Wanted: Effective person to make efficiencies

I came across a job description.

It was for a Business Transformation Improvement type.

The document contains the word “efficiency” or variations thereof, 4 times. All in the context of “making” efficiencies.

The word “effective”, or variations thereof,  is in there a massive 10 times!
But ONLY when talking about the behaviour of the job-holder. Eg “effective management”, “effective working relationships” etc Never when referring to services touched by the prospective job applicant.

So, its important that the job holder is effective in implementing efficiencies.
But not necessarily that they’re effective in making services effective.


Posted in all wrong, command and control, lean thinking, public sector, systems thinking | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

250,000 ways to be a management consultant

Tomorrow my blog should hit a quarter of a million views.
Yay me.

This actually means nothing at all.

It’s an arbitrary number that allows me to use the word “million” and thus transfer some glamour onto the act of typing things on the Internet.image

A million is a lot, but a quarter of it, and spread over 4 years, is substantially less. Still, a quarter of ONE MILLION sounds better than none.

When I started in this job as a performance management officer I had precisely none views because I had none blogs.

But what I did have was this book.


Just DRINK it in

I no longer have it, but you can guess what it is full of.


When I googled for this photo I made sure I included the word “steaming”

Thing is  this is still how people think in local government.
The thinking is still the same, and therefore the system is still the same.

If you want to make a difference is very difficult, and downright impossible unless you’re in charge.

As I’m not, and am in fact a low ranking petunia in the onion patch I’ve found that the very best way to make a difference is to make a difference outside of your organisation.

Yes! Here’s the 7 steps to making a difference where you don’t work…

  1. Get paid a salary in a large organisation. You’ll learn loads about how these places don’t work. Use the salary to pay your mortgage, buy food and the like. Use the time to…
  2. Keep your eyes and ears open, observe the difference between what people say is happening and what is actually happening. The gap between these two things is where the gold is buried. With which you…
  3. Use the lessons from these to make puerile and/or self indulgently maudlin posts of about 500 words. Add some mild swearing, stretch it out into a list that promises something unlikely like “7 ways to become invisible“. Then…
  4. Give it away for free. Totally free. Give it away. Think of the complete rubbish that organisations buy from “the real management consultants” like Deloittes or PWC. When people are under no obligation because something is free, then they won’t take rubbish. Get good by giving stuff away for free, it’s much harder to get people’s attention than their money. Then..
  5. Keep on doing it. Keep on making puerile knob jokes about organisational development, keep giving it away for free, and eventually for some reason people will start reading your stuff. If you type about systems thinking there’s not much in the way of competition. It’s not a crowded market. There are so few entertaining and useful things to read or print and stick up on the wall for people to point at. The late lamented Systems Thinking For Girls sadly seems to have died a death, leaving the new Squire To The Giants, the numeric Inspector Guilfoyle, and the frankly Welsh What’s The Pont. People will then…
  6. Use your stuff for whatever they want to. Just like you do with things you find on the Internet. If it’s interesting you might email it to like minded friends and colleagues. If it’s visual, you might print it and stick it up on the wall. All sorts. YOU’LL NEVER KNOW WHAT PEOPLE MIGHT DO. Bizarrely there’s councils all around the country with my tosh cluttering their work inboxes. Bank and financial companies with my scrawl on their walls. Rewriting Deming for the selfie generation creates entirely new content, for people that need something punchy, informative and, most importantly, short. Once it’s out there…
  7. It’s not yours anymore, the people who pick up a post about communicating value and failure demand might do more than make an amusing series of images and a clever gif. They might actually use it to create curiosity and change minds. In fact they do. Lots of people with less time on their hands and more talent and application than me use this tosh in a small way to help create change.

And for that thanks! It turns comics of a Zombified Deming into an actual impact, real change for the better.
If 90% of the countries on earth have somebody who’s read this blog, and they do, then that’s not because this blog is great, though of course it is, it shows that 90% of the countries on earth have people dissatisfied with the way organisations are ran and know there’s a better way.

So that’s what I do. I give stuff away for free so other people can do something useful with it. And I like knob jokes.

Posted in public sector, strategic, systems thinking, thinking, vanguard method | Tagged , | 26 Comments

A paper exercise


not a swan

Once upon a time I had to write a plan.
I was the Directorate Performance Management officer, so I wrote the Directorate Plan.
I sat at my dining room table and I WROTE A PLAN.

Except I didn’t.

I wrote on a piece of paper and called it a plan, a bit like this piece of paper isn’t a swan, it’s a piece of paper folded up to look like a swan.

But my plan had the word “PLAN” on it in big letters on the front, with the council crest and everything. So it looked as much as I could make look like every other plan. Official, neat, considered, approved and robust. It passed for a plan, just as much as every other paper document with the word plan on it does. But it wasn’t really a plan.

It was a paper exercise.

If you work in a bureacracy you’ll probably spend most of your time on paper exercises.
Much like origami, it involves making things out of paper that look like real things.


not a frog

The game of paper exercise is to make things out of paper that everybody acts as if are IN FACT the real thing.

So this frog here would inspire chaos in the office, because hey look a frog in the office!

Except you don’t make paper look like animals, you make paper look like other pieces of paper. Not as exciting but much easier to do.

I made my plan look like a plan, but the test is whether other people treat it as a plan.

The most important test of a paper exercise is when it is taken into the executive board room for approval. They approve a piece of paper if it looks like the imaginary plan in their heads, just like the frog above looks like the frog in your head so you recognise it and say , hey a frog! The paper exercise continues with minor tweaks, small changes to things that disagree. Bit like that frog might be too dark green, how about we lighten it up a bit?


Still not a frog.

This isn’t a light hearted exercise though. People take this very seriously. Look at the document below. Capture

People take this paper exercise so seriously that it is a three layers deep paper exercise! Look it’s the preferred option (a paper exercise) of a development plan (a paper exercise) that is open to consultation (a paper exercise). So much paper, so few frogs.



not a crow

The main villains and victims of paper exercises are people like me, policy officers and the like. People who work at the corporate core. We spend our time creating paper exercises, mistaking them for reality, and inflicting them on other less deluded colleagues.

Here is someone employed in a similar public sector post to me, somewhere in the country, talking about their own layers of paper exercise in their organisation.

“We have a Corporate Plan and a Performance Framework that flows from this, encapsculating PIs and Priority Actions that will help deliver the Corporate Plan and / or measure its delivery. We call these Objective Delivery Plans, these sit alongside Service Improvement Plans”

That’s an awful lot of pieces of paper that would be better shaped into frogs or swans rather than pretending to be rational documents for controlling an organisation.

These tables from an approach called “Shadow side audit” shows where this belief in paper sits in opposition to.


On the left hand side is the organisation as it states it is.
On the right hand side is the so-called shadow side of the organisation, as it actually is.

The shadow side of the organisation is..

“All those things that substantially and consistently affect the productivity and quality of the working life of a business, for better or worse, but which are not found on organisation charts, in company manuals, or in the discussions that take place in formal meetings.”

People who indulge in paper exercises do so because they believe in the paper organisation rather than the actual organisation.

Any change activity that aims to change things by the method of changing a piece of paper will only change the paper organisation, not the one that actually exists. Changing paper is a paper exercise only.

The actual organisation is populated by people, not paper. Change happens at the level of people, not paper. This requires an entirely different approach, an approach of learning and psychology, not of cascaded objectives. One that proceeds at a pace and in the direction directed by what people learn, and not by a piece of paper with plan written on the cover.

I always remember someone saying to me that “Vanguard don’t do reports“, and there’s a reason, because they don’t work. If you want to change an organisation, change happens at the level of people, so don’t change things at the level of paper.

If you do want to change something, before you accidentally carry out your next paper exercise, here’s one simple question to ask yourself, …

“Am I about to create a new Word document?

Posted in all wrong, command and control, plans, public sector, systems thinking | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Only bullies, cowards or fools set targets

This is the story of a teacher in a UK school who was set a target of 75% exam pass rate.

This summer the pass rate was 65%.

If we ignore all the things we know about measures and targets (common cause variation, arbitrary nature of targets, no method etc) there still was something meaningless in this particular cruelty.

“the truth is that eight of our students missed their C grade by one mark, and they did this because the exam board shifted the grade boundaries for controlled assessments up, which pushed students who had worked hard to achieve a mid-to-high level C into D territory. The fact of the matter is, my department’s teaching was good enough to meet the target, but we were at the mercy of exam boards and their arbitrary decision-making.”

The teacher in question is resigning as head of department and probably leave teaching altogether. The people who set the target of 75%?

They’ve set the target for next year to be 93%.

So here’s a simple heuristic…
If a manager sets a numeric target, they’re a bully, coward or a fool. Or combinations thereof.

Posted in systems thinking, targets | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

I’m not touching that, it’ll do me back in!


This settee is crucial to this post , so take a good look at it.

Go on, put your nose right up to it.

This nasty looking thing used to be in my living room, there’s paint on it because at some point in decorating I decided I didn’t care because I’d be buying a new one soon. And I did, it’s lovely and in the living room.

This one, as you can see, it’s on my drive.
It shouldn’t be though. It should have been picked up by the Council and disposed of as I’d paid them to do.

This is the story of what happens when purpose is lost to terms and conditions.

I rang the Council last week…


Hmm, that last bit. Pay attention to it, because it becomes important later on. At the time though, it just concerned me in a nagging back of my head type way.
It HAS been raining really heavy, for weeks now. But I don’t keep a roll of PVC covering in the house just on the offchance that I have to gift wrap an entire 3 piece suite. Who does?




I didn’t say anything though. It made me feel guilty , like I was sneaking something bad.
On the night before the pick up, I took the chairs out of the garage, left them on the drive, and sat and listened to the driving rain beating down on the windows and thought fondly of my chairs sitting on the drive.

The next morning I woke up at 7:10am to the sound of men scraping chairs around my drive.
I looked out the window to see them put the two armchairs on the back of a flatbed truck, close the gate on it, and start to climb in the van and reverse out my street.

Without my settee.

I ran down stairs and they stopped when they saw me coming.
I asked them,


And with that, they drove off….
When my settee arrived at my house many years ago, it was lowered out of the van on an electronic platform that acted as a mini lift that helped transfer the very heavy thing from up high inside the van. But this van didn’t have that. It was very high off the ground, the bed of the truck being about shoulder height. And crucially it didn’t have one of those tail lifts to get it onto the van.


“YES! That’s it! One of them. “

So these people had to hoist my two armchairs on their shoulders and onto the truck without the aid of any lifting device. Just pure brute strength.

Which they did not appear to have, due to fear of “doing backs” in.

I don’t blame them, I wouldn’t want to hoist heavy weights over my head without the right tools. It IS dangerous. But I didn’t design this foolish process where settees that get wet cannot be taken away, but settees that are bone dry CAN be taken away.

So I ring up to complain…

So I made a complaint. As you do, hammering away at the keyboard. In the complaint I said “I just want the settee taken away“.


nice and dry

And a few days later, Saturday morning, two men turned up to do just that.

They lifted the nice and dry settee from within the garage where it had been returned to, and put it on the back of a van, and asked me if there was any rubbish I also wanted taken away whilst they were here. For free.
During all this, one of the men, clearly some kind of supervisor, was telling me about how staff are told not to lift things that are too heavy and the settee itself was very heavy.
Which it was, it’s a heavy settee. But that’s settees for you.
They carried the settee at waist height, all the way to a different van this time with the handy and capable tail lift, which then did the hard work of lifting it upwards onto the back of the van.


“YES! That’s it! One of them. “

The man asked whether I was happy with the outcome. I said yes, embarrassed about the surfeit of garage rubbish they’d taken away with them.

I told someone at work this story, and thisis what happened…

I instinctively knew I wouldn’t, but the reasons were long and complicated to relate out loud to the lady in front of me, and would require me to explain customer purpose, demand, systems conditions etc AND THERE’S NO POINT IN THAT, that’s what this blog is for.
So here’s why I wouldn’t tell them anything, and the actual point of this whole post.

The conventional view on this story

The customer did not comply with the terms and conditions of the service as stated to them in the recorded call to the Call Centre.  As a consequence of this, they left the settee to become sodden and too heavy for our staff to lift. Our staff followed their instructions on lifting heavy weights and informed the customer why they were leaving the settee. The customer contacted the Call Centre and were informed that they would not be refunded part of the cost. They made a complaint and in the course of handling the complaint it was decided, as a gesture of goodwill, to send out the larger truck with a tail-lift, to take away the settee.

The systems thinking view on this story


No charge for comedy items

A predictable demand on the bulky collection service is the collection of large items of furniture such as settees. Customer purpose is “take my bulky item away“. What matters is that it is taken away without any fuss or bother or outlandish terms and conditions.
There are several system conditions built into the design and management of the work that stops this from happening.


System conditions that hinder meeting customer purpose

1: Sorting
When I rang the callcentre the very first time, to book the collection, they asked me what I wanted collecting and quoted a cost according to their schedule. There are three costs, based on the size, with examples given on the website, with the cost increasing according to the size. Chairs are classed in the middle price range, along with a mattress or a single bed. The largest items cost more to collect and the examples given are piano or full size snooker table.
Based on this selection a different van is chosen for collection.
This sorting put waste in the system by allocating a large slightly damp settee to choosing an inappropriate van without a tail-lift that means it cannot pick it up.

2: Asset utilisation
They choose to send out smaller vans without the appropriate tail lift for some reason based on the thinking that the most expensive vans should be rationed. This drives waste into the system as the cheapest thing to do is not to send out the cheapest van but the most appropriate van at meeting customer purpose. This is the Taguchi loss function in action. get it exactly right, and its the cheapest thing you can do.

3: Contractual relationship
The relationship between the council and the customer is a contractual one. WE will do this, if YOU do that, with terms and conditions to govern the relationship. Putting the settee out at night time to meet the 6:30am van pick up is a good example. It doesnt meet what matters to the customer ( “no fuss”) as suddenly the onus is on me to locate several metres of waterproof wrapping and wrap a THREE-PIECE SUITE UP in it. How ludicrous is that?
When the terms and conditions were not met by me waste was created as customer purpose was not met because I contacted the council again, raised a complaint, they came out again and took a large amount of my waste that I could have taken to the tip myself. Again, waste. The contractual relationship created more waste and cost than a “what matters” relationship would have.
When I rang the call centre after they failed to pick up my settee the response of the manager was to say they would locate the recorded call and see if the advisor had told me about covering the settee, this is an adversarial relationship. Recording calls to show that a process had been followed, not that a process was right.

4: A complaints handling process, not a management learning process
The purpose of a complaints process is to protect the organisation from the customer.

It is for judging whether the process and rules have been followed, not whether the rules are correct in themselves. Complaints processes are for judging when the organisation doesn’t play by its rules. NOT for judging the rules they play by.
The purpose of a complaints system should be to protect the customer from the failures of the organisation, meet customer purpose where it hasn’t been met and to learn what system conditions need to change to better meet customer purpose. Ultimately the test of a working complaints system is “does this change management thinking?“.
If not, it is a paper exercise to protect the organisation from change.

This is why I kept schtum and didnt tell them “the good news story”. A simple pick up of 3 items of furniture that should only involve one phone call and two men in a van, THAT would be a good news story.

Two vans, four men, three phone calls, one complaint and a tedious and overlong blog post are not a good news story.

Posted in command and control, public sector, purpose, systems thinking, systemz comix, vanguard method | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Systems Thinking Drinking Game


If you’ve been trying to introduce systems thinking into your organisation for a bit,  you’ll have heard the same things trotted out as excuses reasons why not give it a go.
So here’s The Systems Thinking Drinking Game! It will help turn the pointless grind into a drunken jamboree of control charts and vomiting.

To play the game ensure you have a bottle of hard liquor with you at all times, and take a swig when you hear the following.

A sip
-“I don’t have time to write down what customers are ringing up for, I’ve got loads of phonecalls from customers to answer.”

-“Ok, just tell me what to measure and I’ll get it to you on a monthly basis, if it’s got to be in the scorecard, so be it.”

-“We’ve done a big customer satisfaction survey, so we can use that.”

A big gulp
-“I consider improvement a priority, so I’ll get my deputy to work with you on it. ”

-“So if I just add the target onto the control chart like this I think it’ll work much better for everyone”

-“Yes, systems are important, which is why we’ve bought a new IT system to handle it all.”

-“What our customers want is all on our CRM system. I’ll get our performance people to print the monthly report for you. ”

Down the bottle in one
-“We’ve already done Lean.”

Posted in command and control, lean thinking, systems thinking, vanguard method, very short posts | Tagged | 3 Comments

“I’m sorry, but we are a big company” – a fragment about scale


Brilliant post about how scaling an organisation up seems to hard wire failure demand into their very organisational structure. VgVg.

Originally posted on Matt Edgar writes here:

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about scale…

Trello blog post backlog… but I struggle to get it all out as a single coherent narrative…

… so instead I want to tell a short story. It goes like this…

In order to supply my services to a large public organisation, I find my little company as a sub-sub-contractor in a Byzantine procurement framework. Anyone who believes the dogma that the private sector is inherently more efficient than public enterprise need only look at the outsourcing giants that squat in this space for empirical evidence that it is just as often the exact opposite.

A few weeks into my new contract, it becomes clear that the bureaucracy is incapable of paying the correct amount for work done. They ignore my suggestion that their timesheet system is treating half days…

View original 169 more words

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