Freedom from command and control – the show

I have spent most of the summer working on the October show (6th Edinburgh, 11th London). It has been designed around four themes: ‘It’s the system stupid’ shows how the system governs performance and much of what command and control managers are doing sub-optimises the system, yes command and control management actually makes things worse. ‘Get knowledge’ is all about the Vanguard Model for check, how to understand the ‘what and why’ of performance as a system. ‘Why Ministers should get out of management’ is self explanatory (and compelling), then to finish, ‘how to get it’; what people have found it takes to get an understanding of the systems view and then get on and manage that way.

It is, I think, a powerful show. Illustrated by videos of the people who have done it. You should be there.

The doctor cannot see

A doctor wrote to the Daily Telegraph making the observation that the minister’s 48 hour appointment target was fatuous as the relationship between waiting times and appointments would always be a matter of demand, how many people want to see a doctor, and supply, the amount of doctor time vailable. We (in Vanguard) have had only limited dealings with the health service, but the little we know suggests the doctor might find everything you find in other service organisations if you know how to look.

Failure demand consuming doctor resource; failure to design against demand creating waste in flows and, hence, loads of both types of waste. The doctor should first study demand in customer terms, it might throw light on a better way to design health services.

In making his argument he shares the minister’s paradigm and it is that which is the problem.

Minister has new idea

Should we applaud the Minister from the Cabinet Office for his latest initiative for public sector reform? Instead of more targets we are now told public sector services will be evaluated on customer satisfaction indicators. Like all ministerial ideas it sounds plausible, what matters is what the customers think. But I bet those who tender and those who evaluate the tender documents will be looking to produce a bureaucracy of control. It suits their purposes, the IT supplier to lock in big spend on computers and administration and the controller to have lot of data outputs. But will this drive improvement?

The specification will face two methodological problems. Who do you ask and what questions do you ask? If you ask people who have not had a service you get unreliable data that may lead you to do the wrong things. If you ask questions dreamed up in management land you will certainly be in trouble.

The only good thing about the minister’s new initiative is that it is being promoted in recognition of the fact that targets are not working. But this won’t solve the problem.

Doing the right thing

Last year I had the good fortune to spend some time with Russ Ackoff, the American systems thinker. One of the things he talks about is ‘doing the right thing’. He says if you are doing the right thing wrongly you will still learn, but if you are doing the wrong thing, the best you can do is the wrong thing righter and, hence, you will never learn.

And so it is with measures. Managers who learn to work with system measures – measures derived from the work – always learn and, hence, always improve. Ministers and their agents, who fiddle with targets, (‘targets are not working, let’s have fewer of them’) are only doing the wrong thing righter.

The boozing problem

We have a problem in the UK: youths getting drunk and disorderly in public places. The minister responsible for pub licensing has drawn up new rules, passed the licensing responsibility to local authorities and told everyone who sells booze they must fill in the new application form or lose their licence.

It won’t surprise readers to know the form is a classic one-size-fits-all and thus creates massive waste (for example premises of all sizes have to produce plans, what value they might bring subsequently is questionable, but the costs of maintaining the database will be vast).

What many people don’t know is the new rules have, in effect, let extended opening hours in by the back door. When licensees apply they can ask for extensions to hours and if no one objects (and you have to live very near to be eligible to object) then the extensions have to be granted.

No one supports the idea of extended opening, but ministers have made it happen. They tell us, in defending their idea, that youth disorder will now be spread over time and that people attending the theatre will be pleased for the opportunity of a late glass of wine.

I ask everyone: Have you ever had a problem getting a drink? Whether you want a glass after the theatre or want to get plastered? It becomes apparent that availability of booze is not a problem.

Why don’t ministers focus on the problem? What are the causes of youth disorder?

I blame the food

Jamie Oliver, the television chef, took up the cause of school meals. Bad diet has been the consequence of out-souring school dinners. The lady who got him interested was asked when it all started. She said it was called ‘Best Value’, but, as she observed, it was only best value for the private sector suppliers, not the kids. When it all started she had to sell all her kitchen equipment and change the working practises to re-heating of food bought in from food processors.

When she rebelled, she bought back her equipment, did deals with local farmers for fresh food and found ways to encourage the children to believe it was normal to eat fresh food. Within two weeks the children showed a change of behaviour in the classroom, less hyperactivity and more concentration.

I also blame the curriculum. With the standardisation of schools curricula we have seen education being reduced to training. Teaching children to pass tests may get ‘results’ but it takes the value out of education.

Makes me want to go and get plastered….

Caulkin on leadership

Simon Caulkin wrote a piece in The Observer about measurement, citing measures of youth disorder supplied to him by a local councillor who knows useful things about good measurement. You can read the piece at:,3858,5267292-102271,00.html

At the end of the article he writes: “It’s hard for managers to accept that, from a systems perspective, their function of devising top-down financial plans and budgets is the source of all the subsequent variation with which the inhabitants of the system have to cope (or not) as best they can. What is that if not the biggest leadership issue there is?”

He is right. Leaders who have cracked this problem become different people. They remove all measures that create variation and instead use measures to help them and their people monitor and improve the services. The change of measures causes a massive cultural shift and, consequently, cuts out lots of wasted time in the budgeting process. You will see examples of such leaders and the measures they use if you come to “Freedom from Command and Control”. (A plug, I know; but hey, I resisted so far).

Beacons of insanity

Some local authorities have ‘beacon’ status. It means others are supposed to visit them to see what they do. One of our local authority clients visited a beacon site to see how they did revenues and benefits. What they learned was how to cheat the numbers, not how to improve the service.

For example, if you don’t have all the information you need about a claimant in 28 days, you can close the case. It’s good for the numbers. Why do you suppose this might be the situation? Is it to do with the claimant’s willingness to provide or the design of the system? I think you know the answer.

It’s nothing to do with us

Readers who have followed my correspondence with Mr Miliband, the minister responsible for local government, about local authorities sharing back office facilities for processing benefits, might be interested to know that the latest response is ‘it’s got nothing to do with us, take it up with the Department of Work and Pensions’.

I can point to documents where the minister is encouraging district councils to share back office services, I can point to examples they are funding. But, apparently, it has nothing to do with them.

“Freedom from Command and Control” features benefits processing. Everything you learn when you do check and how to re-design it to achieve a level of performance you would never have dreamed of as a target, but only achievable if you ignore the minister’s directives. It is a thorough indictment of what the minister has done. I shall offer the minister a free ticket.

ODPM pilots: evaluation published

This month sees publication of the evaluation report on Vanguard’s work in housing. We finished our work last Autumn. It took us four months to go in and re-design four services and it took the government a year to write about it. The public events are over-subscribed. If you want a copy of the report when it is formally available please e-mail Janice:

The report will show massive improvements in:

Repairs: Much faster end-to-end repair times (averaging less than a week), tenants much happier and the potential for six-figure efficiency gains.

Rent collection: Improvements on tenants’ first payments, cutting out waste and improving revenue, and fewer tenants in arrears.

Voids: Massive reductions in voids turnarounds, reducing cash losses by significant amounts.

And these results are common amongst Vanguard’s Housing clients. I hope the report will be a watershed making Housing regulation and inspection more accommodating of what works, for the report also shows how the minister’s specifications were part of the problem and not part of the solution.

If you do ask Janice for a copy, don’t expect it before mid September, we cannot publish it until after the launch.

Six Sigma on the wane

A reader writes:

“As an admirer of your ideas, I thought you might like to smile as you read the latest chutzpah from G.E. – Six Sigma is not enough!”

The piece says the new boss, Jeff Imeldt, seeks to turn GE’s buttoned-down ranks into a legion of innovators with a flair for creative thinking. Apparently Imeldt tells his people “you have to view these traits as critical to your long-term development. You have to change…or else you don’t have a great future at this company.”

He says: “They are giving people permission to take risks (I’m not joking)”.

Pathetic isn’t it? What stops them taking risks? The coercive culture that served as a vehicle for Six Sigma.

And another reader writes:

“I came across this article today: GE boss Jeff Imeldt is willing to face what most CEOs are still hiding from: Efficiency has come at the expense of the customer. The business press continues to cover GE’s efforts to find growth through innovation. The company once known for absolute efficiency (Six Sigma—based processes) has finally discovered that having a good product is simply not enough these days. Tightly designed, efficient processes and methods alone just don’t seem to catch a customer’s eye.’

I hate to say it, but I told you so. Six Sigma is a management-led toolbox that ‘gets them to do it’. ‘It’ being what managers want, so inevitably the plethora of projects that ensue chase management’s (erroneous) preoccupations, the biggest of which is cost-reduction. No change to the system required and that is Six Sigma’s fundamental weakness. Hence no innovation, a climate of fear and management’s preoccupation with the wrong things.

We are working in an organisation that has fully-trained Six Sigma black belts; we are teaching them the Vanguard Method. When they have got it we’ll ask them to talk to us about what they were doing with Six Sigma and compare the two. I expect it will make interesting reading.

And you’ll see it here first!

But if you want the fastest way to get up to speed with what we’ve been doing and the amazing results are clients are getting, you really have to be at “Freedom from Command and Control”.

A plug I know, I just had to do it.

Thanks for reading!