One weird trick to design your organisation, in one easy step! (Management consultants will HATE you!)

Don’t design your organisation

  • for efficiency

  • for managing demand

  • for digital by default

  • to achieve strategic priorities

  • by copying best practice

So what do you do then?


  • Design against customer purpose

That’s it.

The predictable value demands presented by the customer, whatever matters to them in helping them solve their problem. That’s the purpose your system should meet.

Here’s what happens when you do….

“Through focusing ruthlessly on what matters to citizens, public-sector organisations in Wales have:

  • More than halved the percentage of referrals leading to statutory funded packages of care, from 24.1% to 10.9%

  • Reduced residential and nursing care placements by 28%

  • Cut average domiciliary care packages from 12 hours to 9.7 hours a week

  • Reduced contacts into social services by 48%

  • Underspent community care budget for three consecutive years

  • Reduced the number of assessments by 30%, and rereferrals” [link]


 By ruthlessly  focusing. Not “doing a bit of purpose on the side”, and not doing it as part of a half hearted customer satisfaction or a spot of continuous improvement.

But taking customer purpose and what matters as their central aim and number one only priority.

Focusing on purpose reduced costs. On the other hand reducing costs would have distracted from and made worse their ability to meet customer purpose. Increasing costs.

Focusing on purpose reduced failure demand. Managing demand would have distracted from meeting value demand, increasing failure demand.

Nobody wants to make an organisation worse, but this is what happens when you focus on things other than customer purpose. It makes people do silly things they otherwise wouldn’t.

If you want to design your organisation to be the best it can be, focus ruthlessly on customer purpose and what matters to them.

Posted in clarity of purpose, command and control, customer, purpose, systems thinking, vanguard method | Tagged , | 6 Comments

The Varieties of Human Work

There’s 4 types of work, only one of which actually exists.
We mainly talk about the other three that don’t.
Here’s a blog post of Steven Shorrocks, explaining all 4 so that the NEXT time YOU talk about work, you know which type youre taking about.

Humanistic Systems

Understanding and improving human work is relevant to most people in the world, and a number of professions are dedicated to improving human work (e.g. human factors/ergonomics, quality management, industrial/work/organizational psychology; management science). The trouble with many of these professions is that the language and methods mystify rather than demystify. Work becomes something incomprehensible and hard to think about and improve by those who actually design and do the work.  Recently, some notions that help to demystify work have gained popular acceptance. One of these is the simple observation that how people think that work is done and how work is actually done are two different things. This observation is very old, decades old in human factors and ergonomics, where it dates back to the 1950s in French ergonomics (le travail prescrit et le travail réalisé; Ombredanne & Faverge, 1955) and arguably the 1940s in analysis of aircraft…

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There really is only one test!


Attention performance people!

Attention people who use numbers for performance!

That’s you!

You have one job!

One job only!

The purpose of your job, listen up, here it is, I’m about to tell you….it is to find out…

“Is the apparent effect real, or is it due to chance?”

That’s it.

Your job is to (i) measure the right thing  (ii) in the right way, so that managers can tell if what they are doing has any real effect, and that any change isn’t due to chance.

Everything flows from that question. Here, I’ll repeat it..

“Is the apparent effect real, or is it due to chance?”

Now, off you go.

NB the crux of this teeny post comes from this one here. I’ve even stolen the title, just added an extra word. Go have a read if you understand statistics. I don’t, but it’s STILL worth a read. It’s very good!

Posted in statistics, systems thinking, very short posts | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Curious Case Of The Chart That Didn’t Bark In The Night

“Why has this performance indicator gone down three months in a row?”

Regular readers of this blog will know the answer to this question already, without any knowledge of the indicator in question, or the work being measured.

“It’s probably just random noise”

“That’s common cause variation”

“3 data points doesn’t say s****”

The words might be different, but the message is the same: chill. There’s not enough in 3 decreasing data points to say anything has changed.

But I was asked that very same exact identical question recently and thought hang on, what are the chances that I’m wrong?

Oh… Hang on…WRONG?

I mean, jumping to conclusions and knee jerk reactions is what I accuse others of aaaaaallll the time. So I thought I’d work it out using all maths and snit.

We have 22 months worth of data, it’s a pretty silly indicator, doesn’t really measure anything business critical but it is still one that people are interested in. So and hence it is on an official scorecard reported in the usual scorecard way of this month against last month with an associated up or down arrow, you know, binary comparisons ahoy…

The problem with putting an indicator in a table like this, it chops it all up into individual pieces and compares the latest piece with some other arbitrary number, like a target or same time last year. It loses EVERYTHING that helps you find out about the thing being measured.

So first, let’s put it all back together again and have a look at the data in context. Let’s open up this baby and see what’s under the hood. 

Ahem…. I’ll stick it in a graph.

Et voilà!


This is just a bog standard run chart, with the median indicated on it. No control chart AS YET because if you’ve a control chart THEN you’ve got to start explaining stuff about variation, which I just don’t have the energy for and nobody gives a damn either.

But RUN CHARTS, that’s a line graph, it’s from excel. It’s NOT SCARY. Nothing needs explaining with a run chart other than what’s in it.

And the cool thing about a run chart is you STILL can detect, and more importantly UNdetect “trends”.( I hate trends. Trends are to Excel, what death by bulletpoint is to PowerPoint. A built in function that substitutes a default Microsoft approved solution for ACTUAL thinking.)

So, tell me Einstein, what’s that run chart tell YOU?“, Says an imaginary reader.


Remember that question at the very beginning? Here, I’ll shout it at you again

“Why has this performance indicator gone down three months in a row?”

The question is about the last three going down. Now, I’m going to have to get all mathematical on your ass. Not VERY, cos I can’t be bothered working it all out correctly so nobody will spot all my mistakes.

But take a good look at that run chart again…


(I’m assuming you know about noise and signal, about the world being chock full of noise and only a bit of signal. That there is common cause variation and special cause variation.
Let’s assume you do. (if not, read all around here).)

In a run chart you can tell if there has been any shifts in the underlying process producing this measure. No need for a control chart! This discovery changed my life! Turns out there’s a whole load of knowledge about run charts I’d not been privy to.
A run chart acts as Filter Number One as Davis Balestracci calls it, find out ““Did this process have at least one shift during this time period?”.

This question is KEY. It tells you whether you are looking at a stable process. As My New Best Friend Davis says…

This generally is signaled by a clump of eight consecutive points either all above or below the median. If the process did have such a shift, then it makes no sense to do a control chart at this time because the average of all these data doesn’t exist.


Sort of like, “If I put my right foot in a bucket of boiling water and my left foot in a bucket of ice water, on the average, I’m pretty comfortable.”

So there IS no point in looking at a control chart right away, see what the run chart tells you first, see if there is actually ONE process there at all.

This run chart shows there are not 8 consecutive points above or below the median, so it’s all one set of data produced under the same conditions. It’s one system. Same things happening throughout.

So lets see that thing at the end, the 3 data points in a row that decreased, in the context of a process producing a stable set of data, what’s THAT mean then?

Well, a run of 3 data points all in one direction in a process that is stable, my theory is that it’s just noise. It is common cause variation. The alternative mental model of this is the question I was asked, these 3 decreasing data points mean something, that they are signal. Let’s do a robot wars fight off between these two!

If there WERE just common cause variation in a set of 22 data points, then this means that any of the data points is as likely to go up as well as it is go down. There is no signal in any particular movement of any single data point.

This is because randomness is CLUMPY. You don’t expect it, but in random strings of data there will be things that look not random. Ie in a string of flipping a coin you will get clumps of heads and clumps of tails. Like this!


Here each T is a tail, and H is a head. See how there are patterns, as the number of data points increase, the number of seeming odd patterns will increase too. There is more noise as the number of datapoints increase, and as a proportion of it all the signal reduces as the noise increases.

This is why people need to understand statistics because they are already using statistics.

Below is a lovely table from that smashing man Davis, and here we can see that for any given amount of datapoints there are a minimum and a maximum number of runs that you should expect to see.


In this case there are 22 datapoints, and therefore we should expect to see between 7 and 16 runs. This is expected noise! We should see noise! And we do!

In fact if we were to apply a bit more of a thinking cap, we can work out what are the chances of getting 3 or more datapoints going down in a row.

In a process with simple common cause variation, im going to assume (FLASHING RED LIGHT FLASHING RED LIGHT!) that for any single data point there is a 50% chance of it going up as it is to go down. If you want to know for any dataset with each datapoint having a 50% chance of being something or another, what are the chances of there being X amount in a row having this characteristic, its just like the flipping coins example. basically I want to know in any set or 22 coin flips what are the chances of 3 in a row being heads (or tails). This is the same as me wanting to know the probability of in 22 datapoints with a 50% chance of being up or down, that there are 3 in a row going down.

In fact, i’m going to make it HARDER, cos what happens if there were 3 or MORE in a row, not just 3 exactly. Whats the chances of that then?

Turns out, it’s 99.994% that there will be 3 or more going down, in my set of 22 datapoints.

ie, a racing certainty. Odds on. Bet your house on it!

You can work it out using excel!


Click on this pic for an explanation, cos its ROCK to explain, but easy to understand

So, there we have it. The answer. 99.994% chance of seeing by pure random chance three months in a row of this measure going down.

I think I’m in need of an open top bus parade with all that maths.

Now for the actual hard bit….explaining it to someone not systemsy.


Posted in data, statistics, systems thinking | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Looking good, Billy Ray!

This is a systems thinking blog.
There’s a type of systems thinking I don’t mention here called Soft Systems Methodology, or SSM. I’ve never actually used it as a method, not out loud and proud.

But the key word is systems THINKING. 

And SSM is great for thinking about things yourself. It’s a structured way of thinking in systems.

A part of the method is to use diagrams of a system, to have a structured debate about what it currently is and what it could and should be changed into.

A question asked during this is..

“Is this change systemically desirable and culturally feasible?”

There are two parts to this, tackling two issues. Is the change..

1: systemically desirable.

This means given the purpose of the system, given what it is supposed to achieve in what way, then are the changes needed to achieve this? Would the system get more coherent and congruent to its purpose?

2: culturally feasible.

This asks the question, is it POSSIBLE given the culture and beliefs, the norms and values, of where we are.

Ponderous stuff eh? It’s why I’ve never bothered talking about SSM, and cos quite frankly you could do SSM and still sit in your executive strategic suite, fully insulated from reality, drowning in operational ignorance, and still correctly say that you’re doing “systems thinking”. Cos you are, a branch of it.

Anyway, this question, systemically desirable and culturally feasible, I reckon managers and leaders do actually ask it in the course of change… Just the wrong way round.

I think the question they ask of the change they plan is actually…

Is it Systemically feasible and is it culturally desirable?

This is a very different question indeed.

It asks “the change we’re gonna do, firstly CAN we do it in the system we’ve got? Is it feasible?

Secondly, what will people make of it? If it’s not wanted, how can we make people want it?”

See the difference?

It starts from ALREADY having decided what you want to do, not from working out what should be done, and whether it could be done.

This is the feel good method of managing change. It is about bulldozing changes into a system, and schmoozing the people in it to “want” the change. 

Anyway. Here’s what Billy-Ray Valentine had to say about it yesterday…

Posted in change, systems thinking, thinking | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Computers are weird

Computers are weird.

People sit with both open hands held next to each other in front of their body, their palms down. Fingers wiggling.

They call this work.

They call it work cos they’re at work, and that’s where they go to work. At computers.

Today all around me people, proper intelligent people, sat at computers, fingers wiggling. All day, with breaks for tea, lunch, bits of chats and such. 

I know computers are great. I’m finger wiggling at one to type this. But work is not whatever happens at work. If you think this then finger wiggling at a computer becomes work. Rather than solving problems and helping people, work is defined as whatever you do at work.

This is why purpose is vital. A line of sight between what you do when you walk in the door, and somebody helped because of that

If you can’t see this, it’s probably not there, and you’re just sitting finger wiggling at a computer.

This is not cynical. Cynical is sitting finger wiggling and convincing yourself that it’s work cos people tell you it is, and cos it’s easier than finding a customer and seeing if they need any help.

Most activity at work happens without any beneficial effect on a customer. It goes down without touching the sides. I spent all day today re-formatting a report, full of the wrong measures, measured the wrong way, so that it could be printed easier and it would look nicer. A perfectly benign activity that helps nobody. In the thinking of lean, or Vanguard Method, or Deming, or indeed any sane point of view, this is 100% waste and therefore shouldn’t happen at all. Just stop it.

Waste can easily hide itself if it looks like finger wiggling at a computer. Especially if it looks like finger wiggling at a computer. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a computer, but there is something inherently wrong with finger wiggling at it for no good reason.

Computers are weird, but people are weirder.

Posted in clarity of purpose, command and control, purpose, systems thinking, vanguard method | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

We’re number 2! We’re number 2! Yay us! Now who’s US exactly?

image004-25About a month or so ago I started getting loooaads of traffic for a really old post from when the blog was still good.

This one was about 4 German words we should all use, which is why it was called 4 German words we should all use. You should go read it, it’s quite good.

Anyway, I noticed that the source for the traffic was Google, meaning people were searching for something and it was directing them to this post.

I was curious so left a note on the post asking new arrivers where they’d come from. Turns out the word Verschlimmbesserung points to this post, if you google it and if you ignore Urban Dictionary which is the first link. So yay me.
This weird word is enjoying a brief period of being fashionable, it has appeared on some famous YouTuber’s..erm Youtube, and it also was on BBC radio! Go Verschlimmbesserung!


Click on the pic to google this word if you don’t believe me

This is excellent because Verschlimmbesserung is a one word encapsulation of this entire blog.

If you’ve got this far and still haven’t clicked on my post, here is the definition…

“A supposed improvement that makes things worse.”

If that isn’t command and control management in one hard to pronounce word, then what is?

So, what’s the point of this post then?

I never set out to type blog posts about German compound words, and yet here we are. I also didn’t set out to type blog posts that anybody would ever actually read, and yet here we are as well. This got me thinking. I found out specifically who was coming for the delightful Verschlimbesserung, but I have also found out over the years who is coming for everything else too.

In short, I know who I am, I’m a chippy lower-middle class oik, but who are you?


Ok, you undoubtedly know who you are, but who are the other people who click on this nonsense? Ever since I started I’ve been keenly interested in why and how people get here.
I just fire up my phone and here I am, but other people have to know about this place or somehow are led here.
I’ve been keeping tabs, and here is who you lot all are. There’s roughly THREE types of people who follow this nonsense….


A pie chart. An onion pie. Mmmm tasty

1: IT people

Loads of these. For some reason often from Finland. I think it could be because IT actually produce stuff, and so therefore have come up with models of “how to make stuff”? Unlike call centres etc, which don’t produce stuff. I HAVE heard of “Agile” and “scrum” and the like, though don’t want to know any more than that about those things, so I’m thinking there is a history of models of doing things in IT that just aren’t there in callcentres etc and this is why people come across this place. They are agilistas or whatever, and being IT types are also on the line, so and hence googling and following people who are akin to systems thinking they come across this place? You know, nerds

This is guessology of the crudest sort, but it’s all I have to go off, and I HAVE noticed that of all the corporate type functions, finance, legal, procurement etc, there is only IT in any appreciable numbers. I’m also guessing that they follow the usual route of dissatisfaction with the usual ways of doing things, and curiosity leads them to many places including this one. And as a provider of functionally illiterate systems-thinking memes, i salute you.


I’M a nerd, i like nerds. Not a criticism!

Or IT people are nerds.

2: Systemsy types

By which I mean, consultants, people who work as “improvement types” of a systemsy bent, individuals with a personal interest in and a pursuit of knowledge about systemsy things. People who are into organisations and why they are they way they are. Could be HR types, could be. No reason why not.

They run from people with Grand Titles like “Director of Systems Thinking” etc, to people who just have systemsy blogs to their name. Either way, they’re into improvement and organisations either professionally or unpaid, to keep their amateur status.

I’m guessing, again, that they come across this place as part of their ongoing professional or personal interest in organisations and why they don’t and could work properly. I’m in this group, but safeguarding my amateur status by being totally inept at it in real actual life.

I’ve noticed the more “practical” posts tend to resonate and get spread around a lot on twitter by this lot. Things like that marbles post or stuff to do with measures. From browsing around I’ve found out people actually went out and bought jars and marbles to do their own version! Fantastic.

And this one, this lot loved this one.

Best of all is the last group though…

3: Normal ordinary people

These are the best. This is what happens…


How would I know that somebody is a normal ordinary person? Well a person subscribes to blog…


Then I see who they are, roughly. Linkedin, or work email addresses tell you that, I’m not peering in their bathroom window at night or anything.
THEN somebody else from the same place soon afterwards signs up too, days or hours usually…


So now there’s a pattern. And then more….


I know then that they’ve shared links or posts around their colleagues and for some reason systemsy stuff resonates with a fair amount of people in the place. Not hundreds, but more than where I am. Which isn’t saying a lot. In fact it’s saying “more than none“.

Then I google said organisation, curious like, to find out more and turns out they’ve got someone in, like Vangrad, to turn the place systemsy.
Either that or a new broom has arrived to turn the place systemsy. Events happen, as events tend to do, and somebody googles a word they’ve heard like “demand” or “purpose” and hey presto they find something about the stuff they’ve been doing in meeting rooms, but this time with added knob jokes and crudely drawn cartoons.

As I often say when spotted copying cleverer people, I don’t create I curate. I don’t add something entirely new, I turn what exists into a slightly funner or at least shorter version of itself. This is a thing! There’s so many dull versions of systemsy stuff, or at least long versions, that funner and shorter is a viable alternative to those who don’t identify especially as systemsy types right now. “Just” normal ordinary people working in places that are getting better by studying work, thinking new thoughts and making things better.

This last lot of people are by far the most exciting. They are in banking call centres, insurance companies, large public sector organisations, all sorts. It is always exciting to see it start, as I know that means there are people who will be coming into work excited to do something worthwhile.

If you want to add a comment to say which of the 3 types you are, you are more than welcome as i love comments and finding out about people in other places doing systemsy things.

One more thing, as well as being number 2 for an obscure German word….

We are number 35!

The fantastic Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog, has done a listing of the top management improvement blogs. Wallowing around in the unfashionable end at number 35 is this one.



Go us.

Posted in communication, learning, systems thinking, vanguard method | Tagged , , , , | 20 Comments