systems thinking

I expressed scepticism recently about the UK government’s civil service reforms.  I mentioned that the name of the new(ish) head of the civil service, Sir Robert Kerslake, was not surprisingly associated with them.  New brooms always like to sweep clean.

Now I see Sir Bob is associated, again not unreasonably, with the UK Civil Service Awards 2012.

Only trouble, Sir Bob, is that staff awards are rarely a good idea.

I know if you happened to see this and could be bothered to respond (although why should you?) you’d give me all the reasons why I’m wrong.

Trouble is, I’ve heard them all before and I’m still not convinced.

You can find out why in my post last year on “And the winner is…” – are awards ceremonies a waste of time?

I gave many reasons why these sorts of things are not a good idea but perhaps most fundamental was my conclusion that

The big problem with these awards is [that]…an organisation is a system and how people perform in it depends largely on how senior people manage and improve the system.

Let’s just have a look at these current awards to see how they match up.

The first thing to say is that the government/civil service senior management have such confidence in their own staff that they’ve outsourced the whole awards process to a company called Dods, ‘a political information, publishing, events and communications business operating in both the UK and Europe.’

Moreover, it won’t cost you or me a penny as ‘All costs of running the event will be covered by Dods…through advertising and sponsorship from outside the Civil Service’ (Civil Service Awards FAQ).

You can call that canny or you can call it cheap.

The awards web site shows they are run in association with consultants Ernst & Young and a company called Huawei (‘a leading global ICT solutions provider’).  Other companies sponsor individual awards.  It is of course conceivable that some of them may be interested in getting business from the government.  Curiously, they are also run ‘in partnership’ with the National Audit Office, i.e. another bit of the civil service.  Whether there is a transfer of money from NAO to help fund the awards is not clear.

There are thirteen categories of awards, for both teams and individuals.  It would be tedious to plod through all of them but let’s just say most of them are seen in one guise or another in most public sector awards competitions including – operational excellence, change management, achieving better for less, and professional (professional what?) of the year.  Strangely this last category is the only one not open to nominees in the Senior Civil Service.

Each category, of course, has criteria attached to it.  Here are some of them.  You may notice some old friends from the textbook of management jargon

  • Strong and successful communication has been delivered in an innovative way and successfully engaged customers
  • Best practice application of expert project management skills and techniques
  • Evidence of sustainability, transparency and control in procurement practice
  • Improving results by placing robust evidence and analysis at the heart of the decision–making process
  • Engaging people and developing their own and others capabilities.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the whole process ‘engages’ civil servants this year.

The Office for National Statistics says there were 498,000 civil servants in 2011.  According to the awards web site, they attract ‘upwards of 800 nominations every year.’  OK, some are for teams and some for individuals.  But that’s one nomination for every 622 civil servants.

Hardly a ringing endorsement is it?

But don’t worry.  There’s an awards ceremony in November at which some guest minister (it was the prime minister last year), Sir Bob, other senior civil servants, the sponsors and some of the finalists will feel good about it all.


I noticed on my WordPress dashboard today that someone had dipped into this blog to look at my post on civil service reform.

A couple of clicks and, knock me over with a feather, I found the avid follower was one John Seddon, proponent of the ‘Vanguard method’ of systems thinking.  He or his webbie-person have listed my post (approvingly) on a page on his web site entitled The Lean Toolhead Collection.  This is flagged up slightly misleadingly on the home page of his web site as

John Seddon has written extensively on the damage caused by Lean toolheads, these articles are now collected together for the first time

Yes, the page does include seven articles by the great man himself but also ten items by other people including my by now blessed post on civil service reform, not quite correctly under the sub-heading ‘In the press,’ and without any acknowledgement that it appeared on the HelpGov blog.

At the bottom of the page is the statement ‘Copyright 2012.’  Well, the Seddon articles may be his copyright but the item on civil service reform is mine.

If I sound less than wholly enthusiastic about this unexpected and unsought endorsement it’s because I happen to think Seddon is not wholly a good thing.

He has some great ideas but the adjectives ‘acerbic’ and ‘combative’ understate his essential character.

I experienced this twice.

The first was when I worked for a council.  He bid for some work we had available, didn’t get it, and within a year had characterised us on his web site as amongst those ‘toolheads,’ his favourite put down for anyone who adopts a version of lean thinking of which he doesn’t approve.  This was despite the fact that at this early stage we had published no results of what we were doing and his characterisation was wrong in a number of key respects.

The second was when I was in business for a while and had the temerity to suggest (helpfully I thought) that his company’s habit of using their Twitter feed to release all their tweets for the week on a Sunday morning in one go probably limited their impact.  Within a day or two I had been comprehensively trashed on Twitter and told I fundamentally misunderstood the concept of work ‘flow.’

Well, I’m no longer in a position to turn down any contracts he bids for or in turn bid against him for work, so I’m presumably of less interest to him now.  Except he does seem to like that blog post I wrote…thanks, John.

For reasons you might guess, I’m not desperately keen to provide a link to Seddon’s web site but I’m sure you can find it if you want.

I haven’t seen much coverage of the UK government’s Civil Service Reform Plan in the media these last couple of days (it was published yesterday).  It seems to have got lost amidst much more interesting stuff like Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assenge suddenly finding he has a deep affinity with Ecuador and some team winning a football match.

The plan comes from Cabinet Minister Francis Maude, who seems a decent sort of chap – mostly, notwithstanding the occasional clanger about using domestic garages for the storage of UK petroleum reserves, and civil service head Sir Robert Kerslake, who’s ex-local government.  So that’s OK isn’t it?

Well, not quite.

What’s it all about?  In his foreword, in big letters and right at the beginning so it must be uppermost in his mind, Maude says

Some months back I visited a large HMRC operation near Newcastle. The work staff were doing there was neither highly paid nor glamorous, but nonetheless was really important. They had committed to driving up their productivity and performance through the adoption of lean continuous improvement. This is a very demanding methodology, and requires the complete commitment of staff to a rigorous daily collective self-evaluation and to constantly searching for ways to do things better and quicker.

So there you go.  It’s about ‘lean continuous improvement,’ a phrase that suggests he or those advising him haven’t quite grasped the true meaning of how to improve organisations, but we’ll let that go.

Here’s what a word cloud of the text says it’s about, if you believe how often people use words tells you what they really mean (click the cloud to see a larger version)

Apart from obvious words like ‘Government,’ ‘Civil Service’ and so on, you’ll see lots of references to ‘policy…delivery…change…performance’  and other stalwarts of management-speak.  But where are ‘lean’ and ‘continuous improvement’?  Nowhere, although just tucked away towards the top left you’ll see the innocuous ‘improve.’

No doubt interested parties – trade unions, Taxpayers’ Alliance et al – will say what they think about all the other issues the proposals raise.  But I want to concentrate on one fundamental point related to the issue of improvement.

Chapter 5 of the plan is about

Creating a modern employment offer [sic] for staff that encourages and rewards a productive, professional and engaged workforce.

Action 17 says this will include

Regular and rigorous performance appraisal for all staff, recognising good performance and taking action where performance is poor

and (pp.28-29)

 an…appraisal system which will identify the top 25% and the bottom 10%. The bottom 10% will need to undertake performance monitoring and improvement planning… For all staff that remain bottom performers without improvement and are still not meeting the required standards, a decision will quickly be taken over whether they should be exited from the organization.

So it took a while to get there but here you have it – the bottom 10% incapable of improving will be ‘exited.’

Dress it up how you will this is no more than the hard-nosed, kick-arse school of American management espoused by the likes of Jack Welch, erstwhile boss of General Electric.  That was his style – identify the bottom 10% each year and sack them.

There are fundamental objections to this approach anyhow, but even more so if you say you believe in ‘lean continuous improvement.’   The truth is that how people perform at work is substantially the result of the system (some say as much as 90%+).  Managers (leaders if you will) are responsible for how the system works and they recruit staff, decide what work they do and how, train them, promote them, manage and support them…and so on.

There’s also the little matter of what you might call the arithmetic fallacy.  Let’s say you can objectively identify that ‘bottom’ 10%.  They then fall into the danger zone.  But consider the appraisal scores of two teams, each of twenty staff

Team member

Team A

Team B

No. 1



No. 2



No. 3



No. 4



No. 5



No. 6



No. 7



No. 8



No. 9



No. 10



No. 11



No. 12



No. 13



No. 14



No. 15



No. 16



No. 17



No. 18



No. 19



No. 20



All members of Team B are ‘worse’ than any member of Team A yet under the Maude-Kerslake proposal Nos. 19 and 20 in both teams will be subject to ‘performance monitoring and improvement planning’ and if they don’t improve will be out on their lugs.

Makes sense doesn’t it?

I may return to other aspects of this wonderful document

There’s a great post today on this subject on the We Love Local Government blog – Local Government Oscars.  WLLG are broadly in favour of them but unpick the pros and cons with their characteristic deft touch.

Every industry, part of the public sector, sport, public authority and leisure pursuit seems to have them.  And if you think the UK’s awash with them just google USA public agency award ceremony and see what comes up.

I’m a bit ambivalent about them.

The best can provide great recognition of an organisation’s achievements with a boost to morale, public perception, peer recognition, even staff recruitment.

After using the EFQM excellence model for several years West Lothian Council won the UK Council of the Year Award in 2006.  You knew it wasn’t a flash in the pan.  They’d worked hard at it.  When you visited there was a buzz about the place.  You could see the unease in the eyes of (some) other council chiefs when their then CE Alex Linkston spoke at COSLA events.

On the other hand, when Bumbleshire Council’s north area waste management team gets a commended certificate in the sludge removal awards of the year from a field of two entrants the earth won’t move in quite the same way.  People aren’t daft and they can spot what really counts.

The ones that really worry me are the internal awards.

They typically have categories like

  • Efficiency and innovation
  • Customer first
  • Going green
  • Learner of the year
  • Unsung hero (all individual awards)
  • Top team.

(This is a real example.  You’ll have to search hard to find the public agency concerned)

Within one organisation – let’s call it a system – individuals and teams are being picked out as better than their colleagues.  The process usually relies on nominations.  Be you ever so brilliant, if no one nominates you you’re not in the running.   And what does something like “learner of the year” mean?  Better than every other learner in the whole organisation?  On what grounds?  And at the end of the day, so what?  Do the 99.9% of people in these organisations who don’t get an award really believe that the 0.1% who do are better than them?

The big problem with these awards is hinted at by my use of the word “system” above.  An organisation is a system and how people perform in it depends largely on how senior people manage and improve the system.  Don’t agree with me?  Check out a book I’ve mentioned before, Alfie Kohn’s now classic Punished by Rewards.  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

PS Literally while I was writing this an item popped up on the web from the Taxpayers’ Alliance – yes, them – Council spending on awards ceremonies revealed.  I don’t like them and their take on public services but given the coincidence of timing it would seem odd to ignore their “research” (their word).  Their concern seems to be that councils spend some of their budgets (a minuscule proportion) on awards ceremonies, a different beef from mine altogether.

Q: Why is so much of the time of probation officers [up to 75%] spent carrying out admin and other tasks rather than seeing offenders?

A (Committee chair Sir Alan Beith): It was micro-management.  It was box ticking.  It was all the things we’ve come to associate with a target culture and which really do need to be changed.

R4 Today programme  27 July 2011

Three cheers for the House of Commons Justice Committee and their report published yesterday on the probation service in England and Wales.  A thorough examination of a challenging subject.

Some of their conclusions are worth quoting

  • It seems staggering to us that up to three-quarters of probation officers’ time is spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders…
  • probation trusts have laboured under a tick-box culture, and we call on NOMS (National Offenders’ Management Service) to provide trusts with greater autonomy…
  • It is imperative that NOMS consults trusts properly…
  • Trusts…need greater financial autonomy and, specifically, the power to carry-over a small proportion of their budgets from year-to-year…
  • There needs to be a more seamless approach to managing offenders: prisoners are shunted between establishments and continuity of sentence planning is not treated as a priority…
  • The creation of NOMS…has not led to an appreciable improvement in the ‘joined-up’ treatment of offenders…
  • sentencers’ hands are tied by the unavailability of certain sentencing options because of inadequate resources. This makes very clear the urgent need to focus scarce resources on the front-line and to continue to bear-down on inefficiencies and unnecessary back-room functions…
  • The separation of prison places from the commissioning of every other form of sentence provision has a distorting effect on the options available to sentencers…

There’s much more but this will do to set the context for the point that regular readers would expect HelpGov to make.

Once you get over the jargon that all areas of work spawn you realise that “end to end offender management” is just another system and needs to be treated as such, so that there is a common and correct understanding of

  • what the system is
  • the processes it uses
  • communication within the system
  • culture and trust
  • consistency vs discretion
  • and the other essential attributes of a system.

The Justice Committee’s report is good on the diagnosis of the problems.  In many respects its prescription provides the basis for a cure of the ills it describes.  Let’s hope the government’s demands for a commissioner-provider split in delivery doesn’t thwart the intention.  And that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke doesn’t get distracted by louder voices and other priorities.

[Non-UK readers: Vauxhall = GM]

Tale No. 1 – several years ago

A while ago I attended an inspirational talk by the then local Vauxhall dealer who applied systems thinking in her business.  She walked onto the stage carrying a large holdall.

“We’re going to start with a bit of exercise,” she said.  “I’ve got some balls in here.  I’m going to pass  some down to you and I’d like you to just throw them around the room to each other.”

She took out a tennis ball and lobbed it into the audience then followed with a ping pong ball, a child’s football, a soft woolly ball and a few others.  Soon the hall was like a Wimbledon warm-up, balls being thrown everywhere, general amusement at poor passes, creative lobs and so on.

“Stop now,” she said and took out the largest, heaviest size of 10-pin bowl from the holdall.  “Who wants me to throw this at them?”

There was silence.

“Well,” she said “what if these balls were customers?  Because this is what we do to them – pass them from pillar to post.  It’s great fun.  And how would you deal with this heavy customer?”

It was an effective demonstration of the traditional way in which companies (and public agencies) treat customers.  She then went on, of course, to show the better way her company tried to practice.

Tale No. 2 – yesterday

I attempted to check if my car’s service at my current Vauxhall dealer had been completed, a phone call from them having been promised but not received by 4.50 p.m. (earlier in the day they had laboriously taken three separate phone numbers from me “so we can phone you when it’s ready”).  This is what happened.

Dial number.  Long wait

Dealer reception (DR): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: Service reception please

Line cuts to upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover extolling virtues of used car deals, urging me to contact “the sales team”.  A long wait

Mystery voice (MV) (accompanied by loud scratchy sounds):  Mmmmph, chrccctch, I mmmmph, cchhhrrrg…

Me: Is that service reception?

MV: Mmmmph, chrccctch, mmmmph…

Me: This is a really bad line.  I’m afraid I can’t hear you properly

MV (irritated): Mmmmph, chrccctch, I’m a customer chrccctch I’m waiting to speak to someone

Me: Me too.  What a cock up.  I’ll put the phone down and dial again

Dial number again.  Another long wait

DR: XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: I was just trying to get through to service reception and I seemed to get another customer who was waiting too

DR:  Oh.  I’ll put you through now

Line cuts to same upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover etc etc.  Another long wait

DR (again): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: You were putting me through to service reception but I’ve come back to you

DR: Oh, I don’t know how I keep losing you.  I’ll try again

More annoying music and sales pitch.  Service reception eventually answer phone and claim they’re “just working on the paperwork” and my car’s ready for collection.


I don’t need to labour the difference between these two tales.  Suffice it say that I bought a Vauxhall from the previous dealer solely on the strength of what she’d said in her presentation.  The sales process was immaculate, no hassle, complete honesty about my trade-in, none of that edginess car sales people usually induce.  On the one occasion there was a significant problem with my new car they couldn’t sort the service manager came out with me for a test drive to see if he could detect the problem.  He couldn’t but said to call him directly if it recurred and he’d ensure it was dealt with straight away.  I believed him.

A couple of years later this dealer gave up their franchise.  Their approach didn’t fit the GM model and its bureaucracy – now go back and re-read Tale No. 2 for the current situation.

On the usual issue for this blog of “So what’s this got to do with the public sector?” I’d invite any public servants to draw their own conclusions.  When I worked in councils I certainly picked up the phone more than once to receive the frustrated cry “You’re the 3rd, 4th, 5th…person I’ve been passed on to.”  Oh, and by the way, a call centre isn’t the answer – not unless you get your processes, and your culture, right (back to Tale No. 2 again).

Part 4 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  It follows the separate topics dealt with in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Four random but related frustrations of dealing with and working in the public sector in the UK that should stop.  What are yours?


How we love it.  It’s what managers thrive on.  That knackered-at-the-end-of-the-day feeling, the slump into the armchair, the glass of something alcoholic to relax.  The question from the partner, “How was today, dear?”  “God,” you say, “it was hell.  Problems just came at me from left right and centre.  But do you know what?  I ran around all day like an idiot and by the time I left I’d sorted them all.”  I ran around all day like an idiot.  You certainly did my man (it usually is a male).  Like an idiot.

If it’s firefighting you want take a lesson from the fire and rescue service.  Devote your energy to fire prevention, to making sure problems don’t happen, not letting them happen and then fighting them.

Pouring cold water on new ideas

In my neck of the woods, more thoughtful Scots say it’s the bane of their country.

In central Scotland, where my partner hails from, it finds expression in the cliché “Aye, I kennt his faither” trans. “I knew his father.  He was just a miner/postman/labourer.  How dare the son get above his station in life by showing some ambition and trying to improve himself”.

I think it’s a UK-wide disease.  Not just the public sector (although that for sure) but the rest of the economy and society more generally.

For every entrepreneur (traditional, social or public sector) there are 10 naysayers who’ll tell you why you can’t do it.  Why it won’t work.  They should check out the great systems thinker Russell Ackoff who has some pertinent quotes on the subject.

Excessive bureaucracy

The litmus test at work for me is the answer to the question How do you get leave approved round here? If the answer’s

  • get your leave form out
  • write in the days you want off
  • do the sum to show how many days you’ll have left this year
  • initial your request
  • pass it to the boss’s secretary
  • she passes it to the boss
  • your boss initials the form and passes it back to the secretary
  • the secretary updates the team leave chart on the wall behind her desk and passes the form back to you
  • file your form back where it lives (This is important – in organisations like this your ability to request leave may be questioned if you lose the form – you see, you may be cheating)
  • update your paper diary

you are in bureaucracy hell.  Get out!

Getting small things wrong – because small things add up to big things

Two current public sector examples from my private life, featuring my second and third daughters (D2 and D3).

D2 was due to appear recently as a witness in a court case.  She travelled back from uni to stay overnight and attend court.  On arrival at court and after checking (“It’s not on today”) an official discovered the case had been deferred to autumn, over a year after the alleged minor offence she witnessed.

No one had told the witnesses but they said she could claim expenses.  They mailed her a claim form.  She claimed travel and subsistence.  Three/four weeks later a cheque arrived for travel costs only.  No subsistence and no explanation.  Current state of play – pondering whether it’s worth the hassle of getting the subsistence.


  • Staff time at court to establish case deferred and when to – 10/15 minutes
  • Cost of sending out claim form, processing returned claim, raising and posting cheque – £50? (some considerable time ago I remember reading the real cost of  even a standard letter cost a company about £10)
  • Potential cost of round 2 (the subsistence element of the claim) – another £50?
  • Wasted cost of travel and subsistence (which will have to be claimed again in autumn) – c. £20
  • Add in similar costs for other witnesses in the case.

D3, living in Scotland, may attend a university outwith Scotland next year.  The Scottish Government will give a loan for fees incurred elsewhere in EU.  D3 finds web site to establish ground rules.  There’s a note that the deadline for applications has passed but the online form still works so nothing ventured nothing gained she completes the form and presses the Send button.  The completed form is accepted.  Two weeks later a snail mail letter arrives saying “Sorry.  Form on web site was last year’s.  This year’s process isn’t opened yet.”


  • Staff time to intercept the mistakenly submitted application and generate a presumably standard response to it – 15/20 minutes?
  • Cost of sending letter – £10+? (see above)
  • Multiplied by the number of times potential students make the same mistake per year – 10?  100? 1000?

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