A bout of depression

This newsletter is a bit late because I had difficulty finding the energy to write it. I have been writing a book about the failure of the public sector’s ‘reform’ regime and the negative assumptions about human nature that lie behind the regime’s philosophy got to me. It really is depressing. The regime believes public servants won’t act in the public interest but instead act only in their own self-interest; the notion of the public servant as a professional is ridiculed; the regime believes public servants need coercing with targets, challenging with private-sector provision, markets and choice, and they need to be incentivised to act in the public interest. It is a bleak view of human nature and one which I think will only stir up what Jung thought of as the dark underbelly of humanity. What’s depressing is remembering Jung’s description of how this phenomenon leads to destructive behaviour and, ultimately, social breakdown.

But I got over it. I spent a day doing some early planning for event on systems thinking in the public sector and was struck by the breadth and depth of the work – there is so much going on in spite of the regime. Aside from the results, about which people are rightly proud, the impact of working this way on morale is palpable. It restored my energy.

I’m feeling better now – don’t send cards!

The Vanguard Village

We want to run an event that is not ‘just a conference’. When you have to sit through a conference you can’t leave the room if the speaker is boring the pants off you and you can’t pursue the issues that matter to you until the format allows you to, if at all. So we were looking for a different way to deliver the content.

One event that is always fun is a country show. Lots going on: things to walk around and places where things will happen at appointed times. You can follow your own interests and move whenever it suits you. So we thought we’d do the same with this event. The Vanguard Village will have presentations from practitioners (of course), but you’ll be able to move away without disturbing anyone; you’ll be able to cruise around places where essentials are explained (what you learn from ‘check’, re-design and so on) and if you want to know more someone will be there to help; you’ll be able to explore the philosophy as well as the practice; you’ll have places where you can just chat to practitioners, experts and other visitors, and you’ll get the Vanguard view on Varney, Shared Services and all the rest of the nonsense associated with the current regime. Maybe we’ll roast a pig!

When we have a date (probably March) we’ll let you know.

Learning from industrial tourism

A housing manager and practising systems thinker was invited to a day’s industrial tourism with a contractor who professed to be using systems thinking. One of their leaders (falsely) claimed to have worked for Vanguard; they were looking to attract business using systems thinking as the USP.

The first thing the tourist noticed was the ease with which he could tell managers from workers. He was unimpressed with what he called the ‘hard sell’ at the start of the day (systems thinkers value pull not push) and when he got to looking at their work design he started wondering if he was doing the right thing back home. But as the visit went on his conviction that their design was all wrong strengthened – he realised he knew things they didn’t despite working with systems thinking for only nine months. He could see waste they were unaware of. The icing on the cake was being presented with copious volumes of capability charts. He wrote:

“I upset them when (I don’t know if you are the same when you see capability charts, but I’m like Homer Simpson drawn to the doughnuts) I asked why there where two large peaks on a chart, and received mumblings of derision. I just can’t help it, but the spikes always have meaning and usually a good storey connected to them, usually around failure to do something right. Didn’t get a proper answer, just comments that they thought somebody that understood systems thinking wouldn’t ask that sort of question.”

He went on to say:

“The experience was very worth while, if not rewarding in a traditional sense. Looking at others can reinvigorate your drive with clearly showing you how not to do things. The hardest thing is keeping your mouth shut.”

It is becoming a bit of a problem. Having created a market there are many pretenders. The problem is only systems thinkers can spot them.

Mind-numbing logic driven by the regime

A local authority reader writes:

“Discussions were taking place to reduce the number of front line housing benefit staff as very few ‘customers’ came to see them. Why? This is because the Customer Information Point (CIP) staff saw the customers, and then got the answer by asking the benefits staff for the information and then passed those answers on to the customer (who, no doubt, had to come another day for the information). Some innocent at this meeting asked why not let the customers go straight to the benefit staff? (It must so long since we did this that some young people think we have always had CIPs). The reply was immediate: ‘that’s what the CIPs are there for, and anyway if each directorate did their own thing they would not contribute financially to support the CIPs.’

This mind numbing logic is embedded in government-funded designs. No thought here of the pain and misery of late/underpaid/overpaid benefits. No nagging doubts that giving the benefit interview to non-qualified staff may increase benefit fraud. That’s what is scary, the absolute certainty these managers have that no-one will ever discover or be bothered they got it wrong, except of course the customer.

Come the revolution!!”

It’s coming.

New procedures for persistent complainers

A systems thinker working in a local authority writes:

“The Local Government Ombudsman has suggested that councils adopt policies for dealing with unreasonably persistent complainants?!

In my current role I have the task of dealing with the ‘triple failure demand system’ we call the corporate complaints process! Most likely it is the third time a customer has told us we have failed to do something or to do something right for them. If they don’t like the answers they get from Step 1 of the process they can go to Step 2 of the process (probably the fourth contact) where someone else tells them again, why what we told them the first time was right!…..this does not lead to happy customers as we use the process to excuse inaction or incorrect action against the current policy framework we have in place, not to fix the customer’s problem or understand root cause, fix the process and prevent others from having the same experience (the reason many people complain, so we can learn!).

No wonder then that today I am passed a copy of a policy on unreasonable complaint behaviour and unreasonably persistent complainants. These are apparently people who keep on raising the same issue, in the hope that something will be done about it…… hmmm…..I am left thinking why were these complaints not solved immediately, what is happening with Local Government services to make this an issue now, and as the system is driving their persistent behaviour perhaps we should at least address that! To quote from the policy ‘If the complaint has been concluded and the complainant is simply refusing to take no for an answer, the Council has the option of ending all communication with the complainant.’ – That will fix it!

We have found that the number of complaints we receive in the corporate complaints process continues to fall the more systems we review, perhaps that should be our policy for unreasonably persistent complainants – don’t create them in the first place!”

The system and behaviour

A Deming student writes:

“I read your newsletter each month with much enjoyment, and although I believe that you have a rocket brand of rhetoric, I also agree with a great many of the premises upon which your arguments are based.

I have a question that I would like to ask you. In your latest newsletter in the section entitled ‘Tool heads get it wrong in the NHS’ you state that ‘When you change the system, culture changes automatically; it is as Deming taught, peoples’ behaviour is a product of the system.’

Now although I do not disagree with the statement, I feel that it is somehow incomplete. I would suggest that we take something away from the people if we do not articulate a two way relationship between them and the system. I would maintain that the system is also a product of peoples’ behaviour. A social system is a product of those that work within it and also on it.

What is your opinion of this point of view?

He is right, but I asked for his patience for I want to alert managers to something they just can’t see; I think that is best done by keeping it simple. Managers wrongly spend fortunes on ‘culture change’ without knowing that their peoples’ behaviour is a product of their system. When they see people working in a systems design they think something must have been done to change the culture! All that happened is the system (the way work is designed and managed) changed. It’s a thinking thing. Culture change is free.

Command-and-control lean

In the private sector we have seen quite a growth in command-and-control ‘lean’. Standardised processes that create waste, ‘visible management’ activities that mean more steps (more waste) and the strengthening of the management factory, managing with activity data. I am sure they get away with it because they are giving managers what they want (managers think of lean as something to reduce costs – their perennial preoccupation) and, of course, there is no challenge to current thinking; indeed the interventions strengthen the command and control logic. The good news is managers start to question what has been delivered and those who get curious enough end up talking to systems thinkers.

The ‘lean’ movement started with Womack and Jones’ second book: “Lean Thinking”. In it they described the five steps to ‘lean’ and from there the tools market developed. When you read their first book (“The Machine that Changed the World”) you learn that Ohno discovered many counter-intuitive things. And it is that which is missing from the lean tools movement; no challenge to thinking, no recognition that it is the philosophy of management that has to change.

To make this point I often ask managers to ‘sell’ 5S or Value Stream Mapping to me. I write on a flip chart the things each is promised to do. Then I ask them if any of these things represent a challenge to command-and-control thinking. Of course the answer is no. The coup de grace follows, I ask them what will occur if we start a change by standardising a service design (one of the ‘benefits’ of 5S) and what occurs if we map a process without understanding demand or system conditions – both
conclusions represent major counter-intuitive ideas.


A message from the engineers

Following my note about the engineers who have declared UDI (last newsletter), the engineers sent me a message to say they now have three local managers who understand systems thinking. Good news chaps… only a few thousand more to go…