Open letter didn’t get through

My letter to Lord Freud and Iain Duncan Smith got no further than the civil servants, in fact to the DWP’s ‘correspondence team’. They wrote to thank me; to tell me ministers get lots of letters and to repeat the DWP line about the plans for the Universal Credit. In short, it was a fob-off.

The reply contained no acknowledgement of my arguments or questions about my evidence, the risks in their proposals and the potential costs. So I have written to the correspondence team to ask if my arguments and the evidence were understood and, if so, who decided that a standard reply would suffice? I also asked what the budget is for the new computer system.

I’m not giving up. It may be that the only way to stop this madness will be to brief back-benchers to oppose the bill and demand the evidence as it goes through parliament. If you have a sympathetic and concerned MP or local councillor, Charlotte Pell will give you information about the bill’s stages. charlotte.pell@vanguardconsult.co.uk

Early warning of the same problem

At the heart of the Universal Credit design is the belief that a computer system will be able to make decisions about peoples’ benefits. As I have said many times in this newsletter, computers are lousy at absorbing variety. Evidence of how bad this can be is at hand; a computer system assessing incapacity benefits has many vulnerable people up in arms. Read the story here:


But I guess the evidence doesn’t fit the narrative.

Only two types of claimants?

My moles in Whitehall tell me that the people designing the new universal credit think that there are two types of benefits claimants out there: those who are computer literate and those who may need some support in making claims. When you tell that to systems thinkers who have redesigned housing benefits services against demand they are incredulous. Maybe we should sit Whitehall policy-makers in a benefits office for a day?

The true number of ‘types’ of claimants is enormous because of course, these are people and they have problems. Not all ‘problems’ cost money to solve, but they will if they are not sorted. And those who have a systems design solve them all, it is cheaper to do so and it gives people the ability to get on with their lives.

It is a poignant illustration of the complete disconnect between Whitehall and the real world.

Statist logic on benefit errors

Here is something that, along with what is happening with incapacity benefits (above), reminded me of the allegories of good and bad government painted on the walls of the Town Hall in Sienna (if you haven’t seen them, put it on your things to do list):

The recent welfare reform proposals include an announcement that people who fail to report a change in circumstances (which affects their benefit claim) will be fined £50. It is shockingly statist, bullying the weak. It is entirely of the wrong philosophical direction.

We have learned that when a benefit service works people are happy to notify their changes of circumstances; when the service doesn’t work, they prefer not to. Obvious when you think about it. Would you notify someone if you knew it was going to lead to unimaginable hassle? This is why so many people give up claiming tax credits.

When services work, people behave more responsibly. We first saw this unanticipated phenomenon in Portsmouth where tenants like the repairs, cleaning and other services so much that they take more responsibility for their estates and properties (as housing minister Grant Shapps noted on his visit).

So the first step to a more responsible society? Delivering services that work. Punishing people who experience poor services is the wrong way to go.

See the news story here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12506273

HMRC manager in denial

An employee of HMRC writes:

‘I read your written submission [to the select committee review] on HMRC after a colleague referred to it in a question to a senior manager, who dismissed it on the lines – things have moved on – you have submitted no evidence to back your claims – and we are right. I was curious enough to read both your contribution and the other 27. Yes your contribution is right in theory but short of evidence but this evidence is amply provided in many of the other submissions.’

As I said at the beginning of my evidence, I have not been into HMRC but I can confidently predict why things have gone wrong, after all, I see these things all the time in private-sector services that have been led down the same wrong path.

While this senior manager is in denial, we see further reports of HMRC’s failures. This time the rise in complaints upheld:


It makes me wonder how the senior manager would explain the many failures. Perhaps my moles will let us know.

Pickles’ savings

The Guardian reports that a think tank has doubts about Eric Pickles’ (Minister for local government) expectation that local authorities will deliver 40% savings. Instead, the think tank thinks that 20% will be more realistic. How would they know?

I am reminded of what Deming would say. If you can get 40% this year, what were you doing last year? Targets for improvement are no source of knowledge.

Meanwhile, in the real world, local authorities who have been using the Vanguard Method are achieving 40% savings in their services and more. And they have better services to boot. I think we need a bit less thinking and a bit more evidence.

Why don’t nurses care?

We have seen many news reports over the last few weeks of nurses failing to care for patients. Most commentators blamed the people. It reminds me of the then minister of adult social care, Ed Balls, declaring that the solution to low morale amongst care workers was more training. With both of these important problems, it is the system, stupid.

Nurses don’t ‘care’ because their focus is on feeding the bureaucracy, not caring for patients. Social workers don’t solve problems for the same reason. We have taken the heart out of nursing and care work by subjecting them to an antediluvian command-and-control regime dreamed up by people who have no knowledge of the work. It bothers me that the specifications and inspection regime has not been turned off for care services.

Policy versus practice

While you might argue with policy for the NHS, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, what matter is what happens. The Health Ombudsman, interestingly, has found a cunning way to highlight the gap between NHS policy and what actually happens. Here are two examples from the Ombudsman’s homepage:

Care and Compassion are what matters most (NHS constitution) versus ‘A shabby, sad end to my poor wife’s life’

We respond with humanity and kindness to each person’s pain (NHS constitution) versus ‘His tongue was like a piece of dried leather’

Take a look, watch as they change: http://www.ombudsman.org.uk/care-and-compassion/home

You have to get permission to improve

It is absurd: Clients working with the Vanguard Method in children’s services have to get a letter of dispensation from the minister to move to a redesign. Yet everything learned in check (studying the system) taught them that adherence to the current regulations (specifications, targets etc) is central to the problems. The letter of dispensation clearly states that if things go wrong the chief executive and council leader will be blamed. But who is to blame for the shocking state of children’s services all over the country?

Some bad advice on failure demand

I was passed details of an up-coming SOCITM event (SOCITM = IT people in the public sector). The event was called ‘Savings through channel shift and reduction in avoidable contact’. It promised four strategies for action:
‘ Make customer access a corporate function managed from the top.
‘ Ensure comprehensive customer contact data is collected across all channels.
‘ Analyse the data to identify scope to reduce volumes of phone and face-to-face contact by reducing avoidable contact and shifting enquiries to the web.
‘ Bring website and customer service advisors (phone and face-to-face) under the same management.
As my correspondent noted: ‘This is quite remarkable – 5 specific proposals, not one of which will make the slightest difference! You couldn’t make it up…’

Good news in health

Simon Caulkin wrote about the first example of the Vanguard Method applied to health care for the FT. As you may know, this was the final of the presentations at last year’s Leaders Summit. You can read the article here:

If you haven’t visited Simon’s web site you should. I recommend that you sign up for his weekly blast of sanity:

As regular readers will know, we are now active in health, after many years of false starts when leaders became alarmed at the need to confront convention (and that meant their careers). As we study different systems, we intend to put out a newsletter to share what we learn. If you are in the NHS and want to receive this occasional news, please email: Andy.Brogan@vanguardconsult.co.uk

‘Kata’, the new ‘lean’

The most extraordinary paper was brought to my attention by many readers. Extraordinary, because it opens with the announcement that 98% of lean initiatives fail (announced, by the way, by the lean ‘guru’ authors) and is then stunningly extraordinary for its conclusion. The reason for failure, argue the authors, is the lack of ‘strong mental circuits for how to develop solutions’, whatever that means, and to ensure complete obfuscation this is labelled as ‘kata’. Expect the next offerings from the package-it-up-and-sell-it-to-the-gullible masters to be kata training, kata coaching and kata prizes. Maybe even kata car-stickers?

It’s really simple, it needs no kata: the reason ‘lean’ fails is because the tool-heads buy in to conventional management ideas (like activity = cost) and are sent out to solve management’s wrong problems.

I am confident the 2% ‘success’ reported will be an overestimate. If HMRC managers were asked, for example, they’d say ‘lean’ met its objectives. Ha.

If you want to get your kata going, you can read the paper here:

Click to access A4FF50A9-028A-49FD-BB1F-CB93D52E1878-Liker-Rother%20Article%20v3_5_CM.pdf

But you’d be better off going down the pub.

Taking control out of care

Professor Sue White wrote for the Guardian on the problems in children’s services and the need to return to caring:


Professor White will be chairing our care services event on May 10th. The event will feature clients talking about what they have learned from studying care services as systems and how this knowledge leads to effective re-designs; of course we will also be tackling what needs to happen to the regulatory agenda to ‘permit’ innovation. To register your interest: pr@vanguardconsult.co.uk

Post Office managers in need of help

A reader writes:

‘I recently came across an example of the craziness of management target setting when in my local post office. I visited the post office to use the passport check and send service, and whilst I was being served, I noticed a whiteboard behind the counter, next to the staff room door. It was titled with that day’s date, and showed a list of 14 products or services provided by the post office, with a figure next to each, and ‘Please!!!’ written at the bottom. The list included things such as insurance, new passports, first class stamps, driving licences.

As someone who is starting to become a systems thinker, I asked the post office worker if they were targets for things they had to sell that day. She looked at the whiteboard, rolled her eyes and nodded. I asked her how she and her colleagues were supposed to meet a target of getting 6 new passport applications for that day, given they couldn’t influence the needs of people that came into the post office (let alone that to be ready to apply for a new passport you need photos and counter-signatures, so you would need to have planned ahead). She shrugged her shoulders and said that the only thing they could do was to ask customers whilst they were being served if they wanted any other related products. So for example she would ask me, as someone using check and send, if I wanted any travel insurance. Whilst this might be useful on occasion, this generally led to delays, as whilst customers were being asked about products or services they didn’t want, the people behind them in the queue were having to wait longer to get their real needs addressed.

As we talked, she became increasingly animated, and I got the feeling she was enjoying the opportunity to vent her frustrations. She also explained that it was complete luck who got to deal with each customer. So whilst she might end up doing loads of special delivery sales, or spending a longer amount of time on a customer with complex needs, the person next to her might get passport applications or biometric enrolments. These were ‘valued’ more highly and staff thought it would win the thanks of ‘management’. It didn’t. Even when all of the targets were met, or exceeded, she said that ‘management’ never said thank you, and would simply come back with even higher targets. And the rivalry the targets encouraged didn’t seem to do much for team spirit.’

It reminds me of when I first worked in a building society about 20 years ago. It was when sales targets were first introduced. I met very nice people in the branches who would just look at the stuff coming down from head office and ask, why doesn’t management do something about who comes in? They had been experiencing a decline in their relationship with customers who had been the only prospects for their enforced sales-talk.

Management’s job is to act on the system. Post Office managers need help to know what that means.

Audit Commission not dead yet

A reader writes:

‘You may already have seen this, but I’ve just read it and, in the words of Victor Meldrew, ‘I don’t beelieeve it!’ – still focusing on how you dice, slice and ‘manage’ people to ‘improve productivity’!’

The article referred to is here: http://www.local.gov.uk/lgv2/core/page.do?pageId=1174614

When I give evidence to the select committee my main point will be that the Audit Commission, working as an instrument of Whitehall, coerced compliance with bad ideas. As it dies it should be muzzled.

I’m speaking at a Lean event!

Well I couldn’t resist the invitation. Scotland has been doing a lot of lean as it has been promulgated as worthy by their ‘improvement’ service. I speak as the final key-note. I intend to listen all day, in particular to spot the things the audience finds plausible and then to… well, you know…

Information here: http://leangovernment.holyrood.com/agenda

Back to Sweden

At the end of the month I return to Sweden. The Swedish publisher of ‘Freedom from Command and Control’ has joined forces with the largest business school to organise two events. On my last visit I talked about public-sector work, this time private-sector.

For Stockholm 30th March

For Göteborg, 31st March:

Derby action-learning programme

The highly successful Derby action-learning programme has places available on the next two programmes. Dates for the next: Wednesday 16 March, Wednesday 13 April and Tuesday 17 May. Then another on Wednesday 18 May, Wednesday 15 June and Wednesday 13 July.
To book: http://www.derby.ac.uk/dbs/systemsthinking?csId=&courseQuery=systems+thinking

A date for your diary

26th May, the second day of the Deming Forum, will feature two profound examples of the Vanguard Method in action: the amazing story of materials supply from Portsmouth and giving up targets and all that in financial services. I’ll be there, will you?