Command and control makes me sick

sick dayAnd you.

And everyone around you.


This summary of the findings of 72 studies shows how workplace stress results in physical symptoms.

The number one cause of sickness is….Organisational constraints, or,

“the aspects of a workplace environment that stop you getting your job done. It could include things like not having the time, materials or the authority to reach the goals that have been set for you.”

These are system conditions. The things in work that hinder the ability of people to get the job done, including:

  • the way things are structured
  • how the work has been designed
  • the way people are paid and rewarded
  • the measures used
  • policies and procedures
  • the culture and climate, i.e. informal and unstated way things really happen, never found in any written down policy or procedure.

None of these are in the control of staff. They are caused by the way work is managed. But staff suffer actual physical illness because of this.  To find out where these constraints are and how they affect work you need to follow a trail of clues like a bloodhound, finding out what happens when a customer encounters your system.

Whatever the nature of your system if you follow the trail of a case or a product or service along through your system you will see exactly how your system delivers a service. As in the below picture, staple yourself to a piece of work and see where you are taken.

vanguard model for check

When you follow cases or services or products through your system you start to build up a picture of how your work is ACTUALLY structured. It won’t be like any process chart you have. It will be messy, work will flow backwards as well as forwards. It might sit alongside other pieces of work in big piles waiting for months at a time. And what are the cause of this sickness? Not bad people, not lazy people. Not staff who don’t pay attention. Not even lack of resources, i.e. money.

The reason your system is sick is the way management think about work. They don’t want you sick, far from it. These are people, and people who want you fit, healthy and at work. But they have assumptions about work, how it works, and the people in the work. Not knowledge, assumptions. Assumptions like it is betterquickerfastercheaperbestpractice to split work into chunks, place them in queues and have different people attend to portions of work. Rather like a car on a factory production line, no single person builds the car. Or helps the  the old lady who asks for help getting washed in the morning. Instead there are individuals who attend to one tiny part of it, the interior of the glove-box for the car, or assessing the old ladies needs on the other.

These assumptions about the design of work are not tested, they are implemented.

These assumptions become part of the work, the way the system is designed. They haven’t been tested, they have been put in place. They make services worse and more expensive.

If you agree, don’t take my word for it, go and check your own work.
If you disagree, go and check your own work.
No-one can tell you, only you can find out.
Follow a case or a customer through your system to find out how well it can actually meet and solve the customers problem, listen to customer demand and find out how much is being caused by your system failing its customers.

You will find that what management think about work shapes the system they put in place, by design or inadvertently, and whatever this system will perform like, will be the performance of the system.

thinking system performance A good system design will perform well, a poor one will perform poorly.

Good thinking will produce good systems, poor thinking will produce poor ones.

Thinking shapes the system which shapes the performance.

The number one cause of physical illness in work, is also the number one cause of poor performance.  Change the thinking, the system changes, the performance changes.

Change the system from one that staff have to fight against to get the work done to one that helps them, and staff will be healthier as they will be working in a system that support them.

Command and control makes services sick and staff sick.
Systems thinking makes services better and  staff healthier! If you aren’t convinced, and there is no reason why you should be, give it a try and experiment. Don’t take anybodies word for it. Look in your own work, get knowledge and experiment.

Keep systems thinking and have a lovely day!

NB The photo at the top is stolen borrowed from a real blog actually about sickness and health, Thanks in advance for allowing me to steal borrow it.
This entry was posted in systems thinking, Uncategorized, vanguard method and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Command and control makes me sick

  1. Tim says:

    Interesting article and as usual I am with the sentiments but you are guilty of breaking your own rules.

    I have no doubt that the modern organisation places stress on people that leads to sickness but until you have an alternative model you do not know if this is a ‘normal’ consequence of working in a organisation – command and control or not. That is to to say in a population of people working 30-40 hours per week some will react in a negative way to the constrains the org places on them (systems based ones place constrains too that lead to similar outcomes, you only need to look at the suicide cases in Toyota).

    I am in no doubt that systems principles lead to better organisational outcomes, what I don’t have empirical data on is the impact on sickness levels over time. It is as argyris taught you need valid data before you can have informed debate.

    Would be very interested in your empirical evidence on how an org that has changed its mmt approach has sustainably reduced its sickness levels,


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      HI Tim,
      Thanks for reading and even more so for commenting!
      Looking at the post now I think I could have used a more enquiring tone.
      What you’ve asked has made me think, and if you look this week at the next post, “Does command and control make me sick?” there’ll be those thoughts.

      keep systems thinking and have a lovely day!


      • Tim says:

        Good stuff – keep putting your ideas out there. But remember this is about showing people better methods for organisational development. Command and control is not ‘morally wrong’ it’s a method for the former that has consequences on performance and people. If we try different methods could we reach better performance levels – I think so ! Therefore the proof is in the pudding not who’s got the right philosophy, I think this is where some of you Vanguard boys can become a little unstuck…this stuff is to help people and systems improve, clearly people need to unlearn current methods. BUT we need to ensure they don’t feel they have done something wrong, it’s not about them it’s about the methods employed.

        The key is learning with the overall purpose in mind, never rest on your laurels always try and getter better – these learning principles are key and why the work of Argyris is so profound…

        Best wishes


  2. ThinkPurpose says:

    Couple of things Tim.
    I am not a Vanguard Boy, just as much as you are not an Argyris Lad. Not employed by them and only met one of them once, who was very much all about the unlearning and the learning, with no guilt etc. so I am not convinced that the image people have of Vanguard is anything more than their image of John Seddon, one a person, the other a collection of people.
    Any mistakes of theory, approach, language or attitude are all my own. I promise I was the same before I had heard of V and was a Deming Chap.
    I tried to find a great big pot of data about sickness and systems thinking reducing it and cannot find any. It’s there in dribs and drabs. For example the Systems Thinking case studies book has mentions in it of reducing sickness levels in one local authority by 20% when the model of management changed.
    I would like someone to scour the literature for data, build a database and stick it in it for just such a contingency.
    I know that this would be of no use for changing people’s minds, learning etc and could only be of small use to supply data for internet debates. Any takers?


    • Tim says:

      You have found my tone patronising as you responded likewise, mine was not intended. Clearly we are going to struggle in a rational dialogue such as this to get our messages across properly. I personally wouldn’t spend my time looking at sickness data, would just get on with helping people improve systems and then understand the impact on service, £ and people.

      I would certainly never criticise John Seddon I am sure he communicates in a certain way to get a certain response. His role after all is different to that of his consultants.

      I am not a Argyris lad, I’m a guy just trying to help people improve and use methods and learnings from a whole host of sources.

      I will end as usual with, best wishes, as that as always is meant respectfully.


  3. ThinkPurpose says:

    Thanks for that, Tim!


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