UK disease adopted down under

The delay in the arrival of this month’s newsletter is due to me being down under for the last few weeks. Unfortunately the public sectors in Australia and New Zealand have been duped into believing that the UK model for public sector reform has worked. But the good news is the Australians have a tendency not to stick with things that are palpable rubbish, being of a rather pragmatic and blunt nature, and New Zealand is small enough for people to talk to each other when the inevitable nonsense occurs, as it has.

In Australia they have gone the whole hog, creating their equivalent of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit – a misnomer for it doesn’t deliver anything; it ought to be called the Prime Minister’s Coercion Unit. The architect of the Unit, Michael Barber, invented what he calls ‘deliverology’. It is Mickey Mouse command and control. That is being generous to him and probably unfair to the Mouse. In essence deliverology means deciding what priorities the politicians have, turning these in to targets and monitoring achievement. Plausible but dumb. No notion of the system’s capability, no realisation that the setting of targets will distort the system. We have seen first-hand how this sort of intervention merely creates bureaucracies to feed the (dumb) system. The bureaucracies create and then hide waste; they increase rather than reduce costs and worsen service to boot.

If you read Barber’s book you learn that nothing appeared to be working over the first two years of deliverology (put that against the fact that people using the Vanguard Method achieved loads of improvement in months); then in year three things started picking up. Is this because things were improving or because people had found ways to satisfy the regime?

If you manage by targets you engage peoples’ ingenuity in the wrong way.

Target regime alive and well in Iraq

A reader writes:

‘Being a consultant in the area of intelligence/security, and by inclination a systems thinker, I noticed the following in today’s Financial Times and thought you might appreciate it. It comes from an analysis of why the British Army has ‘lost’ in Basra:

‘Sometimes [the British] actions undermined the institutions the coalition was supposed to be building, including what one general termed ‘the pragmatic use of militias’ and a focus on boosting the raw numbers of police recruits in an effort to meet targets.’

No doubt there are many such examples. No doubt too, the enemies that our forces are facing have the great advantage of not being hampered by such nonsense. It would be funny were it not tragic.’

Vanguard’s claims ‘unsubstantiated’

Readers will be aware of the current row over choice-based lettings. While conducting ‘check’ and re-design on house lettings a housing client discovered the regime’s model – being coerced into all housing organisations – is flawed; to follow the guidance means worse service and higher than necessary costs.

I have been sent copies of e-mail exchanges between players in the regime. One of those charged with promulgating the choice-based lettings model described Vanguard’s claims as ‘unsubstantiated’.

Leaving aside the fact that he has probably not studied our work, his charge caused me to reflect on what we have been doing in the public sector. All of our campaigning has been based on evidence; when we help clients study their services as systems we learn (always) that the regime’s requirements are driving in waste and it is this knowledge that informs the campaigning. Furthermore, in every case we find that the regime does not bother to evaluate its ideas except in the sense of tracking compliance.

As a student of psychology I can of course appreciate that this man’s assertion is merely the product of conflict; attributions of this nature are to be expected. But it just slows the process of doing useful things.

If you want to know all about the row over choice based lettings come to the event (see below).

Tool heads get it wrong in the NHS

I was sent a note by a systems thinker in the NHS, telling me the recent ‘Lean Healthcare Summit’ reached the following conclusion:

‘There is a lot more to Lean than tools and Rapid Improvement Events; Lean actually involves a very different approach to leadership, management and culture.’

Wrong. But it’s the kind of rationalisation tool heads make. When you change the system, culture changes automatically; it is as Deming taught, peoples’ behaviour is a product of the system. In that sense culture change is free. You change the system by helping managers learn how to act on their organisation as a system – that is what leadership is about. Management starts with changing measures, something the tool heads know little of.

People being guided by the tool heads will mistakenly invest in ‘culture change’ and the rest. They think they have these problems because they have issues with people getting engaged with using their tools and they don’t know what to do with managers. The tools don’t help people tackle questions of purpose, they are assumed to have universal application. Ohno built a system, it was (and is) a revelation. The methods he developed to solve problems he faced have been codified as tools by the tool heads. They assume the tools can be applied to any system. In assuming that, they miss the first requirement: to understand the work as a system.

Ohno insisted we should never codify method (write tools). He could foresee the consequences.

Writing about success

The last two newsletters have generated a lot of correspondence on the question of whether I should write about success – how people are achieving significant results using the Vanguard Method. My disinclination to do so stems from my knowledge that success is achieved from changing thinking, and talking about success is not the way to do that.

If you describe success people may copy what others have done without understanding it. Hence they would, ultimately, fail. Deming was clear on the risks of copying without knowledge. Often people visit clients who are using the Method; but everything they ‘see’ will be fitted into the way they currently think. They will choose to cherry-pick the things that appeal and leave aside the things they find too tricky (or don’t like). Ohno was very clear on the folly of industrial tourism. Everything you need to know to improve your own system is right there in your system, if you know how to look. It is when you learn to look that your thinking changes, you have to see it for yourself.

Quite a number of correspondents who were encouraging me to publish more about success came from BT. Within BT is an ‘experiment’ which we left behind more than four years ago. Their own evaluation of the experiment was that it would have reduced operating costs by a huge amount if implemented across the whole function. Why did it not go forward? Because the client ignored my advice not to talk about it; he, like others, assumed talking about it and encouraging tourism would generate ‘buy-in’; it does not. Talking about systems designs with command-and-control thinkers creates trouble. It is a problem of two ways of thinking sharing a common language.

I have to take my hat off to the workers, for they have resisted all managerial attempts to go back to ‘normal’. They are able to do so because their results put all other geographies in the shade. A recent conversation with a BT person revealed managers are having trouble with the design because they can’t fit it into their ‘numbers’. Which is exactly the problem; their numbers were the causes of waste and had to be removed. Managers just don’t get it.

So the bottom line: I shall continue to do what I do with the newsletter. Its purpose is to bang on about perspective – thinking – for it is thinking that matters. Having said all that, those readers who want success stories can come to our events. I am planning a big event on public sector successes for early 2008; you will be able to drown yourself in success stories (and you’ll get a good dose of perspective too!).