From great to outstanding

This, according to newspaper reports, is the title Tony Blair gives his speeches to audiences around the world. His agency promotes him as having transformed Britain’s public services. This language (‘great’ to ‘outstanding’) was part of the ‘deliverology’ rhetoric, invented by the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. Barber (the man who ran it) argued it delivered change in the public sector, from ‘awful’ to ‘adequate’, by command-and-control means, but to get to ‘great’, he said, they needed to find another way.

While Barber only claims they got to ‘adequate’, the ex-PM obviously believes they went past ‘great’ to ‘outstanding’. The truth is they didn’t even get to adequate, the reform regime only served to make services worse. Their method meant the bureaucracies they created learned to tell them what they wanted to hear. Barber’s creation, ‘deliverology’ warrants its own chapter in my next book, which I expect to be published early next year. (A plug, I know, and more coming!)

How not to share

A systems thinker writes:

‘I’m working in a new HR shared services function, created for a county council with the help of one of the big consultancies. The new HR shared service centre has about 100 HR people doing everything from mileage claims to contract issue. It was thought that the new centre would deal with ‘transactional’ services and be a support for the HR people in each of the directorates. We found that most of what they do is process dirty forms sent in by directorate managers who have no hope of navigating the incredibly complicated, functionalised processes and so place constant failure demands on all of the HR people, who all think the problem lies in the other HR bit or with the managers. Separating the supposedly skilled work from the supposedly transactional work is the cause of all this waste.’

It is a common problem. The big consultancies are hired to create a plan for shared services. They go around asking what phone calls can be moved to the new call centre and what administrative tasks can be centralised. The plans are all based on activity costs. Little do they realise costs are in flow, and when they create the new factories, the flow gets worse.

Tick in the box for having shared services, but costs higher and services worse. In the book I talk about the better way to share. I also talk about services that should never be shared, for to do so can only drive up costs.

Care that doesn’t care

I asked a practising systems thinker to read my chapter on social care. He wrote:

‘It’s all too familiar to me – star ratings, PIs, waiting times for assessments, the mystery ‘committee’ who must approve everything (even things that have already happened and been paid for). I find when I’m working within Care Management teams that so little of the work they have to do even relates to PIs.

It’s a brain-dead, simplistic view based on pure fantasy. I’ve mapped processes for ‘simple’ cases that have covered walls of conference rooms. There’s no PI for the client who turns up in reception needing someone to talk to, or for the long-term client who needs help moving safely into a new house, or the hours a Social Worker will spend trying to secure funding (or simply *find* a manager senior enough to approve expenditure). This is the work that the workers do because it’s what their clients need them to do – then they spend hours writing about it to cover the corporate backside. Other workers now seem to have settled into the mindset that their job is to update a Duty Spreadsheet, or to make sure every little detail is logged on the ‘Contact’ screen. They talk in terms of doing work ‘for the PIs’ and it’s really, really sad.’

It is. Social Care is an example of the targets creating a bureaucracy for reporting that also constrains the design of work. We have found you can’t re-design social care without removing the regime’s regulations. It is a service that is shocking. We fail to care for people who need help and the reason is the reform regime. This also warrants its own chapter in the next book.

HMRC staff blame ‘lean’

The latest debacle at HMRC (losing half the nation’s personal data) is causing some in HMRC to blame the ‘lean’ intervention. On radio 4’s Today programme an e-mail was read out: ‘…a new administrative system called ‘lean processing’ has gutted the organisation, taking people away from key areas…’

Yes, the debacle at HMRC features in the book. It is a lesson in the follies of the tool heads.

‘Lean’ is becoming a bad brand

HMRC is not the only ‘lean’ programme to get bad press. ‘Lean’ is being sold to command-and-control thinkers as a means to cut costs (cut headcount). The tools appear to work only because the organisations are so fragmented. But the real opportunities for significant improvement remain. People think they have ‘done it’ when they have not even started.

I took the ‘lean-service’ url a few years ago, when I was told the lean manufacturing tools people had decided they wanted to move into the service sector. It was a defence of our position in the sector, we’d been using Ohno’s and Deming’s ideas to re-design services as systems for many years and I was concerned to emphasise the differences between service and manufacturing, and the challenges to convention offered by systems thinking.

These days ‘lean’ is becoming such a bad brand that I am going to drop ‘lean-service’ and return to systems thinking. That, after all, is what Ohno’s innovation was all about. The importance of starting by understanding the work as a system is something the lean tools movement has yet to figure out, perhaps they are sufficiently seduced by the trivial ‘improvements’ they deliver. They also share their clients’ command-and-control assumptions, using targets, standard times, sorting work and electronic work management – all things that will actually increase the variation in the system. So much of what they report as improvement could be anything but. Little do they know…

Any tools interventions we can research?

I have set up a research group with a view to publishing in the academic media. We have lots of cases of systems thinking leading to profound changes but we also want to research tools interventions, to consider what was done and not done, and to discuss the differences in assumptions and methods between ‘lean’ and systems thinking. If you have experienced a tools intervention and you are prepared to have a Vanguard expert research it, I would be pleased to hear from you. Naturally the findings will be yours first, all dirty washing will remain confidential and you will have the opportunity to approve the publication.

Varney’s people a bit short on method

Some Vanguard people attended recent presentations on Sir David Varney’s proposals to create more public service factories (Varney is the prime minister’s adviser on public-sector reform). They tell me the architects don’t really have any method, instead they fall into the traps of thinking that there are ‘simple’ services that can be delivered in call centres and factories will produce economies of scale. When asked for examples of the specifics of services that are to go into factories, there were only ideas, when asked about how they were going to approach the design, no clear method emerged. I regard Varney’s proposals as a gloomy vision, plausible ideas for without foundation and plenty that ought to frighten taxpayers. He gets his own chapter too.

Is this the nuttiest target?

A systems thinker writes:

‘One of my team is married to a driving examiner. She said he is on a bonused target to fail a quota of people (equal numbers of each sex – got to be fair!). To make his target he is obliged to select people to fail and takes them on a more difficult route to make it more likely that they will fail ‘credibly’.’

The new ‘Vanguard’ target

A number of local authority people have written to me about the new government target to reduce failure demand. I am impressed at the extent of their knowledge as to why it is the wrong thing to do. Many are, apparently, writing to the Department for Communities and Local Government to tell them they have got it wrong. I doubt anything will happen. There is a chapter in the next book about the regime’s incapacity to act when it learns something is wrong. The regime is systemically incapable, so I also write about how the regime will have to change.

The two Johnnies

On 6th February next year I shall be speaking alongside John Darlington in what is called a ‘Lean Soapbox Event’ at Cardiff University.

As the blurb says: ‘John Darlington and John Seddon both have reputations for being ‘anti’ a lot of things. In this unique conversation you will find out what they are most anti and find out not only what they don’t like, but also what they like. Expect strong views!

Never mind what you think about me, John Darlington is a manufacturing expert who is worth listening to.

‘Lean’ Universities

On January 21st there is a gathering of Universities working with ‘lean thinking’. Cardiff, St Andrews and Brunel will be presenting their approaches. It will be an interesting opportunity to explore differences in method.