it on to Builder Trevor”.

Me: “Eh? I thought you’d be doing the work! I’ve just spent an hour with you, and you now understand my situation and requirements. Why are you now passing [pushing] me onto another builder?”

Builder Mike: “Oh, sorry, no, I just do the set-up part. This then gets streamed to another builder according to some criteria. It’s now with Builder Trevor. He’ll contact you about starting the work”.

Me: “I’m less than happy about this. I’ve spent time establishing a rapport with you. You now understand me and my situation. Surely, I now need to wait for Trevor to become available and then repeat this detailed conversation all over again with him?!”

Builder Mike: “Oh no, you don’t need to do that, I’ll write it all up carefully1 and make sure Builder Trevor gets this. He’ll contact you as soon as he can”.

So, a bit of time goes by and then Builder Trevor calls me. We arrange a start date, and he arrives on site to get stuck in.  I’m a bit nervous as to whether he understands what is needed but he assures me that Builder Mike passed on his notes.

After a few days’ worth of work (lots of banging and ripping going on), Builder Trevor contacts me one evening:

Builder Trevor: “Hi Steve, just to let you know that I’m passing [pushing] you on to Builder Sam. It turns out that, once we’ve stripped everything out, your build is far more complicated than Builder Mike had realised. You’ve got a really old house and I’ve uncovered some ‘gremlins’ behind the walls/ under the floors. It needs some specialist work to sort out.”

Me: “Er, okay…it is what it is…but why can’t you sort these complications out? Why do you need to pass me on to someone else? How does Sam get up to speed as to what needs doing?…aaargh!!!!”

Builder Trevor: “Well, Builder Mike streamed the work to me because I do the non-complicated jobs. Builder Sam does the complicated jobs. I’ve now found out that you were streamed incorrectly2 so I’m sorting that out by passing [pushing] you over to Builder Sam.”

Me: “Well, that may be how you’ve chosen to organise…but that isn’t what I want/need. I want to work with one builder!”

Builder Trevor: “Oh, it won’t be a problem. Builder Sam is very good – he’ll sort out all the complicated stuff that needs doing. You just need to wait for him to contact you.”

And so, after Builder Sam contacts me, and a bit of a delay, he comes onto site to start the work.

Builder Sam: “Blimey, I wouldn’t have done it like that!”

Me: “no, no – that’s what I wanted doing! I explained it all to Mike…and again to Trevor…I need to explain it all to you now.”

A long, detailed, careful [and exasperated] explanation is then given by me to Builder Sam.

Builder Sam: “Okay, now it makes sense. I’ve got it. I’ll crack into it.”

Builder Sam gets ‘on the tools’ and work resumes. A week later, Builder Sam calls me:

Builder Sam: “Hi Steve. Good news – we’ve sorted out the complicated stuff…so your job is now back to being a simple one. I’ve passed you on to Builder Jim.”

Me: “oh for f@#k sake! Why are you passing [pushing] the job on again??? Why can’t you finish it? And who on earth is Jim?!”

Builder Sam: “Well, I’m only streamed to do the complicated stuff…and yours isn’t complicated anymore so I’ve got to put you back into the ‘non-complicated jobs’ queue”

Me: “So, presumably you mean to pass me back to Trevor then? …and not some Builder called Jim!”

Builder Sam “Oh no, Builder Trevor is busy on another job now. You’ve been allocated to Builder Jim.”

Me: “You are joking aren’t you?! Trevor knows what to do. This ‘Jim’ doesn’t know anything about what’s needed, what’s been done so far, why the complicated work was required, how you’ve sorted it…and what is left to do.”

I’ve not had a usable bathroom for a few months now, and I desperately need to get it back functioning. I don’t really have a choice – I’m a hostage to the Builders. I ask for Builder Jim to get onsite asap and finish the job.

And so, after a bit of a delay3, another round of introductions, and an attempt by me to bring Builder Jim up-to-speed on everything, work resumes.

A week later:

Builder Jim: Right, I’ve finished everything and I’m all packed up and ready to leave. Just ‘sign off’ on this completion form – put your signature here”.

Me: “Before I do that I want to check the work.”

Builder Jim: “Oh, er, okay – but I’ve done everything that’s on my job sheet.”

I take a really good look around…

Me: “That’s not the toilet that I asked for…that’s not where I asked for the attic hatch to be positioned…why have you put in a fancy heated mirror that I didn’t ask for and then charged me for it…grrr – I explained this ALL to Mike at the very start!!!!”

Builder Jim: “Well, that’s not down on Mike’s notes. If you’ve got a problem with the work done, then you’ll need to contact our complaints department. They will then assign you a ‘Complaint resolution’ Builder to look into it.”

Me: “I don’t want to be assigned another f@#!ing Builder!!!!!!!!!”

Builder Jim: “Steady on mate. It’s not my fault. I’ve done the best I can with what I knew.”

The above (I hope) reads as being rather ludicrous, and so to…


I contact ‘Bob the builder’ and he comes round to take a look. We have a dynamic discussion about what needs doing, my design preferences, and any constraints I have (including that dog).

Builder Bob: “Right, that’s all understood. I’ll be back next week to make a start.”

Me: “Great stuff, I’m looking forward to working with you to get this sorted.”

Builder Bob: “Now, just to be clear, I’ve got a fair bit of experience but there are often unexpected things that I uncover. These might be new things that I haven’t seen before. If that happens, then I’ll bring in [Pull] appropriate expertise to help me get it sorted…but don’t worry, I’ll be taking responsibility for what’s needed and making sure that it gets done.”

Me: “Sure, makes sense. Sounds good to me.”

Builder Bob gets to the stage where he’s stripped everything out and, sure enough, there’s some gremlins hidden behind those walls. I get a call one evening:

Builder Bob: “Hi Steve. Just to let you know that I’ve uncovered some tricky stuff behind the walls. I’m pulling Wendy onto site to get it sorted – she’s seen this a number of times before and knows just what to do. Actually, I’m really looking forward to it as I’m going to learn some cool new stuff from her.

I’m always learning on this job, that’s what I love about it 🙂 ”

Me: “Fair enough, an old house was always sure to present some roadblocks, but great that you can bring in Wendy to sort it.”

…and, behind my smile I’m thinking I’m really happy that I selected Bob as my builder – it’s great that he’s owning the job. I will use Bob for all the other (big list of) stuff that needs doing to my old house!

So, it comes to the end of the job and Bob asks me to sign off on his work.

And, because I started the process with Bob, and have been keeping up with him along the way, there’s very few issues. However, the world’s not perfect and I notice something which isn’t what I had asked for…so I let Bob know.

Builder Bob: “Oh bugger, yep, I remember now – you did ask for that didn’t you. No worries, I’ll get that rectified asap.”


Now, you might have a pessimistic view of builders (perhaps through experience or folklore) and think that this ‘end of job’ scenario is a bit fanciful…

…but I expect you’d agree with me that I’ve got a massively better chance of communicating with Bob about a missed requirement and getting it sorted as compared to attempting communication with the Mike/Trevor/Sam/Jim/A N Other ‘tag team’ of builders.

Applying the analogy to many a conventional service system

There are numerous examples of service organisations that are built and operated along the ‘push the client around’ design (ref. ‘tiered models of service’)…with all those daft situations that I have attempted to show above…and much more besides.

And, rather than the 1st world (and relatively short lived) problem of a new bathroom suite, these systems are trying to help people with fundamental aspects of their lives, often over substantial periods of time (e.g. physical and mental health, social and economic wellness, …)

Such a client needs someone to take responsibility for helping them, and to pull this help towards them. This can only happen if this is ‘designed in’. It won’t (and can’t) happen simply by imploring workers to be ‘client centric’.

To clarify: This isn’t a case of bad workers, it’s a case of workers with great potential to ‘do good’ but who are hampered, prevented, and blinded by an inappropriate system design.


1. On ‘writing it all up carefully’: The spaghetti notes phenomenon

2. On being ‘streamed incorrectly’: One of the major ‘wrinkles’ within streaming logic is the belief that people can be ‘correctly’ streamed before they and their situation is actually understood. A second ‘wrinkle’ is that the world is dynamic (things always change)…so even if something was streamed ‘correctly’ at a point in time, it will often not remain that way.

3. On waiting: You’ll note that, within the ‘push’ scenario, there is a fair bit of waiting time, whilst I (the client) am ‘parked’, waiting for the next builder to become available, to pick my ‘job’ out of their bucket of work, and to contact me to get it (re)started.

4. The names of builders:

  • the pushing scenario: I was looking for inspiration as to names to use, so I’ve used the names of local builders that I know. Please note that I am not casting aspersions on them! I’m just using ‘poetic licence’. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite – I’ve heard great things about all of them 😊.
  • the pulling scenario: I’ve gone with the much-loved UK Children’s cartoon characters ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Wendy’. I left out Scoop, Muck and Dizzy…