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

The FIFA crisis or “crisis-what-is-a-crisis?” has gone quiet now Sepp Blatter has been re-elected to the post of president by acclamation, and to the accompaniment of triumphal music (a presentational hint there to UK election returning officers?).

Amidst the too-many words written about this tedious charade a quote from former Scottish Football Association president John McBeth sank almost without trace

To me, football is a sport, a game…I’ve always said to them [Fifa committee members], if you look after the game money will follow, if you look after money you will kill the game. Unfortunately they’ve been looking after money for too long.

These words are eerily familiar to something one of my lesser known heroes of improvement, Czech shoe maker Tomas Bata, said in the 1930s

Do not pursue money. He who pursues money will never achieve it. Serve! If you serve as best you can, you will not be able to escape money.

These prescient words came to mind as I joined a Twitter exchange today on what the purpose for a public sector web site should be (I’m @rogerlwhite if you ask).

The consensus of the participants batting those addictive little 140-character messages back and forth was that the main purpose of a web site should always be to meet the needs of users.

If you can get over the bit about money that’s exactly the sentiment that Tomas Bata in the 1930s and John McBeth a week or so ago were articulating.  It applies no less to the delivery of public service than the making of shoes or a professional sport.

[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).

A Top 10 needs to come fast and furious, even one counting the web searches that bring people to this site.

Unlike the weekly music versions on the radio, this boy’s not going to achieve his countdown in one 3 hour slot.  But he is going to upload one hit a day for ten days running.  That, for him, is fast and furious.

Yesterday, I described today’s hit at No. 9 as “stonking”, or as the trusty Oxford online dictionary puts it

something impressive, exciting, or very large

Perhaps it was glib hyperbole and Tomas B is certainly no exponent of urban music.

He’s Tomas Bata, late Czech shoe-maker (and much more).

I looked for a Czech equivalent of stonking but the various online translation freebies don’t run to that level of slang.  The nearest I could find was působivý or vzrušující, so they’ll do me.  Apologies to any passing Czechs who will presumably find these computer-generated approximations laughable.

Tomas Bata was no laughing matter as a quick perusal of my blog post Lesser known heroes of improvement – No. 2 Tomas Bata will show.

I tagged him a hero of improvement because he was a pioneer ahead of his time in the development of modern management.  People searching for him who visited the HelpGov blog were mostly searching for principles of the Bata management system and it was indeed a whole system he developed.

No point in repeating what’s already written about him but a brief quote of what he said at one stage to his workers gives the flavour

We want to reach the situation that [our] shoes are cheaper and workers earn even more.  We think that our products are still too expensive and workers’ salary too low

Many managers still don’t understand what at first sight seems a paradox but is in fact a profound truth about work – you improve work by driving out inefficiencies, not only making your products (and services) cheaper but also better and allowing you to pay your workers more.

Personally, I’d put Tomas B much higher than No. 9 in a Top 10 search for the best advice on improving work.  But then I’m not searching for my own blog.

Tomorrow, No. 8 in my countdown, and a more topical tale of salaries, but greed and envy too.

This post is Part 3 of a response to a suggestion made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  If you don’t see it on this page, Part 1 is here and Part 2 here.

Coincidence is all.

In my snappily titled post Leadership is the key: redemption lessons expanded – No. 1 I mentioned a senior manager whose catch phrase was

I don’t care about processes.  I’m interested in outcomes.

Lo and behold.  As I check for the topics the aforementioned Ingrid K suggested bloggers like me might write about in 2011 I find

Why process still matters.  The importance of good governance in an outcomes based world.

And that’s all I need to set me off.

You won’t have known “my” senior manager and wild horses wouldn’t drag his name from me.

But I’ll bet you could name at least one boss you’ve had, may still do, who struts his stuff (it’s usually a male and they usually strut) shooting from the lip with this macho nonsense.

How do you always get an outcome?  Answer – by doing things in a series of steps one after the other.  That’s all a process is.  Getting the process right is essential to achieving a good outcome.

A small example.

I worked somewhere once where expensive consultants were brought in on a central government-funded programme to improve procurement.  They ran a workshop for admin staff responsible for placing orders with the in-house procurement team.  How did people place an order for a bog standard 5-wheel adjustable ergonomic office chair?

The expensive consultant explained the rudiments of process mapping.  Within a few minutes the road engineers had shown it took 8 actions in their department to order a chair, the social workers 13.  To put it another way, the social workers had to take 63% more actions than the road engineers to achieve the same end.

This is macho man(ager)’s cue to pile in with a cutting observation on trivial examples.

But hold on.

Work is by and large made up of routine activities carried out 10/100/1000 times a day/week/month.  They consume by far the greater part of an organisation’s resources.

If even a tenth could be carried out with 63% fewer actions the potential savings would be major.

Savings to help reduce budgets and improve customer service.  Keep the library open that might otherwise close.  Repair those potholes that feature in the local press every week.

Ingrid Koehler also links process with good governance.

Governance is often taken to mean the big stuff.  And so it should.  The probity and transparency with which councillors make decisions.  How big budgets are allocated and spent.

But if you accept the purpose of a council is to meet its customers’ needs (substitute citizens, taxpayers, residents, service users as your ideological preference dictates) then governance is also about ensuring as little resource as possible is used that does not add value for those customers.

Finally, Ingrid doesn’t just refer to outcomes but to an outcomes based world.

Oh, yes (sigh).  Outcomes are fundamental.  Of course.

However, too often central government tries to hold councils accountable for outcomes over which they have little or no control.

It’s OK for the proportion of domestic waste recycled but not for climate change.

It’s OK for the number of road accidents where highway design and traffic management is a root cause but not for the overall number of young people killed or injured in road accidents.

In other words, many of the issues that councils deal with are complex social problems with multiple and sometimes, if we are honest, unknown causes.  That sounds like another post.

But getting processes right is still fundamentally important.

The first of an occasional series in which I say more about the lessons some great people taught me about improving work through lean and systems thinking.  Previously, I said

Leadership is critical.  Without leadership, thorough-going transformation through lean/systems thinking is just not possible and that leadership has to come right from the top – as in my tale of Dave, the chief executive.

Re-reading what I wrote about Dave, I was surprised how little I said about him as a leader.  It boiled down to this

  • before he became a CE he’d been what I called a traditional director of finance, a safe pair of hands for a number of years but frankly not that inspiring
  • visiting a Japanese car manufacturer he had one of those “light bulb” moments when something clicks and the world is re-arranged for you forever – his was the right of assembly line workers to stop the line if something was wrong and the empowerment and trust it implied, a million miles from the command-and-control and blame culture of British work
  • the understanding that rather than employ experts to make the improvements required what was needed was to provide people with the understanding and support to do that themselves
  • he understood the good stuff is never easy.

These are some of the other things he did to lead lean and systems thinking in his organisation

  • hired the right consultants to transfer understanding and skills into the council, supported them and ensured he got great value for money from them
  • led his management team in a workshop (two whole days) on what it was all about
  • required them to drive it in their own departments and kept it on his own management team’s agenda
  • explained it to the politicians (this was after all a local authority) and got their buy-in
  • constantly visited front line staff and project teams to encourage, congratulate, celebrate and endorse the improvements they’d achieved
  • corrected inappropriate behaviour by managers (it happens)
  • chose the right person to drive the whole process on his behalf and supported him and his team of facilitators, making them feel the special people they were
  • used success to enhance the reputation of the council – with his peers, other councils, and the local business community, and through applying for (and winning) external awards.

The net result of all this was a sense of drive, commitment and buzz about the place.  People knew where they were going and how they were going to get there.

You can read your own messages into all this.

I’m tempted to generalise further but leadership is hugely studied (the lazy researcher’s tool of a Google search throws up 33 million [!] returns to “leadership book”, 24.3 million to “leadership quote” and 4.6 million to “leadership theory”).

Since I like stories so much I’ll confine myself to a few additional anecdotes from which you can draw your own conclusions

  • on another occasion Dave and his management team were trying to work out what values leaders in the organisation should adopt.  They all baulked – wrongly – at humility, confusing it in their minds with words like meek, mild, humble and ineffective.  Ironically, in his subsequent and genuine conversion to empowering staff to make improvements to their own work, Dave demonstrated humility in one of the most powerful ways a leader can but many find difficult – by accepting that other people in the organisation knew better than him about most things
  • leadership is not about a whole heap of technical understanding.  Several years into his job Dave thought of applying for a CE’s post in a larger organisation.  One reason he eventually decided not to were the 28 core competencies required of candidates.  Core competencies do not a leader make
  • Dave had a director with a no-nonsense reputation in the council.  His favourite phrase was I don’t care about processes.  I’m interested in outcomes.  It took the two day management team workshop to make him realise he couldn’t have been more wrong
  • lastly, we all have leaders we admire.  When Dave’s management team discussed this the usual range of role models was cited – Mandela, Churchill, Alex Ferguson, “my granny” and others.  Another director who said Adolf Hitler (it was surely pure coincidence that he was an accountant) was not amongst the first to embrace lean and systems thinking.