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on 30 March 2017
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on 24 March 2014
The truth at the core is that all work either adds value or is waste (adds no value). This book explores the extensive experience of this truth in the public sector.
If anything the point is reiterated beyond that required for a thorough explanation.
An impassioned plea to free the sector from targets and the unaffordable industry created by them.
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on 7 November 2015
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in systems thinking and improving public services. I didn't think it would be when I picked it up, but it's a real page turner.
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on 10 November 2014
Some interesting ideas if only to show that targets are not necessarily the solution but can become the problem. However I always remember the old a Roman quote which I think often sums up the change management experience across the century's -

We trained hard . . . but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

It's far too easy for managers to introduce change and convince themselves it's working when all that's happening is that the troops have made ill thought out change work despite itself. To put it another way and continue the Roman theme. John Seddon - 'he's not the messiah........he's just another management consultant' Let's not treat him like one.
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on 25 October 2014
V. Interesting
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on 17 September 2008
John Seddon has written a great book, which I hope becomes a management classic and mandatory reading for all politicians and managers.
In it he explains how the current government focus on micromanagement and targets has made services worse and more expensive.
Do targets work? They work inasmuch as they encourage people to meet the targets - that's what they get paid on - but in order to do so they will 'game' the system. I have never known a system where this has not happened. So they meet the targets, but at the expense of customer service.
John shows that targets are destructive and counterproductive. An example I have witnessed. A time limit was put on telephone enquiries. So after one question, if the customer had a second question, some operators would tell them they had to call in again to get the second question answered. (I always wondered if the manager who made the call length target also reduced the length of all their conversations and meetings to 3 minutes). This is an excellent example of arbitrary management decisions, not based on any reality, but with the thought that by focusing only on a step in the process they can reduce costs. Of course, without looking at the whole process, it is more likely to increase costs. We all know of other examples - I have just received a form from the tax man to be filled in without any return address or envelope to send it back in. So I call them to find out. These failures in one part of an organisation make more work elsewhere. Getting service right first time is always cheaper (and if you don't agree, in explaining why, you've just proved my point!)

More importantly, John shows what you can do about it: simple practical steps that do not need an army of consultants or massive IT projects.
Who knows best what the work actually consists of? The managers in their offices? The people in head office?
Why not get the workers to fix the customers' problems, and where they cannot, get them to drive the process changes (with the help of their managers - you knew managers had to have some role). This is illustrated with lots of examples. Whilst John is very wary of quoting the sort of productivity improvements you can get, his examples range from 20-40%. But setting out to save money is a way to fail; getting the service right (not necessarily the best service, but as John shows, service that does the job in the way the customer expects) is the way to lowest costs.

Lots of ideas in a powerful book. Enjoy.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 January 2014
I started out expecting I would largely agree with the book, and by the end although my agreement with much of the ideas wasn't shaken, the way the book argues for them left me disappointed.

Take the book's bald statement, "I have not seen any evidence that people want choice. I see plenty of evidence that people want services that work." It's an extreme factual claim - no evidence at all, indeed (and I guess means he's not been a reader of David Boyle over the years, ironically given that David Boyle is a fan of Seddon's approaches). Of course there is a very relevant debate about choice - does it help improve public services? But John Seddon presents the issue in such a dismissive way that rather than enlightening the reader about the conundrum, he just breezes past it as if it didn't exist at all - and also leave you wondering what role in his world there is for a member of the public who wants a GP service that works for them, which to their mind includes choice over when to see the GP. Is the idea of people wanting choice over when they see their GP so risible and trivial that it deserves such dismissive treatment?

Or take another example: "The assumption (for which there is no empirical evidence) is that people have different skill sets". Really? No-one in the public services varies in what skills they have? And there I was thinking that my IT skills are much higher than my plumbing ones, with the evidence of the dripping pipe being a good piece of evidence. Mind you, I am ex-public sector.

There is a good point buried in here, about the way in which public service jobs too often are very specialised. Public sector workers are expected to specialise in very narrow tasks rather than to have the broader problem-solving skills which would better reflect the messy actual demands on public services. Yet although the point about need greater and broader skills at the front end of public services is returned to elsewhere, the generality expressed with utter confidence that people don't have different skill sets obscures rather than helps such a discussion.

Moreover, there's a illiberal thread running through the book as it's not just the idea that people might want choice that it dismisses. Also in the long list of ideas breezily dismissed, for example, is the idea that the public should be asked what matters to them when it comes to setting targets or objectives for public services. "Such surveys can only yield unreliable data and invalid conclusions," says Seddon in his sweeping dismissal of the idea that a public service perhaps should in part worry about what service the public wants. In doing so, he again leaves behind an important debate. In this case, two of the crime-related ideas he derides are that the public is concerned about fear of crime and so tackling that might be advisable and also that the public likes to see a police presence and so therefore that might be something to try to balance with other calls on police time. Of course, dealing with fear of crime and putting police where the public can see them may well detract from using police resources to stop crime or catch criminals. But the questions about how do you reconcile those competing demands do not get a look in as John Seddon instead discards as utterly flawed the idea that the public views on priorities matter or that fear of crime might be a significant problem.

Which is all very odd, not only in its own terms, but also when you turn to other parts of the book, where he argues eloquently and convincingly that the best way to understand public services and to improve them is to focus on the overall experience of individuals and how they get treated by different parts of the system. That leads to the very useful insight of 'failure demand', namely how much of the work done by public services is caused by the failure to deal with an issue properly an earlier stage. As a result, apparently efficient services are really nothing of the sort. A call centre that deals with a large volume of calls, at a low cost per call, may look a success - until you then realise how many of the calls are generated by the failure of an earlier call to resolve an issue.

Repeatedly dealing quickly with progress chasing calls isn't a sign of efficiency, it's a sign of failure that costs more than a longer call which results in an issue being sorted first time round. Hence the point mentioned above about needing broader problem solving skills at the front line of public services rather than niche specialisms which shuffle people around repeatedly without anyone quite getting to grips with the underlying issues.

That in turn leads to a useful discussion about the problem with traditional targets in the public sector. The distinction between a target (bad) and an outcome measure (good) can appear to a novice rather like a medieval theological debates at times. Whilst Seddon and his supporters are often very critical of targets and dismissive, verging on rude, about the main proponents of targets, they own preferred approaches still involve turning things into numbers where the numbers moving in one direct is bad and in another is good. For example, when I heard John Seddon speak about his approach, he started off with an example of a much improved local council housing service - and he led with two numbers to illustrate how improved it was, namely lower costs and shorter waiting times. Yet on the same occasion he was also very hostile to the idea that numerical targets are useful for improving public services.

The book sets out an approach for using numbers that help understand what is really going on in a system and which leave people in the public service free to work out the best way of providing a service, rather than micro-managing their choice for them. But ultimately the book didn't persuade me that in practice - especially given the political and media scrutiny and pressure around public services - such measures wouldn't end up being that different from a good target. They would certainly be better than a bad target, but if the measure tells you something useful about what is happening in a public service, and people are keen to see the public service improve, then it ends up morphing into a target, even if only at the behest of media stories covering the public service. Indeed, Seddon quotes W Edwards Deming approvingly saying, "A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system". But don't tell him that sounds to you rather like saying you should have a target...

There is plenty of value in this book then, such as the importance of integrating policy making with administration so that the policies that are set are capable of sensible administration (echoing the point made in Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it), even if the author's sometimes rather implausible sweeping claims and regular dismissiveness about almost everyone else often obscures rather than illuminates.
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on 8 May 2015
I read this book in 2015, the examples are now a bit dated and could do with a revised edition (or I should have read one of his latter books). However, the fundamental systems thinking discussions remain of value and the examples cited are illustrative, if not a bit limited. A few of the items covered are; value demand & failure demand (capacity), study of flow, predictability & variation, check’ – the ‘what and why’ of performance as a system, and behaviours & incentives.

For the material covered, the author is obviously extremely passionate about the waste he feels exist in the public sector. He and his consulting company clearly have a lot off experience in the field with both local and central government. Lots of pertinent examples are cited, which makes for an eye opening read, but at times the author does come across as being a bit evangelical about his ideas, even a bit self righteous. This goes back to the author being passionate about the subject. I would have preferred the author to be a bit cooler and balanced in his writings.

The author also has quite a crusade around public use of targets and the consequences of their use on services, becoming the purpose of the system above the actual consumer need. You probably will have read quite a bit about govt targets in the press; this book provides some great examples on how these work in practice and just how much of a negative impact they can have.

The book majors describing three problem in public administration drawing on systems principles, rather than add in-depth look into systems engineering principles using the public sector. I had been hoping for the latter, but received the former. I probably read something into the description that was not there. If you are looking for a book explaining the range of tools in systems thinking that can be used, this book feels a little light. But if you are looking for a simple perspective of public services through a systems thinking lens... then this is the book too buy.

This book is well worth a read, spending some time pondering the ideas and how they may bee relevant to your line of work.
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VINE VOICEon 20 December 2008
"When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a measure." Goodhart's Law is as powerful, if not as well known, as Parkinson's Laws. It deserves to be better known and understood.

This book helps us to understand the working out of Goodhart's law, and shows us how disastrous it is when people in charge do not understand Goodhart's Law.

The basic error which Seddon exposes is that failure to think of the whole system or pathway of help, leads instead to focusing on parts of the system, with the result that although each bit may be doing its bit, the overall result is awful, as one part clashes against another. This dynamic is currently endemic in Britain's public sector leading to valueless activity, meaningless measurement, and ever poorer service, at ever greater cost. You and I as taxpayers are paying heavily for this stupidity. David Craig describes the full costs in his book Squandered.

The dynamics of not trusting the staff, not believing the staff's reports, working to meet the target, rather than to meet the need are powerfully described, with examples drawn mainly from the housing sector. I could supply many examples from the NHS, and teachers, soldiers and police would readily testify to the truth of Seddon's argument. Their managers would utterly deny there is a problem, and set about rooting out the few bad apples who disturb their illusions. It's not that managers are intrinsically daft, it's just that the tasks they are set are misdirected from the start. Politicians wonder how the services get poorer even as all the targets they set are met.

Seddon's book is seditious. It makes a powerful case that most of the people in the public sector involved in regulation, management, specification of roles and contracts, are actually wasting their time, and even worse they get in the way of front line staff trying to do their jobs. When the truth that Seddon articlulates is fully understood a whole load of jobs and staff in the public sector will need to disappear.

This is an excellent book. It challenges current orthodoxies, and explains why front line public servants such as doctors, teachers, police so detest their management. This book deserves to lead to major changes in how the public sector works. Management that is focused on targets, and looking good to superiors and politicians, rather than on delivering good service to clients and patients is useless.

I recommend this book to MPs, councillors, and to front line public sector workers. Their managers must not read as it is dangerous, and they don't need to know it, or they will lose all belief in their work.

This book is very powerful medicine, and the British public sector would benefit from a large dose of it.
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on 3 June 2008
This book is a follow up to Freedom From Command and Control which was about how a management style called "Systems Thinking" could make the service sector much better. That book itself was excellent but I feel that John has eclisped it with the latest book, particularly if you have an interest in the way the public sector operates (and lets face it, we all should have as thats where our taxes go). The book paints a clear picture of just why the current government (regime) has failed to make a significant improvment in public sector services (health, education, police, local govt etc)despite drastically increasing spending (our taxes).
John is claiming (and I recognise much of what he is saying as true from experience)that the way government actually run the public sector through standards, targets and meauring the sector to death is the reason why it is failing, and NOT, as the media often wrongly claim, is it down to poor employees or managers.
Sadly this is a point that is only rarely picked up by the media (possibly because its easier to blame people than a system) but is the fundamental truth behind why we pay so much in taxes and seem to get little in return. For anybody who has used any area of the public sector and received less than good service, this book has the answer.
Readers will in future recognise why they are receiving poor service and ask "what is the target behind this poor service".
John eloquently describes several case studies and scenarios which illustrate his claims and thinking. The style is easy to read and understand and in addition to the content there is also a host of useful information that any manager can pick up and use as an added benefit.
You should buy this book if you are a manager in the public sector and want to make a difference, or a tax payer and you want to know where your money is besing wasted. If you are a committed Command and Control management style thinker, then you will find your current beliefs challenged and undermined by this book.
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