Don’t let the ‘public sector’ thing stop you thinking

Having written this newsletter I am conscious it is full of public sector material. It really matters; it is our money being wasted and our neighbours (public sector workers) being demoralised. But the issues I write about are also relevant to private sector performance. Private sector command-and-control organisations exhibit even more sophisticated specification and monitoring systems; they are equally adept at working on opinion rather than knowledge and the targets debate is the same. Don’t let the public sector focus take your mind off the fact that these are private sector issues too.

80% of the activity on targets is wasteful!

Mrs Kelly, the new minister for local government, has paid a consulting firm to tell her that 80% of the effort involved in targets is bureaucratic waste. I could have saved her the money. In fact the report has to be wrong; the waste associated with targets is more than 100% because beyond the bureaucracy, targets actually make performance worse.

Targets, like all arbitrary measures, do not pass my test of a good measure (can this help us understand and improve performance?). I can’t imagine what the ‘productive 20% of effort’ looks like.

We have to assume this was a ‘planted’ report (the minister wanted someone to say something she wanted said). If anyone can send me a copy I’d be pleased to read it.

The minister is, we hope, waking up to the damage caused by targets. I wrote to her to tell her that doing less of the wrong thing is not to do the right thing.

Which targets should we ‘cut’?

Mrs Kelly has appointed a local authority chief executive to chair what she calls the ‘lifting burdens taskforce’. It will be his problem to identify the targets and other ‘burdens’ that should be dropped. Now we know the consultants report didn’t illuminate. He could be on a hiding to nothing. I have offered him my help.

And isn’t it odd that the ministers’ initiatives have now become ‘burdens’?

‘Give us a wish list’

Speaking at a meeting of the Local Government Association, Mrs Kelly asked local authority leaders to put forward their ‘wish list’ on what should be included in her forthcoming White Paper on the next stage of reform.

All of these things show that reform will not be based on knowledge. Nothing new there then.

But ‘freedom’ requires compliance

To win ‘freedoms’ promised in the up-coming White Paper, Mrs Kelly said local authorities must show ‘strong, clear and transparent leadership’. What she means, apparently, is they should have elected mayors. It is a classical command-and-control notion, now you have one person to blame (‘hold accountable’). She ought to worry more about knowledge (and its creation and use) than accountability. If she learned how much the current regime created waste she might have the humility to hold herself accountable.

The minister also implores authorities to ‘strengthen partnerships’, because, it seems, she believes in shared services. So it comes down to this: if you comply with things the minister likes you stand a chance of greater devolvement. Yet we know that many of the things the minister likes make performance worse.

Shared services – sharing Vanguard’s knowledge

I have been astonished at the level of compliance being manifest in ‘shared services’. Last month I spoke at an event in the South West. The event had been put on by the South West’s ‘regional centre of excellence’ and it was intended that the event would encourage the sharing of benefits processing between councils. As I was invited that had to change.

Benefits processing is one of the local authority services that should NEVER be shared, for to do so drives up costs and worsens service. I invited a client from the South West; it is all the more credible if people can listen to someone who has learned by implementing the systems solution to benefits processing.

Benefits processing is the hottest on local authority managers’ lists for sharing because the idea first appeared in the Gershon efficiency report. Since then the Audit Commission inspectors have been driving up interest by coercing local authorities to have plans for sharing services. Public sector managers are more inclined to comply, even follow the herd, rather than get knowledge. Compliance gets you stars.

Vanguard’s work of the last few years has put us in a position where we know a lot about shared services. We have had to fix some that were badly shared and we have seen the destruction of some services through sharing the wrong things.

We are confident we know what should never be shared and what could be shared but what pitfalls are common in going about it. I have written a submission to the Scottish Executive’s consultation on shared services. It is available free to people in the public sector. Ask for a copy by e-mailing:

Sorry the report is not available to private-sector people (sharks swimming in the minister-promulgated shared services and out-sourcing pool).

To give people more time to understand what is behind the report – the details of what we have learned about specific services – we are going to run a seminar on September 21st in the Bristol area. It will be open to local authority and government people only. I want to help those who are concerned to get knowledge rather than simply comply with ministerial edicts

To register your interest, please contact Polly: This will be provided at a delegate cost just to cover the costs of the event. So bring a friend!

Now we know why Tony does not understand

Robert Hill, formerly a special adviser to Tony Blair, wrote an article on targets for the Municipal Journal (“Are targets dead?”). If this represents the advice given to Tony and his ministers it is no surprise that they continue to do the wrong thing.

Mr Hill tells us advocates of targets say they “provide focus and galvanise performance. They aid accountability and even where they are missed, they provide benchmarks to strive for.” Plausible but muddled thinking.

In defence of targets Mr Hill says: “…it takes a brave person to argue with health service targets to reduce deaths from cancer…” As though ‘brave’ could also mean ‘stupid’.

Mr Hill has spent too much time in the rarefied atmosphere of the government management factory. If he knew how to study work as a system he would learn that targets ALWAYS sub-optimise performance.

First, I should say that there is nothing wrong with a ‘target’ that is a general statement of ambition (we want less deaths from cancer, better service at lower costs from councils etc). But as soon as a numerical value is attached to any ambition in a hierarchical organisation you are in trouble. Why? Because that sort of measure is arbitrary and three consequences can follow: Meeting the target at the expense of the system; cheating, being seen to meet the target by fair means or foul; limiting improvement to the target (where much more could have been achieved).

Mr Hill fails to appreciate that instead of driving arbitrary measures down hierarchies we would achieve immense improvement if instead we encouraged the use of real measures, derived from the work and related to the purpose of the enterprise. It is back to my test of a good measure.

Mr Hill’s recipe is to reduce the number of targets, focus them on what is possible, use them with milestones and timeframes, monitor them for unintended consequences and agree them jointly between the council and the government hierarchy. Just like the minister Mr Hill thinks the answer is to do the wrong thing righter; it is not to do the right thing.

If this is the quality of advice offered to Tony Blair and Co. it is of little wonder we are in such a mess.

Audit Commission ‘having a huge impact’

The Municipal Journal ran this headline:

“Audit Commission ‘having a huge impact’ – says Audit Commission”

Well I never.

HMRC does ‘command-and-control lean’

I was asked to speak on the radio about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Custom’s ‘lean’ transformation. It is a tool head intervention. They have standardised work – as you would if you were a manufacturer. To manage production they manage peoples’ activity. People are demoralised and going on strike. If only managers knew how much waste their system of management will generate. But their measures will keep them blind. It is a tragedy for the people who work there, the taxpayers (as customers and funders of the system) and for ‘lean’. Ohno would turn in his grave. He said we shouldn’t call it anything. It was the tool heads that coined the term ‘lean’. Watch out for them.

If you haven’t read it already read: “Watch out for the Tool heads”, an explanation of ‘lean tools’ from manufacturing, the problems they solved and why service organisations don’t have these problems. Get it at:

Vanguard opens in Denmark

I am pleased to announce that Kristian Nielsen has joined Vanguard to develop our work in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. Kristian and I will be speaking in Denmark on October 10th and 11th. For more information or to book a place please contact: Nicolai Thorborg, e-mail:

Seddon speaks in South Africa

I shall be speaking at the South African Contact Centres World event in Johannesburg on 29th August 2006.