Not one reply

Exactly a week ago I invited readers to send in their own stories about how offering data, creating normative learning opportunities and plain nagging had resulted in some type of systemsy incident. That it is possible to create change upwards through inciting dissatisfaction with current methods and curiosity about different thinking.

Apart from two comments, I’ve not had one reply.

Whilst hardly the gold standard of research, there are hundreds and hundreds of readers of this blog who are the sort of person who might be cajoling and griping up upwards, to try and ignite something. A biased sample, and deliberately so, where you would expect, more than in any other sample, examples of some kind of success.

So if there isn’t any, makes you think.
The guidelines for the onion patch arent the only mention of tactics and strategies, there are other similar suggested activities elsewhere.

The thing is, are these suggested activities just displacement activities for finger-drumming systems thinkers? Something to do whilst waiting?

The systems thinkers version of a soon-to-be-father being urged by a midwife to “quick! Go boil some water! And clean towels!” just to give him something to do.

Because it does look increasingly clear that if you AREN’T totally important, then you can do what you like, cos nothing’s going to happen for the better. After all when was the last time you changed your mind fundamentally about something merely because somebody forwarded on to you a blog post or showed you some data that seems to over turn everything you thought true?

Doesn’t happen due to the backfire effect.

The backfire effect is what happens when some smart Aleck comes along to tell you that you’re wrong. Instead of coolly evaluating their evidence, and updating your mental model accordingly, if it’s telling you you’re wrong about something you’ll reject it and believe what you used to all along…. but much more strongly.

I’m not talking here about how you shouldn’t rationally try to logically explain somebody out of command and control thinking. We all know that one doesn’t work. I mean that proactively trying at all doesn’t seem to have much evidence of working.

This not to say that people don’t change their minds about work, they do. I did, and so did you.
But did you change your mind because someone persuaded you into it? Probably not. I didn’t. You probably didn’t either.
I’m thinking that these cases are just happy accidents. Some mighty leader somewhere overhears something about this John Sneddon or whatever he’s called and Googles it a bit further and is intrigued so goes to a Vangrad conference, or whatever they’re called, and starts thinking strange uncomfortable new thoughts…

Or another hears something about benchmarking not actually doing anything, and is intrigued cos there’s always been something in the back of her mind that never really rung true, so Googles it and so on and so on.

Again, a bit like you or I did. I was all about ISO9001 and my manager mentioned how quality was first properly introduced to manufacturing as a concept in post war Japan by some guy called Deming, so I googled “Deming ISO9001” and came across that John Sneddon arguing the toss about ISO. Random, fortuitous and unpredictable.

But not DESIGNED. I wasn’t caught in a systemsy trap. Nobody set out to turn me.
But there WAS somebody who, however accidentally, mentioned the word Deming. Same as in my fictitious stories up there, there has to be something there for somebody to accidentally come across.

So I’m thinking that if you’re not charge of anything, merely a nameless functionary trudging through organisational life, you could stop with the wittering and haranguing and chipping away, and just do the “work” that you’re told to.


Or you could double and re-double your efforts.
Either way it’s not simple cause and effect, and any changes in some persons head that you’ve yet to even meet might be because of some thing that you’ve left behind, laying systemsy land mines everywhere. Or it might not.

Either way don’t wait by the phone waiting for it to ring cos it might never.
And if it does never ring, what a load of time you’ve wasted, and its the worst sort of time.

Your time.


Late addendum!

A fellow onion emails in to remind me that of course reader stories don’t have to be of the scale of you helping a harumphing command and control manager turn their whole organisation into a world beating Toyota. No, not that. Teeny tiny would do.

This entry was posted in change, deming, leadership, psychology, systems thinking, thinking, vanguard method and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Not one reply

  1. brogandy says:

    Normative designs rarely work if you start with your own agenda. They need to be other centred. It’s like when someone pretends to give you a good listening to because they say they ‘want to understand’ but what they really mean is they want to ‘fix your head’. Normative can happen by design – I’ve seen it – but pretty much never when the design is treated as laying a trap for someone else’s thinking.


  2. brogandy says:

    Another way to say the same is that sharing systemsy perspective and theory should come after cognitive dissonance – it cannot be the cause of it without creating the backfire effect.


  3. bazhsw says:

    In my experience it’s quite easy to redesign work within a contained unit or sphere of responsibility. I thought the way I did before I knew there was a term for it (which was through being introduced to the work of Seddon – a ‘where have you been all my life’ moment!)

    I found ordinary me could learn what works, learn what matters and just get on with it. Now again a management request would come in to do something or other, which because what we did worked and we kept under the radar we either ignored or half heartedly did as asked and then went back to doing the right things.

    Of course, organisation wide, our efforts were limited as rubbish came in, we did our best, sent things our better only to turn into rubbish again.

    I think I got my current position on the back of systems thinking but I find the problems remain as described in your post. You can’t nag this into people, they’ll agree, nod their head, think it’s valid and say the right things (and sometimes try to do them). However, as soon as Billy Big Boots asks for meaningless target information all this goes out of the window.

    So yes, you can make a small difference if you are cute but to really shift the the thinking, no amount of evidence or explanation will help. The senior decision makers have to find this their self.


  4. Peter says:

    Shifting ingrained mindsets is not easy. The best way is to reveal system assumptions about the work and the workers doing the work ie the problems systems thinking resolves. Delusion is pretty deep-seated…


  5. Paul says:

    I’m sorry that nobody replied to your post asking for real-world examples. Probably, like me, they were hoping to hear from some experts.
    In the lack of any response, may I give my own example? o avoid any risk of sounding self-aggrandising, let it be anonymous.
    So, it’s a large business. American owned. A rather odd culture, where progression into the senior ranks was by invitation rather than application.
    I was working with a team in the UK whose job was to develop tweaks to the application settings to deliver small projects. The customer wanted to launch a new product or service and would ask the team to make the underlying system changes to make it possible. So it was demand-led with a mixture of ‘just like the last one we did’ and new requirements to be scoped, designed and agreed. Each piece of design would pass from this team to a separate technical design and coding team, be coded, tested and implemented, and then return to the original team to get sign-off from the customer.
    The team was taking too long to deliver. We knew that because the big boss said so. Big boss wanted all requests to be turned round in less than two weeks. I got the job of leading the improvements.
    Thankfully the big boss was mostly absent and distracted.
    So I got the team together and asked how their job worked. They had brought a set of flowcharts and process specifications from the previous improvement project. Asking them questions like ‘how does work arrive?’ and ‘then what do you do?’ led to several arm-waving arguments. It was soon obvious to all of us that the actual job bore no relation to the flowchart. So everyone agreed to go and look closely at what they actually did, rather than what they thought they did. And they would do simple tallies (five bar gates on paper) to count how much work went in each direction through the process.
    This was the start of multiple sessions where we discussed what we had found, how long each stage took, how often things had to be turned back because they weren’t right, how much work flowed down each leg of the process and how long things waited on in-trays or pending piles.
    We got the design team involved as well.
    What we agreed to try was to separate ‘just like the last one’ jobs into their own stream as standard work that could have a predefined turnaround time. For new types of work we would swap the order round so that we would only quote a delivery time after the client had agreed that the design was correct and what they wanted, not before. We agreed that we would involve the technical design team in the client meeting where we discussed their requirements. We agreed that we would change our quotation method so that we made explicit the need for the client to commit to take part in testing – our quote was for our work, net of any delays introduced by the client. The clients agreed that this would make projects more like partnerships, and they accepted their role in getting stuff delivered.
    I knew it was working when the team were overheard discussing flow and batching during their tea break.
    And the view of the big boss? “You made a right meal of that. You should just have told them what to do, it was obvious”. Interesting observation, as that is how the previous process was put in place by big boss.
    Thankfully the team continued to improve and big boss left.
    I can guarantee that making people curious about their work will work, and that trying small changes supported by simple counting will work. I can’t guarantee that the big boss will leave – that’s just a bonus.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Coo, lots there. An ACTUAL STORY.


    • Charles Beauregard says:

      I can really relate to this – although without the actual success!

      In your story, you were able to get the people who do the work curious about doing it in a different way. In my experience, I’ve often found that front-line staff (i.e. the people who regularly interact with customers) ‘get it’ much more easily than senior managers. Does this ring true for anyone else?

      Like you, I’ve had some success in working with front-line staff on understanding how the system is really performing and why. The difficulty I’ve had is then getting the big bosses – those who have authority over the system – to co-operate in bringing about a re-design of the system (I’ve heard similar comments to “You should just have told them what to do” numerous times).

      I know one answer is to involve the big bosses from the outset – for them to roll up their sleeves and get in to the work – but this is something I’ve struggled to do from my lowly position in the hierarchy. I often find (to use a phrase I heard someone else say) that people are too busy mopping to turn off the taps.

      So, the advice I’m really after (if anyone out there has it) is this: if you’re not a senior manager, how do you encourage senior managers to get in to the work so they can discover a systemsy perspective for themselves?


  6. John Rudkin says:

    Hi. I’d love to tell you a few stories…in fact I will, but first I have to ensure that I can. ? I was open, published several about Blackpool Council, but was taken to court and (based around a single individual) then have had me remove my blog and left me with an order to agree not to mention certain things for 2 years. I’ll look to anonymise. Funnily enough, Blackpool IT took up Systems Thinking, but it was used and abused to gain advantage for one or two individuals!


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Errr… Taken to court doesn’t sound fun. Neither does ” remove my blog “. How about not on this occasion, but thank you anyway.


      • johnarudkin says:

        It wasn’t!


      • bazhsw says:

        Best leave out the details John…

        What I can share is the efforts at the organisation you mentioned were not all in vain.

        In my earlier post I mentioned I was doing system-sy stuff before I knew what it was. I was introduced to it by a colleague who had been part of the project you discussed. It opened up a whole new world for me and I realised others thought similar to me. What is kind of sad though is the systems thinking world is quite small.

        In relation to the original post I think many of us can identify with the challenges of embedding this in organisations. For this to have a chance of success I needs to be championed by senior leadership. If a Director or Chief Exec goes, the new person can squish the hard work very quickly. To steal from Ackoff, the vision of most leaders is the horizon of their retirement (or next job).

        We shouldn’t be despondent and should carry on doing what we can, where we can and the worst that can happen is we get smug drumming our fingers on the desk.

        This reminds me of when I was a teen. I listened to music outside of the mainstream and was enthralled by it’s power, beauty, emotion and ability to just make me feel. I often thought, “if only people would give this a chance, they’d love this too!”. In later years I realised people just do, what they do and you can’t convince someone who doesn’t listen. Somewhat whimsically I can’t help think, “If only we tried something different, they’d see it would work…”


        • Charles Beauregard says:

          Ha! You’ve just reminded me of when I was a teenager. Most of my friends were listening to drum and bass, and I’d be trying to convince them to listen to Bob Dylan.

          Now most of my colleagues are doing command and control, and I’m trying to convince them to try systems thinking.

          I guess I haven’t changed that much after all!


  7. rutty says:

    I’m about to start a new job at a local university as a software tester. I’m engaged with the local Agile community too and have met another systems thinker already employed there. They have a small group of systemsy folk that meet semi-regularly that try and introduce some improvements to problems that may be systemsy in nature (aren’t they all?).

    With so many academics around maybe it’ll be easier here? I don’t know, but it’s worth a go. My current company are attempting to be ‘agile by default’ but you can already see the process-driven Taylorists choking on their CMMI accreditation certificates.


  8. richardprichard says:

    We published this today:

    Check Stephen on slide 6 – it is really a tribute to his brain that we made the progress we did. But note also that we don’t call it “systems thinking” because of all the baggage (and unconvincing history in our particular niche of public service)


  9. jaqueslecont says:

    I felt sad when I read that you hadn’t got any replies. Maybe the problem is that if anyone has really got this stuff driven in, they must have shaken a business to its very core and would probably be someone very important by now.

    My own experience and successes/ failures are below – sorry the first bit is a bit of a life story in bullet form.

    1) Worked as an Engineer, which basically involved doing lots of technical drawings. Got frustrated with the process for drawing configuration and suggested a review.
    2) Got introduced to some very tall people who told me to play with some lego. They talked a lot about Toyota but didn’t seem Japanese. Got told I was going to be the “Team Leader” for running a review of the configuration process. We were going to do it in 5 days from start to finish!!!
    3) Got absolutely brainwashed by my new “Lean” friends. Asked a lot of questions about things being complex or taking different amounts of time. Got a lot of replies about “Standard Work” and “TAKT Time”.
    4) Spent two weeks building a wall that we could hang pieces of A3 paper on. Put some tape on the floor that people could line up on.
    5) On the back of my tape sticking prowess, I got promoted to be a “Lean Leader”. Extra £5k a year in the bag!
    6) Spent a year or so running “Rapid Improvement Events”. Spent a lot of time trying to make macros in Excel work so that people could press buttons rather than carry sheets of paper around (WTF???) Got a whiteboard eraser thrown at me by someone who didn’t like the idea of being compared to an automotive production line. Visited some other places that did the same thing. Learned about how to put post its on straight and how to fill a week long workshop with talk of touch and flow time.
    7) Somewhere about a year in started to think again about the variation in tasks. Google “Lean in service”.
    8) Read something about “The Vanguard Method” laughed at the videos of the angry man.
    9) Went to a conference in Cardiff. Watched the angry man have a blazing row with some woman who had done something with HMRC.I liked the angry man. He was funny.
    10) Started reading a book by the angry man. Shit just got real.
    11) Thought about the customer for the first time ever.
    12) Began to quote parts of the book to people. Started saying things about targets. Read more.
    13) Started to read blogs and scratch a little deeper. Started getting really concerned about the way we were doing the “Lean” stuff. Voiced these concerns. Got frowned at and the mark of a trouble-maker.
    14) Started going a bit loopy. Almost in a depression like state when it became more and more clear that the way we were doing things, in fact the way most people were doing things was a complete joke.
    15) Became quite and angry and bitter person about it all really. Could stand why people couldn’t see what I was starting to.
    15) Wrote a gorgeous (and it was gorgeous) presentation on Systems Thinking and why we should try it. Showed it to a few people. Some of whom agreed and said great things. So of whom looked at me like I had lost my mind and needed help. Unfortunately it always seemed to be the decisions makers who were least impressed.
    16) After six months or so I’d had enough and decided to go to pastures new. Mentioned Systems Thinking in my interview. Said some snappy things about outside-in and purpose-measures-method. Was excited about a new start…

    That was about two years ago. I came into my current job with the full intention of driving this stuff along and changing the world. So have I managed it? Well yes and no.

    I guess I’ve realised that it’s really difficult (perhaps too difficult) to change the way people do things drastically without either being the person at the top or having the ear of the person at the top. Currently I’m not that guy and I barely talk to him. I am starting to talk to his henchmen though and they are picking up interest. Here’s how:

    1) Measures, measures, measures (and as a certain policeman says – the right measures, measured right). People (especially the top brass) love it when you talk about measures. They say things like “No-one knows how to use measures around here.” and “What we need is better MI”. I’ve used this rhetoric to my advantage by stealing all their measures and re-doing them and handing them back. I’ve done this without talk of control charts or binary comparisons. Instead it’s “Let’s look at this wiggly line moving along over time. Isn’t it great that we can have some context for performance? Do you think we should react to it going up now or wait it out? How could make it shift up through our actions? That’s exciting isn’t it?”. They suck all this in and think they came up with it. When they start to talk about adding targets to them and other rubbish, I gently bring them back to earth by talking about science experiments and cause and effect. Happily Control charts and the like are now used (and not just by me). Everyone seems to agree that we should get rid of targets and bonuses but no-one has the balls and I don’t have the clout yet.

    2) A charge to the front. I purposely tried to grab the contact centre here and after a year they let me play with it. Again, it all came down to measures but once we threw out the AHT type stuff and looked at things like volume of callbacks, type and frequency and failure demand it all got a bit exciting. Now we have a brand new way of looking at things and run experiments. This was a big hurdle to get over but once we ran our first one it got easier. I did spend a lot of time telling people it would all be okay and used my favourite line of “If things don;t change, they’ll stay as they are.”
    Rather than worry about how quickly we can kick people off the phone we now worry about making sure they don’t have to call back. It’s not perfect but it’s better. I’ve really found that as long as you produce a graph that moves in the right direction, people will let you do pretty much what you want. Why? Why? Because they genuinely have no idea what else to do. I’ve yet to meet a C&C manager who didn’t think that they were going to solve everything through better staff, better technology or getting someone else to write processes down.

    3) Talk like a human. In fact talk like a bit of an arrogant git at the right times. NO ONE likes or really believes in appraisals, targets, training or all the other C&C crap. If you can wittily disarm people with some facts about stuff like that, they’ll either give up on you or say “fine, what do you suggest.” At this point it’s important to suggest something cool, systemsy and not too frightening.

    Anyway I’m wittering here but I’m finding it quite cathartic. In answer to the original question, well; The stuff I have managed to do has had quite a bit of success and it’s definitely gaining momentum. We’re now using measures and they are moving in the right direction. Less backlog, less failure demand improved quality and better customer retention. However, could you call it an effective system? not yet. No-one really gets the system thing yet, but they will? I think? I could do with some help though. Moral support from John Seddon would be good every now and then. It’s a dark path and it would be good to have company. Sometimes I wonder about being a lonely petunia and start draft a letter enquiring about employment with Mr Seddon. Strength in numbers and all that. Saying that, I met him in a lift once and bottled talking to him, so I probably missed that boat.

    I do also wonder if it’s possible to really do it in larger companies? I’ve never worked for a smaller company as they don’t often look for improvement manager types. I’d really love to though as I’m convinced you could have more impact than trying to change the direction of behemoth all on your own. In fact I read a cool thing about the chief designer for Tesla Motors who said something like “When a company is only interested in profit, the CFO becomes the CEO and the company is dead” It struck a chord with me ad it wouldn’t surprise me if most of your readers are desperately trying to breathe life into a corpse. I’d rather be kissing the lips of a flexible, young and nubile company. Preferably one with a ping pong table and scant regard for the rules.

    Keep up the good work. You haven’t jumped that shark yet.

    Best regards,



    • giantknave says:

      I just love your description of him as ‘the angry man’ 🙂


    • Kojak99 says:

      Hi Dan,

      There’s some really good pointers that you mention. I find myself in a similar situation at present, I feel like I’ve been banging the Vanguard drum for what seems like an eternity, and finally they’ve allowed us to be let loose. Presently looking at our customer service centre for our Social Care function, but we’re hoping that if we use the measures and the knowledge that we get correctly then they’ll let us loose on the rest of the system end to end, let me say at this point that I’m cautiously optimistic that will happen!!

      From reading your reply I’m assuming that the systems work that you’ve done has all been in the private sector?? Talking from my own experience and from reading endless case studies and testimonials it seems that Public Sector managers find it harder to grasp some of this stuff and generally seem more resistant to giving it a go.

      Best regards,


      • jaqueslecont says:

        Hi Kojak,

        Actually it’s a bit of a mash up of both. My first example was when I used to work for a charity. They were run very much like as a public sector service but seemed to have this hang up that they wanted to be more like a big flashy business. I remember reading on the freedomfromcommandandcontrol blog about charities wanting to be like big corporations with shiny revolving doors and London addresses, when really they should be focussing on being what they exist to do and the service they deliver. I lost count of the amount of times people said that “We need to be more commercial, corporate, faceless or whatever else”. There was some leverage there with people, but they got sold the Lean package and it seemed to turn into an unstoppable force into standard work oblivion. Makes me a bit sad to think back on it. If I had been more experienced and knowledgeable perhaps I could have done more to lead a more sensible path.

        Currently I’m in the private sector. In all honesty it’s much the same, but here we have the added distraction of Executive bonuses. This means that no one really cares unless it’s going to show us hitting this quarters numbers. At absolutely any cost!

        I’d just say if anyone gives you even a chink of light, then kick the door open. It seems a lot easier to ask forgiveness than permission. By way of example, I’ve just been asked if I could map some processes as we are getting ready for a new IT system in the contact centre that is going to solve the world’s problems. I don’t want to do this. I know that the mythical IT system won’t work, but I’ve also learnt that voicing that concern at this point will just get me pushed to the side. So I agree to do the work, but say things like “We need to start with understanding the purpose of the system and how each process fits into it.”. So knowing full well that the magical IT system will arrive one day whatever I do about it, I’ll use the opportunity to get out and measure the demand To understand the variation and all the processes difficulties. To use some new measures and perhaps make people think a bit differently about the work. I guess I’m trying the Trojan horse approach.

        I’ve no idea if it will work, but it’s gotta be better than running process mapping workshops. I say let yourself loose rather than wait to be told it’s okay.


  10. Liam says:


    I’ve not been able to reply in full with my own blog due to some sensitivities about my work just now, but I would like to share that I’ve got experience of excellent small to large pieces of work which are taking ‘old school’ organisations and helping them flip mindset and practice towards a more systems orientated view. Its possible, but as others have noted it needs those that need to change to want to change. It then seems to need tools to make the change, and iterative support to steer their heads to new places. It’s hard work but it’d rewarding. Tonight I’m meeting 20 people from 20 organisations all wanting to talk about how we work in a different way. Exciting times that I hope to share soon.


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  12. Bob AInsworth says:

    My experience.

    I spent 6 years systems thinking for a company that brought vanguard in to help us change the way we work. I was just a lowly member of staff at that time but boy did systems thinking change the way I looked at the way we worked. It was refreshing to actually discuss/debate/argue about the way we worked and how we, those of us who did the work, could implement changes for the better for the company rather than a top down command and control approach. It rattled management somewhat but with the necessary data and research we showed them what needed to be changed. It started to change. Our customer service (call centre) scores improved rapidly but the main thing for me is that we had happy staff as and happier customers which in turn improved productivity and smashed the ‘targets’ we had previously been set, targets which were filed under B for bin.

    Cut to now and a new job with a new company and yes, targets. Sales targets to be precise. I keep talking about systems thinking at work and currently its falling on deaf ears. I just found out that if I don’t hit my sales target for this month then I face disciplinary action. Suffice to say I chuckled inside and a bit of me cried as I realised they have just given me sufficient ammo to cut corners to attempt to hit target. Bang goes the customer service and bang goes my morals. Or so I thought, but no, I just can’t go back to an old school command and control way of thinking. It doesn’t help the company and it certainly doesn’t help the customer. Disciplinary here I come.

    PS I was also told that one of my targets for my bonus includes me putting a customer through to a scoring system at the end of a call and targeted on how many actually complete it. As in, they say yes they will go through to it but then if they dont complete it for whatever reason then I potentially can lose my bonus. Despite my cries of ‘That’s utterly insane’, I still have to achieve this ‘out of my control’ requisite.


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