The black belts bite back

My piece on Six Sigma (last Newsletter) brought some reaction from the ‘black belts’. One un-subscribed in high dudgeon; I did offer him an on-site meeting where he could show me Six Sigma at its best and I promised I’d be able to show him what could have been done, with far more profound results, by changing the system, or I’d eat my hat, but he didn’t come back.

These were the arguments from the ‘black belts’:

‘Its OK if you do it right’. As one wrote: “6 Sigma, if applied correctly will enable people to look at the ‘big picture’ of a business and essentially reduce variation and waste.”

‘Its OK if you do it right’ was the rallying cry of the ISO 9000 brigade. Hardly a quality attitude; consider the costs of doing it wrong. While a ‘black belt’ might be able to identify some causes of variation, I have seen nothing in their training that deals with removing the big causes of variation, like measures and roles (and other command and control features). That is territory Six Sigma avoids; that would make it tricky to sell. Instead there is much in their training that takes the wrong approach to understanding variation, something that leads to stupid and time-consuming projects.

‘With the right management it works fine’ The corollary is poor management is to blame for failed Six Sigma programmes. Easy to say, but in fact the problem is deeper than that. As I have said before (Newsletters passim), starting at ‘Define’ in ‘DMAIC’ means starting with management’s current pre-occupations and those are not the things that really matter. Vanguard starts at ‘check’, understanding the ‘what and why’ of performance as a system, it changes your conceptualisation of the problems and, better than that, it gives you knowledge about these ‘new’ problems, so you want to take action. There is nothing in Six Sigma, that I have seen, that helps managers re-frame their view of the organisation.

The people who argue for ‘the right management’ are usually thinking in terms of better ‘command and control’; but it is command and control that is the biggest block to improvement.

When we look at how Six Sigma is ‘managed’ we see hierarchical direction (command) and reporting (control) structures. While the people at the top read their reports of improvement, down in the galleys if you want to get anything done you have to call it a Six Sigma project; you learn to report any good news as related to a Six Sigma project and so on. If you chuck enough money at projects and reporting in a command-and-control system it will look as though things are improving. But such ‘improvements’ are nothing compared to changing the system. Often the ‘improvements’ are actually making things worse.

And to illustrate how this could happen, one ‘black belt’ sent me his favourite example of a Six Sigma failure:

“Introducing Six Sigma, managers were asked to define their Critical Success Factors and Strategic Areas for Improvement. After a few heated debates CSF’s and SAI’s were identified. They then discovered that there were no measures in place for most of them but a mountain of measures available for totally irrelevant aspects of the business [the usual stuff] that were of no value. [Indeed, but worse, they’d be part of the problem]

Instead of dumping their cherished measurement reporting, they changed the CSF’s and SAI’s to match the measures they were collecting.”

If you didn’t laugh you’d cry.

The Six Sigma con

None of the ‘black belts’ who wrote to me tackled my criticisms of the way Six Sigma is introduced. In most cases it goes like this: Six Sigma consultants spend weeks interviewing managers about the organisation’s problems (imagine the costs of having the gangs of suits around). Then the consultants organise weeks of training for various levels of managers and ‘belts’ (again, imagine the costs). Then – the coup de grace – the consultants ‘hand over’ responsibility for taking action (with their new tools) to the managers and ‘belts’ providing them with a strong reporting structure. What a con.

It is no surprise that we see a host of stupid projects, like those I described in the last Newsletter, and no surprise that most of the ‘tools’ trained are never used. But the con is an easy one to play on a
command-and-control thinker.

Obvious to those who know

The Japanese translator of “Freedom from Command and Control” wrote:

“At my first glance to the copy of Chapter 9, I did not understand the reason why you added the chapter because those tools like 5S, takt time, poka yoke and VSM are irrelevant for service activities.”

Obvious to him, but talk to people who attended the ‘Lean Summit’ last November and they will tell you these and other tools featured strongly, being applied to service design. Despite the fact that Ohno insisted we should never codify method (write tools) as it is thinking, how we conceptualise the problems, that is the key, these self-proclaimed followers of Ohno do just that.

If you haven’t read it, everything you need to know about what’s wrong with taking manufacturing tools into service organisations is in “Watch out for the tool heads’ at:

Do watch out for the tool heads (and they’re not all called ‘black belts’, many go under the label ‘lean’ and some even have the audacity to call themselves ‘systems thinkers’).

During 2006 we are going to run a workshop on all the manufacturing tools, what problems they solved and how they are irrelevant to service design and, en route, what studying the organisations as a system teaches you about the problems you need to solve in service design. To register your interest, please notify Polly: 01280-822255 or e-mail:

Why would people go sick?

A reader sent me this from the Oxford Times:



Staff sickness at Oxford city council is so bad the authority’s human resources manager has admitted targets will not be met … The authority is searching for an occupational health provider that can improve attendance levels. Managers are being sent on absence-management refresher courses … Earlier this year [the HR manager] said a target of 8.98 days off sick per member of staff was achievable. But this week the city council’s finance scrutiny committee heard the year-end figure is more likely to be 11, making it one of the worst-performing district councils in the country … Concerns remain about the number of unauthorised sick days taken and the number of stress-related absences …”


As the reader noted:

“Setting targets to reduce stress-related absences – which are very probably caused by target-driven work practices – is like prescribing vodka to cure a hangover. And how can courses in absence management help? Presumably well-managed absences are arranged to occur when the scrutiny committee is looking the other way.

Looks like a textbook example of refusing to deal with the root cause – a defective system.”

Quite so. It should be no surprise that public sector sickness, absenteeism and turnover are on the rise. In the private sector we see many examples of absenteeism programmes driving up absenteeism. But it keeps the HR people busy.

Ministers drive up health costs

Private Eye reports that a primary care trust in Oxfordshire has followed ministerial instructions and, consequently, driven up the costs of health care. The care trust bought a contract with a private-sector provider for eye operations, largely cataracts. It was an attractive deal for the ministers, more procedures at lower costs; economies of scale – a classic command-and-control ideal. But the private-sector provider has only delivered a small number of the operations contracted for. Instead of the five hundred planned in the contract, only ninety-three have been carried out. This means the trust has paid £255,000 for £40,000 of work.

In their panic to meet the targets the care trust is now advertising over the radio (more costs) to find people who need eye surgery. Perfectly usable services within the hospitals are passed over in favour of sending the work to the private-sector contractor to make the numbers look right. More costs.

If only Ministers had started with understanding the predictability of demand by type of procedure and geography, a systems approach, they might have avoided getting this mess and might have designed a service that meets the needs (demands) at the lowest costs. It might also keep the hospitals open.

We should remember it is our money they are wasting.

Newsletter content

A first-time reader wrote:

“… you only seem to be spending your time criticising, instead of including ideas of what to do instead, in order to improve performance.”

I’ve always thought of the purpose of Vanguard News to be emphasising perspective, a sideways look at the folly of command and control. Although of course people do get connected to what Vanguard is up to and, I hope, follow their own curiosity, I have always wanted to avoid promoting Vanguard. More than that, I know I can’t teach method via this medium.

But you tell me, should I change the content?

Would you believe it?

A Vanguard practitioner in a local authority wrote:

“I had an opportunity to talk about our Vanguard work in Homelessness and more generally at [another] Council last week. They had assembled quite a line up in the form of their Audit Commission relationship manager and the Government Office head honcho.

The look of disbelief on some faces when we put up a chart showing a 500% improvement in end-to-end time for homelessness applicants (with no additional resources) was worth the entry price. True to form the man from the Audit Commission suggested that if that occurred in his patch we could be guaranteed a special visit, as the data must be dubious mustn’t it? Dear oh dear….”

Maybe that’s why I don’t talk about what the Vanguard Method achieves… you might not believe it!

The customers do!

The following e-mail was sent by a manager of housing benefits in one of our local authority clients:

“I have spoken to [name] re the positive feedback we are getting from our customers at reception The girls and I have noticed how much happier customers appear to be since we have had the Vanguard experience!! Customers appear to be pleased that they are being dealt with individually, and like the personal contact with their assessor, they don’t mind bringing in the documents required because they know that they are going to be dealt with quickly. It has made our job a lot more pleasant; previously it felt like we wanted to extract teeth!!”

Just what the Ministers and the Audit Commission want: better service at lower costs (and the change in culture comes free), but it seems they find it hard to believe too. Instead they promulgate the very things that are causing the problems.

I’m not giving up.

Adult Social Care

And for starters in 2006, read what the regulatory regime has done for old people who need society’s help, let alone the poor people who have to work in this regime. Download the report at:

Ministers should get out of management; they are making public services worse.

Vanguard’s housing solutions

On February 23rd we are hosting an event for senior managers in housing organisations. The purpose is to describe the Vanguard solutions for housing services (applications, lettings, voids, repairs and rent collection) and to introduce different ways in which housing organisations could apply the Vanguard Method. The event is for senior managers in housing organisations only.

Beware of pretenders. Since the publication of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s report on Vanguard’s work in housing, pretenders are using our results in their mail-shots to housing organisations and claiming they can provide this service. If they are not licensed practitioners of the Vanguard Method, you won’t get what you might anticipate.

Freedom from Command and Control” – the show

While many people wanted us to re-run this show, we have decided to make it into a DVD, that way you can see it as often as you like. To do this we have to overcome some technical problems with translating a production into something that plays on a PC. We’ll let you know.