Book summary: Freedom from Command & Control (II)

This is the second half of my summary of “Freedom from Command & Control”, by John Seddon. See the first part of the summary on this blog. This second part will cover chapters five to nine. As I said, the book also has an epilogue (“Revisiting Taylorism”) and an addendum (“The better way to improve public services”), not covered here.

Chapter 5:  The ‘break-fix’ archetype

This chapter is case studies, from analysis to redesign. The first step is asking “what is the purpose, and how well are we achieving it?”. In the first case (house repairs) the purpose from the customer’s point of view is to do the repair properly and quickly. However, the measures they were using didn’t help. First, targets were being achieved by “cheating” (jobs would get closed and reopened even though they had not been completed). Second, the variation was growing (sign of no control).

The first step to redesign was to clarify the value work (diagnosis, access and repair). Then, the calls went directly to the tradesman working on the estate (call centre was ditched). Jobs were being completed in eight days, morale went up. The tradesmen elected to be paid a salary rather than based on bonuses, which they now recognised as a problem. If the exercise had begun suggesting workers that their payment should change, it would never have got off the ground.

Another case study had problems with procedures. No one knew who had written them. This is an important lesson about the consequences of separating decision-making from work: because they didn’t put in place people to question their relevance, the procedures remained static. To put meaning into work, you have to ask: “What is the purpose?”. It should not be “work to a specification”. To be able to question method you need measures related to purpose.

Chapter 6: Learning to see, learning to lead

Leadership is about influencing, an acceptance by the follower that the idea of the leader will produce meaningful change that is in the interest of all parties. We assume top leaders should be concerned with strategy and the lower ranks should be concerned with operations, but separating the two is often disastrous.

Hierarchies don’t like bad news, but studying an organisation as a system will certainly reveal bad news. Managers often have a slogan or mission about how customer-oriented they are. But without being strongly connected to operations, top management can only rely on others telling them if the organisation is suffering. Bad news does not travel easily up organisations. People atop such systems can’t be construed as leaders.

The most important system condition affecting performance is measurement. It drives short-term performance of functions at the expense of the system, encouraging rivalry and destroying teamwork. If you provide incentives, as the major causes of variation of performance are beyond the attributes of individuals, you create “losers”, which is demoralising because it’s essentially a lottery. Incentives are often used in sales forces, but in every case the author knows were they have changed to salaries, cooperation, customer service and sales have improved.

If you want to make the change from command-and-control to systems thinking, to have to ask yourself:

  • Do you want to lead an organisation where the people who do the work control and improve the work? You’ll need to devolve decision-making, and give up your current conception of management.

  • Are you prepared to change your own role?

  • Are you prepared to do these things when those above you might not understand or condone it?

  • And would you want to be the carrier of the news when you find it?

Chapter 7: Customers — people who can pull you away from the competition

Anecdote connected to “experts” (see “Technopoly”) on p.137. Mystery shopping is a classic illustration of the underlying issue of being centred on method and not the customer. A customer-driven adaptive system will have the following characteristics:

  • An unambiguous sense of purpose which permeates the organisation. Purpose is thought about in customer terms.

  • Strategic and operational plans that support each other. Strategy is informed by operations. Decision-makers understand how their roles contribute to the whole. Day-to-day operational decision-making is in the hands of those who do the work. And last but not least, people have a sense of freedom to act, learn, experiment, challenge — and build relationships with customers.

Chapter 8: Do these bake bread?

Often IT “solutions” create worse service and higher costs. Managers forget that features are not the same as benefits. They like the idea of tracking down all work and monitor all workers, and the idea of giving everyone access to the organisation’s repository of knowledge. These are features, but not necessarily benefits. The problems with IT begin with the way we approach it. We must first understand and improve, then ask if IT can further improve:

  • Understand. Ignore IT. Do not assume you have an IT problem or that you need an IT solution.

  • Improve. Improve performance without using IT.

  • Ask, “can IT further improve this process or system?”. Now, and only now, you should consider the use of, or changes to, IT.

The result is always less investment in IT and much more value from it. IT is “pulled” into the work rather than dictating the way the work works.

Chapter 9: Watch out for the toolheads

People assume that writing down the method will facilitate its adoption by others, but the codification of method misses this important issue: thinking. While the tools are accurate descriptions of what happens in terms of method, it is the context that is more important. The danger with codifying method as tools is that by ignoring the all-important context it obviates the requirement to understand the problem. Critique of a bunch of “lean methods” follows.

And that’s it. Hope it was useful :-)