A ‘germ theory’ moment

Sad to report that yours truly bombed, presenting to a small group of county council chief executives. In spite of showing that I understood their objections before giving my responses (and the objections were, for example: ‘this is theology’ (!), ‘you say everything else is wrong’, ‘it won’t work with children’s services’ (too complex), ‘it only works for widgets’, ”lean’ works fine’), each objection was followed by another, nobody engaged. It was, in Vanguard-speak a real ‘germ theory’ moment.

Germ theory is an analogy used by Myron Tribus in a brilliant paper. In it he argues that telling managers their theory of management is flawed is akin to telling field surgeons their methods were killing people (which they were). It is a paper we use when teaching consultants, I have posted it in the articles section of the web site.

On reflection, I did start by remarking that as the Tories have just hired the ‘factory’ gurus from the current reform regime, we must ask: why do we believe in economy of scale? Their answers, having pulled some teeth, were pathetic and I said so. Clearly not a good move; especially when, as one of my pals pointed out, they were probably sitting on proposals for factories as part of the current round of ‘efficiency savings’.

Onward and upward

Chastened by that experience, I toddled on to the Chief Fire Officer’s conference.  The organisers were pleased; their audience was the biggest ever and, apparently, I was the ‘draw’.

The Fire and Rescue Service has been completely ‘done over’ by the regime. It is as though the children in Whitehall piled up all their horrid ideas and dumped the lot on this service, all at once. Economy of scale, standardisation, new structures (to ensure the work is fragmented but also open to out-sourcing), self-assessment (groan), the Audit Commission (ugh) and a bureaucracy of planning and risk assessment (groan some more). That’ll do it.

And while we are on risk assessment, did anyone have the volcano in their risk assessments? Ha! Risk Assessment, a current fad, is such a waste of time.

In preparation for my talk I had been to look at the fire and rescue service, so as well as talking about the flaws in the regime’s thinking, I discussed with the audience what they ought to study to get knowledge of the system and, hence, improve it. It was a great experience, constructive, robust and fun.

One of the most galling things I discovered, the regime did this with attitude: ‘If you don’t change we’ll change you’. I have to take my hat off to Dr Phyllis Starkey MP, who chaired the Select Committee, for publishing a series of damning critiques of the regime’s destruction of this service delivered with an unhelpful and arrogant attitude. It places the blame where it should be.

Then I toddled off to Sweden, where no less than 250 people turned up for the Swedish book launch. As regular readers know the Swedes have been going mad on ‘lean’ tools and Swedes are interested in understanding what went wrong; again, a constructive and energising experience.

Although I am entirely responsible for bombing with the chief executives, I quickly got over how it felt.

‘Deliverology’ to deliver misery in California

I went to California; where I was asked by the California Faculty Association (union for university teachers) to debunk deliverology, which I did with pleasure.  It amused me to be in Los Angeles, the home of Mickey Mouse as in the public-sector book I described deliverology as mickey-mouse command and control. My presentation has been posted on the web: http://vimeo.com/11327874

Leaving children behind

My argument – as ever – in California was that change should start with studying the system. I have never studied an education system but I talked about the things that one might study to get started. An academic sent me a paper, written by people who have studied the school system. It is a shocking tale of central directives working against the purpose.

US schools have been subjected to a programme of change called ‘No child left behind’. In short, it led to an excessive focus on standardised tests, narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test (training not education) and, inevitably, demoralisation of the teaching staff.

You can read the paper here: http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/a_blueprint_that_needs_more_work/

Part of this programme made States compete for funding. The same authors show how those who won funding were selected arbitrarily; a shocking use of pseudo-science to drive an ideology. This report can be read here: http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/BP263/

It shouldn’t be called ‘no child left behind’; it should be called ‘all our children worse off’.

Care services: a system problem

As the reader who sent this remarked, this is a brilliant article on the damage caused to care services by the system:


Special versus common cause

I heard a teacher talking about the regime on the radio. He acknowledged that some teachers might not the best but made the point that the regime treats every teacher as needing to be commanded and controlled, it vilifies all of them. Instead of solving a problem the regime created a much bigger problem.

It occurred to me that this a perennial mistake made by the regime; treating special causes as common causes.  The Fire and Rescue Service regional control centres were planned in response to 9/11. Requirements for a special cause are now set to dominate the design of day-to-day work (if the centres ever open). Big mistake. Shocking failures in children’s protection caused the regime to demonise and demoralise all social workers, making them comply with a bureaucratic IT system that will ensure more children are put at risk. Also, as I explained in the book, ‘Every Child Matters’ – a specifications and inspection industry foisted on anyone who works with children – ensures that those children who do matter will get neglected as we treat all children as if they are at risk.

Treating a special cause as a common cause is tampering on massive scale. UK readers get their chance to hold people accountable this Thursday, but we shouldn’t have to wait for an election to get our politicians to listen to evidence.

Avoidable contact

On a lighter note, an article in Local Government Chronicle by a local authority chief executive commented on the reduction in the number of targets foisted on local authorities, in particular the dropping of ‘avoidable contact’ (which began life as ‘failure demand’, newsletters passim). He wrote:

‘In place of this form of avoidable contact, I would like to propose a target for a different form of avoidable contact. This is to reduce avoidable contact between local authorities and central government departments through the expensive and not always productive improvement industry. The best epitaph to NI 14 [avoidable contact] is that its short life heralded the end of a much more insidious form of avoidable contact.’

Here here! Maybe the incoming government will do us all the favour of getting rid of the children in Whitehall.

Witness for the Scottish Parliament

I was asked to be a ‘witness’ for a committee of the Scottish Parliament. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tell politicians what is going on the public sector in the name of ‘reform’, how systems thinking is delivering improvements that would never be considered achievable if set out in a plan, and how the regime has to change if we are to innovate.

If you have nothing better to do you can watch this on the web. The video is of a very long session which included two witness panels. The panel I joined starts at 1:16:10 on the time-line (to save your yawns):


Benefits service creates costs

As though to illustrate that Scotland has the same problems as England, this came from a reader just as I got back from there:

‘The Press & Journal (covers the whole north of Scotland from Aberdeen towards the west and north) reported that 43% (the highest) of referrals to the Highland Food Bank for emergency food supplies are due to delayed benefit payments! This has resulted in an appeal going out to all the churches in the region for supplies of food to re-stock the food bank.’

Who is responsible for the design of benefits processing? Will they ever be held to account? Scale thinking creates costs, some knowable, some unknowable. We know that the systems design for benefits processing gets all benefits processed in days, happy citizens, happy benefits staff. Flow thinking drives costs out.

No business without a customer

The scale thinkers have been bullying local authorities to share services. One variant of this is to create a factory and then offer to process other authorities’ work in them. This was the plan between Slough, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire councils. But Slough has dropped out of the project. The idea is to build a factory to deliver human resources, finance, internal audit, legal and procurement services at a lower cost to the partner authorities, while making a profit by taking on other authorities as customers.

Oh really? If it ever gets off the ground how can they know they will make savings?  I know why it won’t. But my bet is it will never fly. Think of all the others who have attempted to get other councils to hand over their work to a central resource… while the regime thinks this is a good idea, there are no customers lining up to buy it. These initiatives will fail to attract customers. And one thing I have learned in life: No customer, no business.

How much will the remaining ‘partners’ waste before they wake up?

Commissioning fails to deliver

On the other hand, where we find plenty of customers (people who need help), who are helped by voluntary agencies, the regime is ensuring they won’t get the help they need. A disturbing report with entirely predictable findings has come my way.  The new Whitehall-inspired craze for ‘commissioning’, driven by Whitehall children who think commissioning will control costs, is driving costs up.

See the report at: http://www.independentaction.net/2010/05/13/its-official-commissioning-is-bad-for-voluntary-action/

Hats off to the people who do all this campaigning; I love their slogan (dissent promotes democracy). But it is tragic that this democracy is designed for ministers not to listen.

NHS Direct leaders miss the point

News that workers in NHS Direct are demoralised and leaving ought to point leaders to the system (design a lousy job, expect lousy behaviour and expect people to leave).  The leaders announced that this situation is ‘wholly unacceptable’ as though it has nothing to do with them!

Instead of understanding the causes of the problem (and these will be to do with the way work is designed and managed – the leaders’ responsibility), leaders in NHS Direct are planning to (a) comb the list of absentees for really bad ‘uns who will be eased out and (b) find other bad ‘uns whose ‘attendance performance’ will be managed. Just like Lesley Strathie, the new boss of HMRC, they don’t realise that the morale problem is a symptom. Managing symptoms doesn’t solve problems.

See the news at: http://www.ehiprimarycare.com/news/5846/nhs_direct_staff_sickness_%27unacceptable%27

The next big thing

A reader writes:

‘Quality Digest has gone to the dark side, leading with absolute nonsense about lean six sigma. I love the first paragraph, which breathlessly talks about ‘billions of dollars of bottom line impact’–I went to the footnotes and found the source as two articles from…. Six Sigma Forum Magazine. Wow, what a surprise. The **** just keeps piling up higher and higher.’

He sent me a link to an article but it had been moved, so I searched the web site for ‘the next big thing’. I got no less than 587 ‘next big things’.

Made me laugh, anyway.

In-house job for systems thinker

Stockport Council is looking for an experienced systems thinker, who must be competent with the Vanguard Method, to join their transformation team. You would be joining a team that has already achieved much and is working to achieve more. Anyone interested in this position will find all the relevant details at: www.stockport.gov.uk/jobs .  Closing date 7th May.


Seddon speaks

I shall be at the Deming Forum on 12/13 May. If you want to come along, email info@vanguardconsult.co.uk for a brochure and booking form.

I am also speaking at the following events in the next few months:
CIPFA Audit Conference – 18th May, Manchester. For more: http://seminars.cipfa.org.uk/events/auditconf/
WLGA – 17th June, Llandudno. For more: http://www.wlga.gov.uk/english/events/wlga-annual-conference-17th-june-2010/
NLGN/LGC Conference – 24th June, London. No details available yet.
Centre for Public Scrutiny- 1st July, London. For more: http://www.tcp-events.co.uk/cfps2010/index.html
APSE – 9th September, Derry, Northern Ireland. For more: http://www.apse.org.uk/service-awards/index.html

Vanguard events coming up

Process Mapping and Analysis for Performance Improvement
Thursday 6th May, Bewleys Hotel, Manchester Airport
For information and bookings: info@vanguardconsult.co.uk

Vanguard Network South West: Making It Happen – How to do Systems Thinking Change
Wednesday 5th May, Upton Country Park, near Poole
For information and bookings: info@vanguardconsult.co.uk

Counterintuitive Knowledge: A Systems View of Housing Management
Thursday 13th May, Novotel, Cardiff
Tuesday 22nd June, Hotel Du Vin, Brighton
For information and bookings: info@vanguardconsult.co.uk