Beginning in 1987, John Seddon developed the Vanguard Method, a combination of systems thinking and intervention theory. Uniquely, this method’s sole purpose is to transform organisations by changing management thinking, thus helping leaders design more effective services with dramatic consequences for performance; leaders who use the Vanguard Method achieve fast, tangible and sustainable results. John articulated and defined ‘failure demand’ – a feature of all conventional service designs – the Vanguard Method is the means to its eradication.

Applied in eleven countries worldwide, the Vanguard Method has produced remarkable results in a wide range of service organisations, from telecommunications, utilities and financial services to health and care, council services, emergency services and public housing providers.

The Vanguard Method in the private sector leads to redesigned customer-shaped services, enabling better ways for attracting, acquiring, growing and retaining customers. Private sector clients have transformed customer satisfaction ratings and staff morale while growing their profits.

When applied across public and third sector organisations (which we call ‘people centred systems’), the Vanguard Method offers a huge opportunity to significantly reduce costs and, more importantly, to improve people’s lives. We help leaders design public services that actually work. As a result, costs fall dramatically. But that’s not all. The wider consequence of providing services that work is that demand falls. Not only do you wipe out the strangling effect of high failure demand, you learn that fewer people experience problems. Happier people, better families, strengthened communities. Isn’t that what public services ought to be about?


1970s | Where it all began

John Seddon worked in the prison service as a prison psychologist. This work and meeting the academic, Nick Georgiades, introduced John to the idea that working on the system would have greater impact than focusing on the people. John went on to study – under Georgiades – for an MSc in Occupational Psychology and became fascinated with Intervention Theory and Method. This informed a lot of what eventually followed.

John Seddon

Inventor of the Vanguard Method

1980s | A shock to the system

John was teaching performance management to managers in Africa. They (kindly) told him what he was teaching didn’t fit with their culture so John began wondering whether management is grounded in knowledge or merely convention. John became preoccupied with how organisations really work.

John then got involved with the ground-breaking British Airways culture change programme. The British Airways experience taught him the experience of focussing on the customer but raised questions in his mind about ‘culture change’.

John learned the critical importance of studying demand in transactional services – the greatest lever. It was where he first discovered the idea of ‘failure demand’.

Vanguard founded by John and a group of friends

John discovered ‘failure demand’ by studying failed TQM programmes – initially labeled as ‘demand we don’t want’

1990s | Developing the Vanguard Method

Vanguard expanded rapidly in the 90s working with Honeywell Bull, IBM, and Digital Equipment Corporation. The early work was based on delivering training but the team soon realised that this was not effective at changing management thinking. Instead, we decided to help leaders get into the work and study it as a system. This is now known as the Vanguard Model for ‘Check’.

Throughout the 90s, the Vanguard Method was honed using trial and error working with a variety of service organisations. It became clear that the principles for study and redesign worked with all transactional services. 


John wrote his first book, I want you to cheat!: The Unreasonable Guide to Service and Quality in Organisations

John wrote his second book, The Case against ISO 9000. John described how specifications and inspections actually impede quality in service organisations


John Seddon published his best seller, Freedom from Command and Control

John published his first book on Vanguard’s work in the public sector, Systems Thinking in the Public Sector

2000s | Going international

In 2003, Vanguard started working with the UK public sector and expanded into new territories. Over the following years, we opened in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, and South Africa.
2010 – 2015 Serving the public

During this period, Vanguard became increasingly involved in the public sector, with John publishing four books, including The Whitehall Effect – an analysis on why public reform failed and how a systems approach was a profoundly better way. John also lobbied for the closure of the Audit Commission in 2010 as an egregious form of specification and ‘best practice’. This was shown by our work to be a bad idea.


John Seddon and Owen Buckwell were awarded the first Management Innovation prize for Reinventing Leadership.

The first book of public-sector case studies, Delivering Public Services that Work – Volume 1, was published.

The second book of public-sector case studies, Delivering Public Service that Work – Volume 2, was published.

John was awarded his fourth visiting professorship by Buckingham University.

The Whitehall Effect was published, a book about public-sector reform failed and why systems thinking is a profoundly better way.

Vanguard was invited to be the UK representative of the Beyond Budgeting Round Table.

2016 – present

Vanguard has continued to grow and now has a presence across 12 countries. In recent years, we have turned our attention to the ‘management factory’ – all the activity sitting above operations, which has grown in numbers and impact over John’s lifetime. John’s newest book, Beyond Command and Control, describes everything Vanguard knows today.

Vanguard’s work in social care systems led to ‘what matters to citizens’ being enshrined in Welsh law (the Social Care and Wellbeing (Wales) act).

Vanguard set up the Beyond Command and Control Network.

John Seddon publishes Beyond Command and Control, describing everything Vanguard knows today.