The book is coming!

“Systems Thinking in the Public Sector: the failure of the reform regime and a manifesto for a better way” will be published by Triarchy Press on April 11th. It is intended to do what it says in the title: explain how the reform regime actually pushes up costs (wastes our money) and worsens service, and how systems thinking provides a better way to design public services. But the thing that needs to change is the regime, hence the manifesto for what it should be doing instead.

For information and pre-publication orders go to: http://www.triarchypress.com

And I am coming to a place near you

To promote the book, and to engage people in the debate about how ministers have wrecked public-sector services, I am doing a book tour. It kicks off in Foyles Bookshop (London, Charing Cross road, on April 14th, 12-30pm) and then to:

¨ Bromley, April 14th, 4pm.
¨ Portsmouth, April 15th, 12 noon.
¨ Edinburgh, April 21st, 3pm.
¨ Malton, North Yorkshire April 23rd, 10am.
¨ Blaby, April 25th, 10am.
¨ Solihull, April 29th, 12-30pm.
¨ Bolton, April 30th, 12-30pm.
¨ Accrington, April 30th, 4pm.
¨ Brighouse, May 1st, 10am.
¨ Dudley, May 6th, 10am.
¨ Runcorn, May 7th, 7pm.
¨ Stroud, May 12th, 3pm.
¨ Blaenau Gwent, May 14th, 10am.
¨ East Renfrewshire, May 19th, 12 noon.
¨ Belfast, May 20th 2-30pm.
¨ Warwick, May 27th, 3pm.

Attendance at these events is free of charge and sessions should last approximately 2 hours. Places are limited and on a first-come first-served basis, so to reserve your place(s) please e-mail info@lean-service.com for a booking form.

Many thanks to those people who have offered venues for the book tour. We are still talking to others but if there is not a venue near you and you think people would like to hear about the book, please contact Janice: pr@vanguardconsult.co.uk

HMRC worker speaks

David Varney is the prime minister’s special adviser on public sector reform, he warrants his own chapter in the book. I suggest he might learn what is wrong with his ideas for more service factories (his gloomy vision) if he went back to see what has transpired in HMRC, following the ‘lean’ initiative he started.

An HMRC worker wrote to me about the Cabinet Office proposals for Public Sector performance indicators for contact / call centers, saying:

“I know what a mess David [Varney] brought down on the poor inland revenue in [name of branch] so it is with concern I saw these.”

Of course the call centre specifications are based on command-and-control ideas, so they will lead to disasters, but the correspondent goes on to say:

“You may know this already but Varney spent £2 million introducing ‘lean’ and ‘automated’ the process of tax returns, now instead of 1 person assessing end to end, the assessing has been broken down into 5 different people doing the a part of the activity (as in a factory line) for 5 different parts of the process. The tax form now passes through 5 different hands and the 2nd person has to read what the 1st person did before they can do their bit so they go through the whole form again, and the 3rd person has to read what the 2nd person did and so forth, 5 different people read 5 different aspects before it gets to the end resulting in a 25 day turnaround assessment of your tax return instead of the previous 18 days.

The staff are demoralised because instead of taking the initiative for assessing and managing one whole person’s form, they are now bored just checking bits of it and no one learns how to assess end to end. ‘Lean’ includes keeping their staplers and rulers in the same place so it is ergonomically efficient and quicker to use and managers now have to ‘floor walk’ to check staffs desks at the end of the day. Staff went on strike last year because of it.”

There we are, from the horse’s mouth, how the lean manufacturing tool-heads are destroying performance and morale in HMRC, because they fail to understand that service is not like manufacturing. Varney proposes more super-factories for public services, a big mistake.

Bad guidance on service design

A systems thinker writes:

“In his recent newsletter Dan Jones wrote:

‘Separating routine tasks from infrequent or more complex tasks is also the way to improve flows in the office.’

This looks like building in more functional specialism to me?”

He is right. Dan Jones is one of those who think tools developed to solve problems in manufacturing work just as well in service organisations. He is wrong. The tools and methods resulting from problem-solving in manufacturing don’t apply to service because service organisations have different problems to solve.

I asked a ‘lean manufacturing’ expert to explain where Dan’s idea came from, why does separating routine from other work improve performance in manufacturing? He explained:

“In manufacturing people talk about runners, repeaters, and strangers. Runners are high volume, regular, every-day demand – ‘base load’ – here machine lines or cells can be dedicated; repeaters (also known as rogues) are intermediate: fairly regular volume but not sufficient to justify dedicated resources / machines; strangers are erratic.

So, in ‘lean scheduling’, you try to gain maximum advantage from regularity. Schedule the repeaters more or less same time each day / week / month whatever, then fit the strangers around the repeaters. Then ‘everyone knows’ (suppliers, customers, changeover crews, maintenance, etc) that product XYZ is run every Tuesday morning.Not exactly the same quantity or time, but close. This helps with flow, in a plant and along whole supply chains – helping avoid erratic surges of inventory. This is also related to the EPE idea – every product every (week? day? etc).”

Now, if you’ve followed that, you will know that the problem they are trying to solve is how to maximise the productivity of the manufacturing facility against the volumes of demand from the customers; and they have to solve that problem working with the constraint of machinery.

There is no such constraint in service design. To think of service work as ‘routine’ versus ‘infrequent’ or ‘complex’ is to think of sorting work by type, which will only lead to waste because the type classifications will fail to absorb the variety of customer demands. To compound the error the tool heads introduce the notion of ‘standard times’ (they call them ‘takt times’ just to hoodwink the client). Standard times will also prevent the system from absorbing variety. So there you have it: follow ‘lean’ manufacturing ideas and design in waste.

Apparently in a recent newsletter Dan also writes:

‘We are all guilty of one of the greatest sins with lean – not having the patience to really understand the problem we are trying to solve and then jumping to a solution that may or may not be the right way to solve this problem.’

Pot and kettle spring to mind.

Systems thinkers strike a blow

Readers will recall the recent NI 14 saga; the new government target is referred to as the ‘Vanguard target’ because it is concerned with removing failure demand. I have been very impressed with the submissions people have made (they send me copies) explaining to the regime things they don’t understand.

The noise created by the systems thinkers has caused NI 14 to be completely re-drafted (not for the better) and its implementation has been delayed until October (it was due to start in April).

Well done to you all!

The struggle to find an alternative

I may be paranoid, but I think the whiz-kids in DCLG are seeking to avoid anything that smacks of Vanguard in the re-write of NI 14. After all, they’ve had a tanking from systems thinkers. So the ‘new’ version of NI 14 drops the phrase ‘failure demand’ and instead talks of measuring ‘poor use of customer’s time’. It is a stupid idea but, just for fun I shall explain why later. For the moment, two test questions for my readers:

Where does this idea come from? And what is wrong with it?

Why NI 14 should not be a target

Richard Davis, one of Vanguard’s founders, will be talking about why NI 14 should not be a target at a forthcoming event. The organisers say that if you quote ‘Vanguard’ as the place you heard about the event, you will get a 15% discount. For more go to:


If you fail to get into this site (I cannot as I do not have a public-sector e-mail address), the organiser is Christine Macdonald: Christine@publicsectorforums.co.uk

Targets are killing people

On February 10th Simon Caulkin’s column in the Observer reported research that shows while targets show improvement in the NHS, mortality rates increased. Yes, targets kill people. The research was published in the Economic Journal (no. 118, January ’08), pp 138-170. Who should we hold accountable?

How not to motivate your workforce

A systems thinker wrote to tell me her husband had been sacked. He was a technician with a utility company. He had been sacked because the hours recorded by the monitoring device (‘tracker’) in his van did not equate with the hours he claimed on his work-returns. He would complete his reports when he got home, sometimes that could be 22 hours after he left, as he was rostered for call-out duties on top of his day job. When the control police descended on him he explained what he did, a bad night could mean lots of jobs – problems lead to others – so he would get
home, wash up and do the paperwork. The control police didn’t believe him and sacked him. Since he was sacked the bosses have issued guidance that all workers are to complete paperwork on the job or in the works van. She went on to describe how the workforce is thoroughly cheesed off, will waste time watching DVDs in their vans to book extra time.

Like the tool heads, management treats workers as machines.

I hope this man wins his tribunal.

Systems designs for field technicians put the technicians in control of their ‘patch’; the object is not to manage the activity of the technician but insteadto enable the technician to improve the availability of the utility. So good work means demand falls, fewer things go wrong. Something command-and-control thinkers just don’t get.

Audit Commission gets it wrong

One of our housing clients found that adhering to the targets on planned versus responsive repairs (70% should be ‘planned’) led to massive waste: repairing things that didn’t need repair but were ‘in the planned repairs programme’. Re-thinking the way they do repairs (against demand from the properties) and putting the workers in control of the work has realised £11million savings which is being re-invested in responsive repairs.

The leader wrote to me:

“So, for no extra cost, we are getting more repairs undertaken and residents are constantly telling me how much better the service is. Without me actually having to ask or to spend a single penny on marketing, by the way.”

His point about marketing is an important one. Many public-sector service providers spend vast sums telling their communities how good they are (it impresses inspectors). If you get your service right you don’t have to.

But all is not well. The Audit Commission previously rated his service as ‘good’ but now rate it as worse, simply because the measures in use don’t fit with the inspector’s prescription. We went though many examples of this – including the stupidity of the target to have 70% of repairs as ‘planned’ – when the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister evaluated our work in housing; two members of that committee were from the Audit Commission. It illustrates the systemic incapability of the Audit Commission to do anything when it learns its prescriptions are part of the problem. The Audit Commission has become a barrier to improvement and a cause of waste. It should be radically re-structured and re-focused (I say more about this in the new book).

Meanwhile, back at the client, where good work is being done, my correspondent tells me his staff are saying:

“We thought you were mad when you introduced System Thinking. We didn’t know what we were going to do or how we were going to do it as we were used to managers just telling us what to do. But now the lights gone on we wanted to come and tell you.”

He asked what made the light go on? The reply was: “When we go to a tenant’s property they don’t see us as a barrier to break down before they get a service. They’re much more welcoming and we’ve got more time for them.”

Better service, lower costs, happier staff and very happy tenants. The only problem? The Audit Commission doesn’t get it. It is time the Audit Commission was held accountable.

From clueless to hopeless

The Municipal Journal reports on progress with the new Multi-Area Agreement pilots. The MAA is an idea from the Local Government White Paper which is meant to encourage ‘sub-regional’ collaboration between local authorities. We learn from the review of the pilots that people have developed different models, have differing circumstances, differ in scale and ambition, are broad rather than deep, that MAAs require a lot of work, have had difficulties getting elected members interested and that MAAs are being questioned for their ‘added value’.In short, the pilots show more problems than solutions.

During this review, the minister was reported as admitting: ‘we are still finding our way’. Perhaps the Audit Commission has the answer. In the same issue of the MJ we see adverts for inspectors who are to undertake ‘Comprehensive Area Assessments’. These are the inspections for the Local Area Agreements being produced by individual councils and their partners where councils will report their MAA work.

The adverts ask: ‘How do you coordinate a combined assessment programme across multiple inspectorates, with a focus on better outcomes for citizens and taxpayers?’ And the advert goes on to say: ‘If you know the answer… then it is over to you.’

So no-one knows what we are doing and the solution is to pass over the decisions to anyone who can get the job of inspection. We have witnessed the Audit Commission’s clumsy and ill-informed foray into management with unreliable inspection regimes (Best Value, CPA etc) and advice to local authorities that represents political prejudice rather than knowledge of what works. Maybe CAA will be its downfall. In any event millions will be wasted before we find out.

KTP opportunity

Swansea Housing, a systems thinking organisation, is seeking a graduate for a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP). KTPs are funded by the DTI; the student will be supervised by academics at Gorseinon college; support will also be provided by Vanguard and the student will be encouraged to write up the work. The idea of the KTP is that the student learns about the application of systems thinking to real organizational issues; the organisation gets the benefit of the work and the academic support. It can be a fast-track way into housing management. The focus of the work in Swansea Housing will be to extend their already impressive work in repairs to contractors.

If this is something that interests you please contact the chief executive of Swansea Housing, Tim Blanch: tim.blanch@swanseaha.co.uk

Senior leader seeks appointment

In his own words:

“An experienced Director with a good Systems Thinking pedigree with recent experience of leading an intervention in local government customer services and a background in the application of Lean in Automotive Product Development and Manufacturing seeks a new appointment. This combination of experience and perspective would be useful to Systems Thinking organisations looking to build leadership capacity or to organisations at the early stages of changing thinking. He is seeking a senior leadership role in either customer service operations or the engineering industry, ideally based in the West Midlands or M40 corridor, where he can continue to work in a Systems Thinking way .”

If you want to be put in touch please e-mail me: john@vanguardconsult.co.uk