So how do you like the book?

Indulge me. It is two weeks since the book (“Freedom from Command and Control”) became available and I have no idea what the readers think about it. If you’ve read it I’d value your feedback.

The man from the Audit Commission

A few days ago I did what I like to call a gig in London. At the after-show drinks people told me I was fortunate to have the new chief executive of the Audit Commission in the audience. They pointed him out to me. As he went to leave I made eye contact, he avoided me assiduously.

I can’t help reflecting on why. If you had a job like that and you had heard someone make the case that there is no method for setting a target, targets always sub-optimise performance and using capability measures gets you results you could never have conceived as targets – then wouldn’t you be just a tad curious or at least want to defend your position (he said when taking office that targets were an integral pert of the improvement regime)?

In the show I gave examples of local authority services that had achieved incredible improvements using Vanguard methods. Any other local authority could achieve the same, not by copying, but by following the method (it is the method that teaches the thinking). Those that do are beset with a new problem: persuading Audit Commission inspectors some of the things they want to see actually undermine performance. Isn’t this something that should preoccupy the chief executive of the Audit Commission?

Why wasn’t he curious?

BSI must be desperate

A reader sent me a press release put out by BSI. It says the Ministry of Defence (MOD) expects all suppliers to get up-graded to the new Standard or risk losing business. I know, from the time I have spent in debates, there are people in the MOD who have doubts about ISO 9000’s contribution to performance. It is time for those who have doubts to speak up. The first question they should ask their bosses is: Why is it that BSI is speaking on our behalf?

BSI must be desperate.

Managers fire the wrong people

Many newsletter readers wrote to me about the 118118 debacle. For those who didn’t see it: managers of the new directory enquiries service gave staff an incentive to get low average handling times; the staff cheated, giving out wrong numbers, cutting customers off and so on. The managers fired some culprits and the regulator went in to regulation overdrive. No one seems to be talking about the real problem – incentivising behaviour. Whenever you provide a contingent incentive – do this to get that – workers focus on getting that, not doing this. Maybe the only answer is to outlaw incentives; certainly managers need to be controlled, even sacked. This is not a worker problem.

Managers need to know what to work on instead – to be useful to the system – isn’t that their job? Plenty of answers in my new book (a plug I know).

No need to cheat and lie

A reader writes:

“I work for XXX and in May we underwent a lean intervention” (He is referring to an intervention conducted by internal consultants using the Vanguard methods). “During this time I also read your book “I want you to cheat”. One of the work groups my staff are conducting is around communication and motivation. We had an interesting comment back: ‘Instigate a form of recognition where we get rewarded for great service / actions, not how many calls I take etc, as I’ll find a way to cheat!’ The system acting on the people… We presented to our customer on Wednesday and they also want to get rid of KPIs and focus measurement on capability based on the end users purpose. Lean management theory has changed a lot of our lives here. I no longer come to work and have to lie. Thank you.”

It is testament to the fact that along with improvements to service and efficiency, a Vanguard intervention improves morale. So why isn’t everyone doing it? (I think you know the answer). By the way, “I want you to cheat” is still on sale too (!)

The lean service machine

An article titled “The lean service machine” appeared in the Harvard Business Review, October issue, in the ‘tools’ section. It got the Vanguard community excited. But not from the point of view of putting lean service on the map. Everyone in the Vanguard community had issues with the method of intervention. In a nutshell it relegated lean to process improvement: ‘how do we get them to do it?’

For me the heart of the problem was the use of the idea of takt time – an essential ingredient in the Toyota system. Describing the demand for new policies in an insurance company as dictating a required takt time (we have X policy applications coming in, so to handle them all we should do them in Y minutes) is a big mistake, very dumb actually. The better place to start is with knowledge about the system’s current demand and capability. Instead the intervention set the required ‘target’ and had people experiment with ways to get there.

That they got improvement is testament to the extent of sub-optimisation caused by command and control design. But the intervention never set out to change the system and was all the more limited because of that.

In the Toyota system takt time is used to ‘pull’ production through the system. To use it to ‘push’, as the author does, is to stay in the command and control paradigm. The consequence will be sub-optimisation. In service
systems you need to learn to design against demand. Because of the inherent variety in demand any application of takt time as a standard will only sub-optimise the system. Takt time is irrelevant.

Capability measures are of far greater value. But these challenge management thinking. The author of “The lean service machine” did not challenge management thinking. But maybe that’s the best way to sell to the American market.

I’ve never taught a tool in my life

It irks me that ‘lean’ is sold as ‘tools’. Managers love to buy things to ‘get them to do it’. I have never taught a tool in my life. Recently Steve Parry – the man who has transformed Fujitsu Services using Vanguard methods said:

“If you want to understand what makes lean successful, you won’t find your answer in the techniques used. Quite simply, lean is a philosophy based on a new management theory and requires no new tools. Unless the management theory is understood and has modified your thinking about how to design build and operate organisations then the lean programme will not meet its full potential. I do wish the lean community would drop their obsession with techniques and tools, without a change in thinking and an understanding of theory they only end up doing the wrong things righter and not realise they need to be doing something completely different.

Organisations that purport to ‘do lean’ who just sell techniques are basically charlatans and snake-oil salesmen ….”

Here here. But it gets them in the Harvard Business Review.

The Magician

A reporter from Housing Today watched me do a gig in York for the Northern Housing Consortium. He wrote an article about it, calling me ‘The Magician’. I have to say it made me laugh. Here is how the article starts:

‘They won’t know what’s hit them.’ A Northern Housing Consortium player is rubbing his hands with glee. Then a frown crosses his face: ‘As long as he doesn’t bloody swear.’ The subject of his concern, John Seddon, is pacing the banqueting hall of York racecourse with a smooth and vaguely menacing stride, long arms locked behind his back and a swimming pool-blue shirt unbuttoned at the neck. The 51-year-old consultant has already made a name for himself in the private sector as a maverick trouble shooter for suffering services; he may be a relative unknown in the world of housing now, but all that is about to change.

The moment Seddon, founder and managing director of Vanguard Consulting, is introduced to the crowd in York he leaps off the stage to stride among the 200 or so housing professionals who have gathered for a conference on performance management. Well over six feet tall, he cuts a dramatic figure, sweeping through the crowd and throwing his arms in the air to emphasise his points. He is talking, as he often does, about the link between performance and customer service: according to Seddon, housing – and the public sector in general – just don’t get it. ‘The government insists on targets, but they are arbitrary, measuring the wrong things and set by people who have little clue what they mean or how they will help people to deliver better public services,’ he says to an audible gasp from the audience.

You can get the article
Or you can e-mail and ask for a copy of “The Magician”

I hope it makes you laugh too.