John Seddon is not systems thinking

Systems thinking?

Truth or Lie?
Read on to find out…

One of the cool things about WordPress is that you can see what people have entered into search engines that pointed them to your blog. Some people find mine through phrases such as “John Seddon is not systems thinking“, a subject I have not previously addressed but now will due to the interesting wording of that phrase. Thanks anonymous googlers!

I think this oddly constructed phrase can be taken a number of ways. Is it to be taken as John Seddon is not systems thinking right now, as he is having a few moments time off the old systems thinking because perhaps he is smoking a fag/walking the dog/choosing a new tie? Or perhaps it is more a statement of a position, like a proper noun cannot be an abstract noun. John Seddon is not systems thinking, just as Bruce Forsyth is not tap-dancing or David Beckham is not football?

Is John Seddon systems thinking, or not? No idea, never met him. But neither have the people debating the toss in all sorts of other nooks and crannies on the internet. People seem remarkably keen on this as an issue. Perhaps being badged or NOT badged as systems thinking is the way that cool is assigned.


Deming, he’s cool right?

So he must be a systems thinker?

This author here rightly points out that Deming didn’t define himself as a systems thinker. Systems thinking is only part, one quarter to be exact, of the system of profound knowledge. Even then there is mainly talk of having an appreciation for a system, and “One need not be eminent in any part nor in all four parts [of the profound knowledge] in order to understand it and to apply it”.

So Deming is not systems thinking then. Not now he isn’t anyway.

I remember when that Vanguard website was called, the link still leads to their new named site. Mind, it were all trees round these parts and I could get a bag of chips for thruppence. Then it was all about systems thinking, now is more like “Vanguard method”. Who cares? I don’t.

I used to be bothered about the labels business, and still am, more than I would prefer. But then l met some woman whose phrase was “it’s all about the thinking”, and it is.
Labels can be a right arse. Stamp out nouns! Remember? One mans Lean-systems is another mans lean-six sigma. Or a pile of old cack.

Today I read 2 tweets along these lines, saying this, from @flowchainsensei

“John Seddon writes for Analytic-minded organisations that want to improve without changing their world view. Large market. Low-ish impact.”

And then this

“@ThinkingPurpose Most (all?) the stories in his recent case studies book are about *local* optimisations. Results notwithstanding.”

Which prompted a rash boast that I would show him why he was mistaken before midnight. I was wrong to do this, I think it’s stupid and rude to try and prove someone wrong on the tinternet, doesnt stop me repeatedly trying, but here’s why I disagree anyway as I think they raise some interesting questions.

People on the internet seem to be forever on about whether something is or isn’t systems thinking, or synergistic or whatever. There’ll never be some sort of result announced, like the Booker prize or Eurovision. “and the winner of the most systemsy/holistic/complexity organisation is….[drumroll]”

In the absence of some form of official announcement, perhaps it doesn’t matter? Perhaps it’s always a pointless pursuit, trying to talk about whether something is or isn’t something else.  Ironically, this is mentioned in the latest Sneddon case-studies book, in chapter 9

“Academics and others like to worry about definitions of terms and labels-it is their field”

Regardless. These questions aren’t about labels, the first is whether the books are for “Analytic-minded organisations that want to improve without changing their world view.” I have worked in a fair few of these, and I thoroughly hand-on-heart disagree. The ideas in these books, if baldly stated, would thoroughly repel analytically minded types. I know because I have personally repelled many people like this and continue to do so.

Repellent tactics such as stating firmly “targets don’t work!” or “get rid of plans, they’re stupid!”, are ideal if you want to isolate yourself as a troublesome crank.  They repel because they are utterly at odds with the world view of what work is and how it happens.  They challenge the fundamental building blocks of a command and control mental model.

Here is a nice drawing of this from

I think the books are not for organisations, but for people.

Probably people who already are dis-satisfied and curious, so you could say these readers have already began to depart Normo-Town for Systems Central.  As such they are already beginning to change their world view  purely by being open minded to the existence of other ones.

A key point in the method is that you can’t improve, not in any large or sustainable way, without changing your thinking and mental model of work, as that is at base the reason why you have to improve in the first place. It isn’t a tools approach, not something that can be tinkered with or picked up and put down. In my experience, you get it or you don’t, and once got it, you’ve got it for good. Not a fad, but an event that slices a before from an after.

“Low-ish impact”.  Not sure, depends on the terms used. Impact in terms of numbers of public sector organisations now “systemsy” or whatever, probably very small in terms of proportion. Impact on those services that pursue this line, probably huge. In my experience huge, and also in independent case studies done by ODPM or various RIEPs.
Other ways you could rate impact are whether you’ve heard of it or him. Both things could raise the profile of the method, and therefore take up of it. Name another consultant, one who works for PWC or Deloittes? Or a book published by PWC or Deloittes with happy customers inside writing chapters in their own words explaining what they did and how it worked for them. I can’t think of any.

The query about the interventions being “local optimisations” is an interesting one.  It has been said by others that ALL optimisations are local. At the beginning. In a sense perhaps they have to be, after all you can’t experiment with a whole organisation at once, not sensibly, that is command and control project method. Build it once, watch it all fall down once. But you can start small and local, rolling in more and more as a whole continuous experiment. I imagine anyway, more of a guess as I dont know of any standalone systemsy organisations. Anyone?

I think also by its nature public sector and especially local government interventions are bound to be local at first due to the nature of them, especially local government. They tend to be fiefdoms in a union of associated states. Not a single empire. The first two examples in the book are of interventions in a planning department and in a food safety department. Although services like that are often in larger directorates, they really are standalone items. The flow of work DOES cross service boundaries, Customer services is the main one that shares work across areas such as Benefits, Planning, waste etc.  But beyond that, it doesn’t much matter if adult social care are not involved in a planning intervention.  It DOES matter if they share a same Director, as their thinking affects the work. But not in terms of the organisation, which tends to be more of a metaphor or legal entity than anything you would actually observe.


I reckon it would be a good idea to go and ask him, this Seddon chap, these questions. Apparently there is an evidence tour. Yes! Being paraded throughout the land. That sounds the ideal place to ask hard challenging questions.  “Where’s your evidence Seddon!” people can bray at him. And he’d have to show it. There’s a suggestion. If you go, could you ask him whether he is systems thinking or not? Then I’ll know for sure.


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9 Responses to John Seddon is not systems thinking

  1. James says:

    Reminds me of a thousand play ground debates: “Are they Punk or are they New Wave?”
    Peter Cook is probably the resident expert on this.


  2. Hi there,

    I’ve had the pleasure of conversations with John on a number of occasions. Not that we ever touched on the things I tweeted about and you so kindly reiterated here (AFAICR).

    The tweet medium, delightful though it is, does require some shorthand, including labels for otherwise more nuanced ideas.

    The thrust of my tweets earlier today were, expanded, thus:

    1) Whereas I believe many of Vanguard’s interventions win the wholehearted support of the folks doing the work, and maybe front-line and (some) middle-managers too, I wonder how far up the hierarchy the ideas really convince – to the extent that these higher-ups actually change their world-view about the world of work? I would love to hear that this is common, I suspect not.

    And BTW, please note that Command-and-Control is but one symptom of what I refer to as the “Analytic” mindset – much more on that at my blog:

    As for all optimisations being local, I see that as a matter of how we use the word. I use “local” to mean any optimisation or improvement that is not *explicitly* intended to improve the throughput of the organisation (company, business) as a whole. Of course, many improvements start locally, but for me, the intent (frame of reference) is the nub of the matter.

    2) From reading some of Vanguard’s case studies, including the latest book of public sector studies, I see that improvements around the 50% (uplift) mark are reported. That’s nice, and no small beer, but far short of the 100% -500% uplift possible from a whole-organisation transformation (I speak in the context of knowledge-work organisations, and with particular reference to e.g. software houses and the like). FWIW, some data shows instances of a circa 1500% uplift.

    3) Coupled to 2), is the thorny question of sustainability. Even if a Director or three do become “converts”, what chance of the organisation sustaining the good work (improvements) beyond their departure. I hear this is particularly acute – and chronic – in public service organisations?

    I shall indeed be at the evidence tour (London) next Tuesday, and hope to have the opportunity to ask such questions of the Vanguard folks – including John – then.

    – Bob


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      The issue of quantifying improvement is interesting-and difficult. The thing I was involved in reduced processing time from an average of 30 days to about 1 hour, (UCL of 180 days to 1 day)
      How to express that as a % improvement? 30 days=720 hours, so that would be an improvement in hours of 99.9%. I’m not sure it would be possible to make that figure more than 100%, let alone the 100% to 500% you mention.


  3. P.S. Even John admits he’s not a “Systems Thinker”, he’s on video saying as much here: (circa 00:57:50). (That’s me in the pink shirt btw).


  4. James says:

    Did you know that there is a Systems Thinking wiki? Well there is, and far as I can tell it has no affiliation with Vangaurd or Professor Seddon.


  5. Reblogged this on inscienceblog and commented:
    Is he a systems thinking or is he not?
    Let’s find out!


  6. tce says:

    it’s not the tinternet, it’s tinternet


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