The regime is over

I listened to Andrew Stunnell, a minister for communities and local government (CLG) in the new coalition, speaking at a conference two weeks ago. He made it absolutely clear: there will be no specifications coming down from the centre. I asked him, for clarification, that this really would mean getting rid of those roles, he said yes. I read Eric Pickles’ article in the Local Government Chronicle, he is the minister in charge at CLG; he said the same. Last week I met Greg Clark, another minister at CLG and he too was unequivocal.

The regime is over. No longer will children in Whitehall dream up their dumb ideas on how to design, manage and measure public services; no longer will they tell local public service managers what to do and send the Audit Commission in to bully people in to compliance. The message from the ministers is crystal clear: they want leaders of local public services to get on with it. Responsibility has been put in the right place. We should rejoice.

I left Eland House (CLG’s HQ) with a spring in my step. Every previous visit there made me depressed: Two years ago I went with housing leaders to explain why Choice-Based-Lettings was wrong; last year I went to the review of One-App, a computer system for planning, only to be told any evidence that One-App had flaws could not be taken as the brief was the minster’s decision to roll out One-App was brilliant, and what do we do next? And so on.

Two things pre-occupy the new ministers: will people who have been bullied into compliance really believe they are free to act? And how can we ensure that performance is made transparent to citizens? The latter is easy, just ensure that all services measure achievement of purpose from the citizens’ point of view and publish the actual data.

There couldn’t be a better time for systems thinkers, we should rejoice and get on with it.

An economic benchmark

I have not visited a housing repairs system since Vanguard did its first in 2002. At that time we were pretty pleased with ourselves; we helped them design a service that got all repairs done in under a week, not bad as the official target is 28 days for most. But last month I went to visit Comserv/MTS, one of Portsmouth City’s suppliers, where they have developed a service that does repairs on the day and the time when the customers want them! Jaw-dropping, amazing service. Just stop and consider that: wouldn’t it be amazing if BT could learn to do that? My bet is most managers would think it can’t be done.

Compared to where we were 8 years ago, this system is a massive advance in understanding how to use demand data to drive service design. First of all understanding the predictability of demand volumes and major types of repairs has enabled them to plan resources effectively. Very clever. The system works as single-piece flow; the tradesman gets one job at a time, they have a visual system showing the jobs with when the customers wants them done; and another visual system showing when the tradesmen will come free from their current job. If you just sit and watch you see tradesmen coming free and getting the next job in the queue. It works because of the next startlingly obvious (when you see it) innovation: When the tradesman arrives at the job, he tells the office when he expects to be finished. Brilliant, because it designs out the perpetual problem with ‘work management’ systems; they work to ‘standard times’, and as any systems thinker would tell you, that is a big mistake. As soon as you hit variation, as you always will, these ‘work management’ systems don’t work; they send the system out of control.

Every tradesman has his own van stock, worked out by taking data on actual materials usage over time, the cost of van stocks is now less than 25% of the original cost and failures in van stocks are minimised. Again, simply brilliant.

And now for the most amazing innovation. When a tradesman needs material he calls the logistics arm (Multi Trade Supplies – MTS) and the people there ask him when he’d like it delivered! They know that if you are taking out a bath, you want the new bath to arrive just as you take out the old one. And they measure against that nominal value. By studying both ‘early’ and ‘late’ variations they are able to further improve the system. For example you soon learn that it takes only a few minutes to take off a door and more time than that to supply one, so it makes better sense for those tradesmen who will predictably need doors to carry them. As time goes by the van stock changes, things go in and out. It is a system designed for perfect, Taiichi Ohno would have been proud. Of course it isn’t perfect, but they are miles ahead of the competition and they have designed a system to manage for perfect, just as Ohno did. Like Ohno, Comserv/MTS has set an economic benchmark. With the City Council, they deliver this amazing service at half the original cost. It is extraordinary.

Hats off to them. Well done John Little, the Vanguard man who took them on their journey, and we should salute Owen Buckwell, the man who runs the housing service at Portsmouth City, he had the vision to work with his suppliers to create one system. I was blown away.

Advice UK: systems thinking and advice explained

Regular readers will know of Advice UK’s work with the Vanguard Method on advice services. The work revealed the enormous cost of the failure of the last government’s flagship service factories – HMRC and DWP – to provide services that work. The people at Advice UK have made a little animated film, which is brilliant.

You can watch it at: http://www.adviceuk.org.uk/bold

Keeping my powder dry

Readers will no doubt have noticed the positive tone of this newsletter. These are exciting times. It is not to say there are no things getting my gander up. For example the Audit Commission, in its dying days, has been to Portsmouth to downgrade their performance rating – I say Portsmouth is an economic benchmark, they don’t like it; just about says it all. The sooner they are gone the better.

The Treasury has held up the demise of the housing regulator, I have no doubt there are heads that need to be re-constructed in the Treasury. Lots of people in Whitehall still believe in economies of scale – soon I shall be publishing a paper explaining why we believe in it and why we shouldn’t. I am conscious of what happened in Scotland – they announced the cessation of micro-managing the public sector but didn’t change what the centre did, so it carried on. I hope my readers will alert me to any ‘old regime’ behaviour if and when it occurs. And currently the ‘professionalisation’ of procurement
– leading to high-cost and dumb purchasing – is a bee in my bonnet, to which I shall return in the next newsletter.

But the moment is one for rejoicing. We would never have predicted such a bold, exciting and right move.

On planet O’Higgins

Just one swipe at the old regime if I may: In a desperate attempt to create relevance for the Audit Commission in these times, Michael O’Higgins, chairman, argued in Public Servant:

‘For me, there is a conceptual logic between setting area priorities for local partnerships on one side of the triangle, Total Place setting the resources available on the other side and the commission’s OnePlace website accessing outcomes on the third side. Something like that could continue’.

He thinks it is a conceptual logic. It might be on planet O’Higgins; it is conceptual junk on planet Seddon. The Audit Commission has been part of the problem; it shouldn’t be part of the solution.

The Leaders Summit

On November 25th I shall be hosting The Leaders Summit. It has been some time since we last asked our clients to speak at an event and there could not be a more important time to encourage innovation. Comserv/MTS and Portsmouth City Council will be there. So will Advice UK. We will also have leaders from a bank, an insurance company, a utility, and local authorities – all of whom have achieved outstanding results using the Vanguard Method. And for the first time we will have a presentation of Systems Thinking in health which, I can promise you, will reveal some startling truths.

Early-bird booking rates are available until the end of this month. Book early to avoid disappointment: info@vanguardconsult.co.uk