Book summary: Freedom from Command & Control (I)

This is the first part of my summary of “Freedom from Command & Control” by John Seddon. EDIT: See also the second half of the summary. He is also the author of “The Case Against ISO9000” and “I Want You To Cheat”. I have to admit FfC&C was a tad disappointing because I thought it was a book about project management (I didn’t choose the book, it was a present), but it was about management. I like the general idea of the book (advocates against following procedures, offers common sense and “local thinking” as alternative), but I have to say I don’t think I’ll be able to apply a lot to my daily life/work. Sure, many of the abstract principles of the book are applicable in many other situations, but much of the content of the book isn’t that useful to me. Other things I didn’t like about the book were that the author seems to repeat himself a lot, and that he seems to treat the “Toyota system” and its designer, Taiichi Ohno, as some kind of deity that can’t be wrong.

The book has a prologue, nine chapters, an epilogue and an addendum. This first part of the summary will cover the prologue and the first four chapters: “Once upon a time in manufacturing”, “The customer service centre as a system”, “Purpose, measures, method”, and “Better measures, better thinking”.


Our organisational norms are based on command-and-control thinking: we think of our organisations as top-down hierarchies, separate decision-making from work, teach managers that their job is to manage people and manage budgets. Command-and-control thinking has its roots in Taylorism (scientific management). The only way to fix many problems is taking a “systems view”, starting outside in (from the customer POV instead of the organisation POV). Not changing the way of thinking may lead to do the wrong thing “righter”.

Chapter 1: Once upon a time in manufacturing

The attitude is not “make these numbers”, but “learn and improve”, which requires openness and co-operation. They’re things our organisations claim as values, but rarely practise. See interesting anecdote on p.17 about the “we make, you sell” mindset. The “make-and-sell” model creates waste. The alternative, Ohno’s model, is that each person’s work is connected to the needs of customers, as opposed to arbitrary and counterproductive measures of activity. Improving “flow” leads to low cost because you only do what you need.

In manufacturing you can get away with command and control because the products you make are standard, but it never works for service organisations.

Chapter 2: The customer service centre as a system

Case study of a call centre. There were many measures of the amount of calls and such, but the managers knew nothing about the their nature. When there was an unanticipated demand, they assumed it was because customers were “enjoying the service”. The fact was they were having more problems (“failure demands”, as opposed to “value demands”). Almost half of the calls were failure demands. The majority of these had been caused by separating “phone work” from other work. Being blind about the nature of the demand also means losing opportunities to give a good service at a low cost.

In some other case, between 30 and 40% of the calls were failure demands. The manager said that it was “to be expected”. Rationalisation is the greatest enemy of learning. The only sensible thing to do is act. Failure demand is often predictable and, in that case, is caused by the way we work, it’s under our control.

Most service centres are managed solely on production data, measuring activity rather than anything relating to purpose. Service centres appear as costs in top management’s accounts, that why they’re attracted to the idea of outsourcing.

Chapter 3: Purposes, measures, method

There’s a systemic relationship between purpose (what we’re here to do), measures (how we know how we’re doing) and method (how we do it). The purpose of measures it to develop knowledge through action on the system. Three principles:

  1. The test of a good measure: does this help in understanding/improving performance?

  2. Measures must relate to purpose: we should think about the purpose from the customer’s POV (Purpose -> Measures -> Method)

  3. Measures must be integrated with work: they must be in the hands of the people who do the work. This is a prerequisite for the development of knowledge and, hence, improvement.

Chapter 4: Better measures, better thinking

When there are budgets or targets, they become the purpose. Managers and workers know what they have to do to meet them, and how they’re going to be judged. Why do managers value targets?

  1. They “motivate” people. But they motivate them to meet the target, not necessarily to do a good job. You cannot “motivate” someone (see Frederick Hertzberg’s classic 1968 article on motivation). You can provide an environment that can make people feel more motivated or demotivated, though.

  2. They set direction. That can be acceptable if there’s no numerical expectation.

  3. They should be reasonable. But, how can people know?

  4. People should be involved in setting their targets. How would they know what’s a reasonable target? The assessment is basically arbitrary. The weak will try to minimise risk, while the strong will try to push the boundaries.

You have to focus on purpose, not production. The assumption in C&C is that freedom must be subordinated to efficiency. But the truth is, freedom enables efficiency. The people doing the work know what’s the best way to handle a concrete customer demand to increase efficiency.

And that’s it for the first part. The next part will cover the rest of the book. That’s chapters five to nine, because I skipped the epilogue and addendum.