Going Native with John Seddon and Systems Thinking

I had the pleasure of attending a John Seddon session last night. The event was organised by the Lothian Quality Forum and held at Standard Life. It was intended to be a Q’n’A session based on John’s earlier “Show” held at the EICC in October 2005. However, since only three attendees out of about 40 had actually attended the Show, John gave us a brief summary of the Show and some excellent eye opening advice.

John’s work in the Systems Thinking domain has some overlap with the work of Mary Poppendieck who promotes Lean Software Development. Having attended Mary’s course and read some of John’s work, and now attended a session, there are definite synergies between the two. (There you go, the word “synergy” can be used for something good after all!)

John had one slide. It came from page 11 of his book, Figure P2: Changing Management Thinking. On the left hand side we saw Command and control Thinking, on the right hand side we could see Systems Thinking. John made reference to each side throughout his pitch.

If you’ve read John’s book, you’ll know about the two types of demand: value demand (which has some profit related to it) and failure demand (which ultimately is non-profit). Failure-demand manifests itself in command and control architectures in the form of meetings and reports, neither of which are able to get hold of the causes of a particular problem (despite current command and control practitioners repeatedly trying the same thing over and over again expecting a better result each time…I believe that’s one of te definitions of insanity).

“Managing people is waste of your time…management of the system leads to a paradigm change in employee behaviour”

John made good use of experts from the field, some of whom were his employees, other not. One of the experts, currently from Norwich Union, cited the story of new employee induction training. After eight weeks of training, inducted employees could only really “do” 20% of the job (in a call centre scenario). After some careful thinking, two weeks training on the 10% most common problems saw the inducted employees performance improve considerably. Of course, for the 90% of “out of the ordinary” issues, escalation to a more senior employee prove to be the solution.

Standardised procedures seem to be the panacea to all our woes; they are seem as devices that can control the work. Standardised procedures actually see costs being driven up. In fact any attempt to control an [employee’s] activity has the same negative effect (costs go up). Indeed, standardising procedures in a service industry serves only to drive costs up – they cannot handle the variety and failure-demand that is inherent. In manufacturing however, standardised procedures serve their purpose. The continued practice of standardised procedures and traditional command and control structures essentially describe a “management factory where the turkeys vote for Christmas”. Not good.

“Beware of work amplification processes, additional and/or excessive work-flow

“The fish rots from the head” – this was a quote that I was unaware of until today. And I’ve since found The Fish Rots from the Head by Bob Garratt in my local Waterstone’s (which, I note, links directly to Amazon now…). Anyway, the crux of the quote stemmed from the fact that unless the man at the top realises this fishy fact, the command and control architecture will never go away, inefficiencies will remain, employees continue to appear to the be low performers (in reality, it’s the work that is the low performer, not the employee – the employee doesn’t change, the work does). I thought that this was a great quote, it certainly explains a lot of things, putting a good analogy on to a common problem.

On the subject of outsourcing, John and I share a similar view: outsourcing means work will come back to you in some shape or form, it’s a boomerang. Of course, fans of outsourcing will tell you it works, but they fail to take into account the true end-to-end cost, they fail to consider the additional transactions and the boomerang activities that introduce costs into the system. John places considerable importance on understanding the cost of service, end-to-end. You wouldn’t want to outsource, especially if you can do it cheaper yourself.

Never codify method – traditionalists believe that solutions stem from “more tools more training”. Wrong, wrong, wrong: we should work on the problem instead of identifying or creating a tool. Improve the derived value by deriving or determining the real cause of waste (hint: meetings and reports won’t help you here).

“Economies of flow are much better than economies of scale. ” UK government office are attempting to promote economies of scale, all they are doing is driving waste into the system.

John discussed the Womack and Jones books and left us with a strong read recommendation for The Machine That Changed the World by James P. Womack

Determining predictable demand is key. Optimise. 60-70% of demand is the same thing – train against this demand, reduce the end-to-end cost. Understand Demand. Study demand, it “opens the whole system up”.

Lastly, John left us with a “selling” tip:

“Don’t try to sell Systems Thinking – rely on folks getting curious about it and wanting to learn more (by doing)”

[Thanks again to Clarke for the invite, and to his colleague Fiona for letting me tag along as Vision‘s guest!]

Freedom From Command and Control: The Toyota System for Service Organisations, EICC, 11th October 2005

The event was an outstanding success and by popular demand a DVD of the show will be available shortly.

One thought on “Going Native with John Seddon and Systems Thinking”

  1. John Seddon’s work is also now available in podcast format on ITunes

    ITunes > Podcasts > search for The Systems Thinking Review > download and signup

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