Please write to the minister

Mr Miliband, the minister for local government, has announced that ‘CPA’ – the current public sector regulatory regime is to cease. His new idea is to replace it with something that is more customer-focused. I imagine his ministry’s walls are covered with flip charts surrounded by bright young things working out how to translate the minister’s big ideas (‘citizens design services’ ‘empowered communities’ and so on) into practical things to do. Already the public sector press is full of doubts about whether this new initiative, which the minister calls ‘double devolution’ will produce
substantive action.

The way it works is the minister consults with everyone, but of course many of these people and institutions are part of the problem; certainly it is difficult for many to envisage a world that is completely outside their current frame of reference (you can’t solve today’s problems with the thinking that created them).

I have written a letter of advice to the minister. It is an open letter. As the minister thinks policy should be decided by counting heads, I want you to make your voice heard, especially if you work in the public sector and most especially if you are using the Vanguard Method. Please read the open letter at:

Then if you are moved to write to the minister (and I really hope you do) his address is:
David Miliband MP
Minister of Communities and Local Government
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
Eland House
Bressenden Place

His e-mail:

The first step is unlearning

I had the pleasure of visiting two financial services clients where they have made the change to a systems approach to the design and management of work. No matter how many times I have experienced it before there is an enormous pleasure in witnessing people engaged with their work, solving problems, cooperating with each other and proud of their achievements. You get a buzz just being there.

At the same time I received an e-mail from someone working in financial services who had been doing some good things to connect team leaders with the work, studying demand, helping people handle more demand at the point of transaction and so on. But for her something was missing, the kinds of changes I talk about just were not there. I asked if the measures had changed; they had not.

We have found the pre-requisite to learning is unlearning; you have to get knowledge about how the current system – and measures are central to it – is undermining performance, something managers find challenging.

I think this is the reason some people have a problem with Vanguard. Life is much easier when you think change can be achieved with a few tools. No unlearning required.

Instead of unlearning managers pursue the wrong things

A good example of managers chasing the wrong agenda came from a reader. Managers of field engineers, who go out to customers to fix things, are pre-occupied with engineer productivity. It has become very common for managers to buy ‘work scheduling systems’, IT that allocates work to engineers, the idea being this will improve productivity and response times. The reader writes:

“I had an interesting conversation today with an engineer from [name withheld to protect the guilty], the people who come out to fix your boilers, kitchen appliances etc under a service contract. Today the engineer fixed my washing machine problem and then he updated the job on his wireless laptop and I mentioned what a handy bit of kit he had, which started a conversation about a new system that his managers are introducing. It is a mobile phone based job allocation system and it is based on a new piece of software. The thinking behind the system appears to be ‘the right engineer in the right place at the right time’. The system will allocate a new job to an engineer via mobile phone when they have finished the last one. This sparked my interest and I asked the guy if this would be easier for him but he said no. Engineers, he said, were up in arms about it saying that it would not work. So I asked why. The reason was that the system seems to update itself every 20 minutes so it could take that length of time for a new job to come down the wire to you. It also appeared to the engineer to be double his admin since he would now have to update the phone and the laptop instead of taking all the jobs from the lap top first thing in the morning.

I put it to him that if he was working one job at a time wouldn’t it be an advantage for the customer, since he would be under no pressure to get to the next job and take as long as required to get to the next job when the last was finished? The engineer said no. From the engineer’s point of view they did not trust that the system would be able to allocate the jobs out and get them all done in a day. Knowing in advance what had to be done in a day allowed the engineer the ability to order their day and to adapt if things were not going to plan – phoning back to the office, calling up other engineers to help out etc. The strength of feeling amongst the engineers was pretty strong, so concerned were they about the ability of the system to deliver, that they were all going to work to their contracted hours to ensure that they were not penalised with extra work when the system could not manage the days work in the time allowed.

We can’t tell of course what the motivation of the management is.” Oh I’m sure we can, they want more productivity out of their engineers. But they won’t get it. Every such system Vanguard people have studied has had to be removed because the IT ‘tampers’ with the performance, yes it actually makes it worse (I gave an example of this phenomenon in my book). And the reader was on he mark as to why. He wrote:

“Right engineer right job right time’ sounds a little like slick spin on what could otherwise be an allocation system run by a computer without human intervention.”

The heart of the problem is no rules will ever be able to deal with the variety offered by the customers’ demands, that needs people and that is why all Vanguard interventions with such systems return to having the engineers make decisions about the work, the results, because in a system design engineers have control over much more, are always astonishing.

When ‘lean’ is mean

Staff at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) held a one-day strike in protest at being reduced to ‘robots’. Management had, with the help of consultants, introduced what they described as ‘lean’ working methods; instead of handling a variety of tasks workers were now organised to work in discrete functions.

This kind of work specialisation is fundamentally the wrong thing to do. It is not ‘lean’ at all, but you can see how it would appeal to managers – define work as a number of discrete types, each type will then have it’s own standard time, workers can then be ‘managed’. Hah!

Managers will be sitting in their offices paying attention to work queues, backlogs, allocating workers to work types and giving workers grief for deviations from standard times. The managers will be oblivious to the waste created by the design. I will bet any money you like that following customer demands through this kind of system will reveal a ‘spaghetti’ flow; as with the example of the engineers above, these kinds of designs stop the system absorbing variety, the key to service ‘lean’. But this is the kind of nonsense that appeals to command-and-control thinkers. They think they are doing ‘lean’ when they are actually perpetuating a worse command and control, mass-production system.

Making numbers, not serving customers

By coincidence I received a mail from one of HMRC’s customers:

“I recently left the UK, and having submitted the relevant forms to claim a tax refund on the 2005 tax year, patiently waited for the monies to flow freely though to my bank. Of course, it didn’t happen. So having tried to find an international email support contact (without any luck) I scribed a letter to the UK office that handles international matters.

Foolishly, perhaps in a rush, I omitted my first two alpha characters from my National Insurance numbers. In my letter I provided my telephone number and email address in case of further contact. I received a letter two weeks later pointing out my error and without an email or telephone contact on the letter. So I concocted another letter and suffered snail mail service. In my letter I raged asking why the IR couldn’t use a basic IT system field search facility to flag up my NI number, and asked why email couldn’t have been used to contact me quicker. Anyhow, due to snail mail and lack of the use of gray matter, this dragged out the process far longer then needed.”

As we learned from the story above these people are being managed by activity measurement. In such circumstances people do what they have to do to meet their activity targets (write a letter) rather than solve a customer problem. It matters little that solving the problem would take less time. As the reader says:

“A few points regarding end user service: If the customer requests a tax refund and fills in the salient tax forms, then give them the service they require (i.e. a tax refund payment). If the customer provides faster more efficient contact details….then use it. Why do the civil servants have to make the end-to-end process so damned difficult? Is it true that hat stands are provided to hang the brain at the start of the working day, which is then collected on the way out?”

It would of course be cheaper (and better service) if the HMRC people could just do that – provide the service the customer wants, but first managers need to learn how to manage that kind of system, and the minister isn’t helping in that regard. As with all government agencies ministers are driving the ‘improvement’ agenda.

NHS joins the tools bandwagon

An NHS reader writes:

“It is clear that the management factory eggheads remain firmly entrenched by their latest, frightening, initiative ‘combining’ lean and six sigma! I couldn’t think of anything more likely to exhaust, frustrate, bore and defeat all well-intentioned folks in the NHS. And they think they are going to involve our demoralised staff with this kind of complex, deluded, overblown rubbish!”

He had sent me a document produced by some quango on ‘lean six sigma’; it wouldn’t have gotten a pass grade from me. Another reader writes:

“Seeing Six Sigma promoted in the health Service makes my heart sink. Being new to the NHS and an ex engineer I’ve seen what a mess Six Sigma makes of normally good businesses. For a number of years I worked as a product manager for a supplier to [name withheld] and saw them swallow the six-sigma bait hook line and sinker. Simple cost saving ideas suddenly took ages to bring in as they had to go through the sausage machine and the benefits were held up as proving that six sigma worked. Er no it just delayed implementing cost savings….”

I do hope the NHS people who are enthused with this nonsense take the time to read “Watch out for the tool heads” available at: To promote manufacturing tools as though they have general applicability won’t help where the help is needed, changing the system.

One lean ‘guru’ says ‘lean’ might help them achieve their 18-week target. Fool. The target itself is a major system condition that will be causing waste.

The management factory ruins your health

The NHS is (again) in crisis. Cost overruns mean people are being made redundant. Just like the private sector, who gets to go? The people who do the work. It is no wonder the Secretary of State for Health got booed by the nurses at their recent conference.

To cut costs the minister is also cutting the number of strategic health authorities from 28 to 10. That might be at least doing less of a bad thing but the upheaval and establishment of the new reporting structures will place a burden on the place where the work is done. The minister hopes new ‘foundation hospitals’, which will work on the basis of payment by results, will do the trick. But the truth is they are not paid by results, they are paid by activity; another way of ensuring the system’s costs will go up (again such cost management stops the system absorbing variety). And finally, the minister is bringing us patient choice, which means being able to go somewhere else if your hospital can’t fit you in. Is this a ‘choice’?

The money is being spent on IT

The minister’s £6.2bn NHS computer system has hit a snag. Accenture is blaming iSoft for delays in the delivery of software. While Accenture blames iSoft a spokesman for the NHS suggested the fault lies with Accenture. He was reported as saying he was ‘surprised’ by Accenture’s decision to call the delays to the project ‘recent developments’ given that iSoft warned about them two months ago. He stressed that it is Accenture’s responsibility as ‘prime contractor’ to manage the delivery of services.

I have to say I told you so. [See Vanguard News November 2004] Getting IT companies to work together is only one of the problems with this ‘solution’ when the rubber finally hits the road we will see the others I forecast.

More on ministerial targets

Charles Clark, secretary of state for the Home Office has been in trouble because his department has been letting foreign criminals out of jail without deporting them. The news media are focussing on his failures to do something about it when he first knew (last year) and not telling the Prime Minister as soon as he should have. What the news media appears to have ignored is the little-reported fact that workers in the Home Office had been told NOT to deport these people, as they would be likely to claim asylum – and that would jeopardise the Prime Minister’s target on asylum seekers.

And concerning the find of a dead swan infected with bird flu, a reader writes:

“Ministers are considering bringing in targets to regulate the time between reporting a dead bird and tests being completed. That’ll do it! I will sleep easy tonight.”

Pay for ‘performance’ in the police

A police reader writes:

“Superintendents’ pay is performance-related, based on so-called performance figures decided by government. The current basis is volume crime so every Superintendent has a performance objective related to volume crime figures for the force, never mind how tenuous the link or non-existent the influence of a post. It was said at one planning meeting that to meet the targets (and hence the performance pay figures) for volume crime, which includes things like theft from vehicles, minor criminal damage, etc., the force would have to pay less attention to serious crime as the effect of detecting serious crime was barely noticeable on the overall figures.

Your comment about focussing on the rewards, not the work, is entirely correct and you can see this reflected in the performance measures against targets that are plastered over most police stations.”


“Freedom from Command and Control” – coming soon on DVD

Despite enormous technical issues last October’s ‘show’ is soon to become available on DVD. As a newsletter subscriber I would like to offer you the DVD at a pre-publication special price of £30 (includes shipping to anywhere). The selling price will be £45. To buy at this price you need to contact Polly: (