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A call to "dismantle the institutions of specification and inspection"
on 31 December 2008
John Seddon does not like "management fads" like IiP, Charter Marks, CRM, TQM, BPR, EFQM or Six Sigma, and he especially does not like ISO 9000. He is not particularly keen on the "toolheads" who promote stand-alone techniques derived from the Toyota Production System (TPS), aka "lean" manufacturing. He is damning about the government's application of target-based systems on the public services, and devotes an appendix to that aspect. Applying tools without really thinking through the problem, he says, is almost invariably counterproductive.
Seddon has built a career applying the philosophy of the TPS to service organisations. He venerates Taiichi Ohno, the man who, above all, created and developed TPS, and the storey is littered with references to what Ohno said and did. Much of the manufacturing detail of car manufacture is not applicable to service organisations, however, so Seddon has attempted to think things through from first principles. I came across reference to Seddon's work in his distinguishing of "failure demand" from "value demand". Failure demand is demand that only exists because initial demand was not satisfied properly. It includes, e.g., the 40% of calls that some call centres receive chasing up enquiries made earlier and any work to correct earlier work that was not done properly. As one of the key aims of "lean" is to eliminate waste, failure demand represents a first and obvious type of waste in service organisations. Seddon demonstrates, however, that by treating failure and value demand alike in statistical analysis, failure demand can help give a quite false impression of greater productivity. This merely reinforces the need to look in, from the customer's perspective, and ask what he or she might think of the service.
Seddon argues that the key to Ohno's innovation was to move manufacturing from a "command and control" environment to a "systems "approach. Systems thinking is about looking at the quality and speed of output from the customer's perspective, looking at the "end to end" process and not just small parts of it, looking at the flow of work through the system and the generation of waste within it. Seddon believes that targets and incentives, based on measures of just small parts of an overall system (and sometimes, he suggests, on rather artificial and wasteful parts of a system) are counterproductive. He certainly comes up with many examples where managers devise and apply targets and their organisations duly meet them, but the experience of the customer, and of those attempting to do the work, is poor. He argues that the role of managers is to "work on the work" (i.e. to take a share of doing the actual work, and thus to understand it) and then to "work on the system" so that it improves and the front-line workers get all the assistance they require carrying out the roles for which they have been given full responsibility. Consistent with these views, Seddon dismisses appraisal, incentivisation and even absence management as unnecessary and counterproductive.
If I had any disappointments, they were all the service sectors on which he based case studies, representing the clients with which Seddon and his Vanguard organisation has worked, were at the "mass services" end of the spectrum: call centres, IT help-desks, utilities maintenance. As my interest is primarily in professional services, I did not find much of direct relevance, although I am trying to think through the principles. Some of the diagrams seemed unhelpful - for example I really failed to understand "the Vanguard Model for `check' " - and even after re-reading some sections I was not sure that I had quite grasped what Seddon was getting at. I was, lastly, slightly surprised at the adopting of US English spelling conventions by a British author, but Productivity is an American publisher.
Seddon is modest about what he has achieved, and his outlook seemed slightly pessimistic. He has changed the approach in a few divisions in a few organisations, but he has noted that when new managers are appointed they tend, because they don't understand his systems approach and they think in command and control ways, to revert to previous ways of working and those subordinates who adopted the systems approach move on. As the product, no doubt he would say, of a "command and control" training myself, I am not sure that I accept all of his critique. I do not, for example, quite see that a systems approach is incompatible with command and control approach, which may be appropriate in some circumstances. I do not see, in fact, that "command and control" and "systems" are at opposite end of the same spectrum. Nevertheless, this is a very interesting book and I would recommend it to anyone trying to question the way that their current service operations are running. Not having done so myself, I wonder whether it would be better to read a book of lean manufacturing and the TPS beforehand, like Womack, Jones and Roos' "The Machine that Changed the World" or Taiichi Ohno's own book. This is very much a book, however, for those looking to formulate new questions rather than finding new answers to the current ones.