“Citizens face many front doors…”

Doors-Doors-DoorsGovernments all over the world want to get the most out of the money they spend on public services – for the benefit of the citizens requiring the services, and the taxpayers footing the bill.

Government officials regularly devise initiatives, and even new departments, aimed at getting their myriad of agencies to work better together.

However, looking at this from the outside, the media regularly uncover seemingly daft (and sometimes tragic) instances where government agencies have failed to effectively act, connect and co-operate with each other. In such instances, each agency appears to ‘the person on the street’ to have been wearing blinkers with their ‘common sense’ radars turned to ‘exceedingly low’.

But is it right to lay blame on the agencies or, worse, the people acting within them? In the majority of cases, I’d suggest that the answer would clearly be ‘no’. We should be looking at the bigger ‘whole of public service’ system that they are designed to operate within.

A new phrase was termed some years back called ‘Joined up government’. The Oxford dictionary defines it as:

“A method of government characterized by effective communication between different departments and co-ordination of policies.”

When a dictionary defines a word, it usually provides the reader with an example sentence showing its proper usage. In this instance, the first example sentence given is a negative one, as in:

“There is an obvious lack of joined-up government here” (Oxford Dictionary)

i.e. Governments openly recognise that there is a big problem (a lack of togetherness)…and that they would love to ‘solve’ it…but it’s regularly in the ‘too hard basket’!

The purpose of this post is to share (what is to me) an important (and very well presented) 30 min. video by Jeremy Cox1: Budget Management and People Centred Services that nicely explains, by way of reference to a real case study, the ‘multi agency’ problem and how to go about changing it.

If you are interested (particularly if you work within the public sector) then I’d expect that watching it should be a worthwhile (and thought provoking) use of your time.

Right…if you’ve got to here then I’ll assume that you’ve watched the video…the rest of this post pulls out (what I believe to be) key things said by Jeremy Cox in his presentation (blue italics below) and my ‘wrap-around’ narrative.

Note: What follows is incomplete and not a substitute for watching the video. It’s just an aide-memoire so that I (and you) don’t have to watch the video every time to pull out the key points or discuss it with our colleagues.

Jeremy Cox starts at a summary level by walking us through “four critical steps”:

1. The first thing to do is to study your system…and, just to be crystal clear, YOU (those responsible for the system) have to study it, and do so WITH those who operate it. A consultant cannot do this for (i.e. to) you2.

“You have to go and study because if you see it with your own eyes, you can’t deny it. If someone ‘tells you’, then you can ‘rationalise’ it away quite easily.”

2. From studying your system, you can then see and understand the effects of (supposed) ‘controls’ on its performance.

3. Only when we understand (at a root cause) WHY the system operates as it does, should we redesign…because then, and only then, is such a redesign based on meaningful evidence…as opposed to the usual ‘conventional wisdom’ or ‘current in-vogue ideology’;

and finally:

4. Devise new measures, and move to a new model of leadership.

Cox then goes into each step in some detail.

Going back to Step 1: Cox talks about studying demand.

HelpHe takes us through a case study of a real person in need, and their interactions with multiple organisations (many ‘front doors’) and how the traditional way of thinking seriously fails them and, as an aside, costs the full system a fortune.

Understand demand in context….don’t understand people from the point of view of your organisation, understand the person and what matters to them about living a better life.”

The case study is sad…and yet not really a surprise – we all kind of know that it’s true. It shows the huge power of following some cases around the full system.

In explaining Step 2, Cox opens up the madness within silo’d (i.e. single department) thinking, which is driven by their ‘budgetary controls’.

Rules of playHe identifies three survival principles in play, and the resulting anti-systemic controls that result:

a) “We must prioritise [our] services for the most in need” which leads to attempts to stop entry into the service, and then the requirement to break through escalating thresholds of eligibility.

Such ‘screening out’ logic creates the following madness: “Your case isn’t serious enough yet…go away until things get worse!”

b) “We must stick to what we do” which leads to “I can see that you need A and B for you to get better…but, here, we only do A.”

Cox gives a real example of an alcoholic with depression being turned away by mental health practitioners because “we don’t work on alcoholism – you need to solve that first and then come back with your depression”. We can predict that such unhelpfulness will lead the needy citizen towards a rather large drink!

c) “We must limit service delivery” which leads to attempts at closing cases, doing things on the cheap, and setting time limits…all of which are about pushing things through at the expense of the needy citizen…which will lead to failure demand (probably popping up unexpectedly in another department…and therefore not seen as linked).

The redesign at Step 3 requires different principles.

IntegratedCox makes the obvious point that the actual redesign can’t be explained up-front because, well…how can it be -you haven’t studied your system yet!

…but, generally, it is likely that “genuinely integrated, local-by-default problem solving teams will emerge from [following the steps]”.

A clarification: ‘Genuinely integrated’ doesn’t mean a multi-disciplined shared building where people regularly come together for, say, case review meetings…and then go back to their ‘corners’ and work to their existing (i.e. competing) policies and procedures.

A nice test from Cox:

“How do you know a team is genuinely integrated rather than co-located?…All you have to do is look in the fridge – nobody’s written their department’s name on the milk!”

And so to Step 4: New measures and new leadership

shovelling sand with a pitchfork[Once you’ve successfully redesigned the system] “The primary focus is on having really good citizen-focused measure: ’are you improving’, ‘are you getting better’, ‘is the demand that you’re placing reducing over time’.”

Notice that these measures are about the purpose of the system (i.e. for the citizen), and NOT about the activities performed within the system. It’s not about the volumes of calls taken or visits performed or payments made or cases closed or…[carry on naming activities].

“You have to shift leaders from managing the budget top-down to adding value to the process of studying, and improving outcomes for individuals.”

The point here is that you are never done. The outcomes from a redesign can radically shift performance, but you’ll quickly be ‘back at square one’ if you haven’t grasped the WHY and don’t ‘kick on’ to yet more learning, and yet more improvement – becoming better every day – for the good of citizens, and (importantly) for the pride of your employees.

To close

What’s most interesting to me from the video is the graphic explanation of one unit of demand, a needy citizen in a really shitty situation, being bounced around – presenting at public service ‘front doors’ in multiple and seemingly unrelated ‘cases’, with each agency doing what they can but not what is required….and the needy slip ever further into their personal quagmire.

“We limit what we do to ‘what we do’, not to what the person needs.”

Cox makes the hugely important point that, once you open your mind, then the study and redesign of the work is relatively easy. The hard bit is re-conceiving the ‘system of management’. This takes real leadership and (perhaps most importantly) self-development.

Cox closes with the following comment:

“Some of the most rewarding work that I have ever done is just working with these integrated teams who are out…on the ground, with good leadership, learning how to solve problems for citizens. You actually see people’s lives turned around and people who otherwise would have been dead who are now still alive.”

This is powerful stuff! There can’t be much more meaning to anyone’s working life than that.


1. The video covers one session within a ‘Beyond Budgeting’ event run by Vanguard Consulting over in the UK. The first 3 mins. is an introduction from John Seddon, and then Jeremy Cox (a Vanguard consultant) presents the rest.

Note: Cox refers to names of UK government departments (e.g. The DWP). If you live elsewhere in the world then you are likely to have similar agencies, just with different names.

2. A consultant cannot do it for you: I should clarify that an experienced ‘systems thinking’ coach CAN facilitate you through studying your system and its redesign….BUT they aren’t ‘doing it’ – you are!

I have a post with the ink half dry that explains and expands this point called ‘Smoke and Mirrors’. I guess I should get on and finish it now.

3. The NZ government is setting up a Social Investment Agency. Its focus is fundamentally about changing the lives of the most vulnerable New Zealanders by focusing on individuals and families, understanding their needs better, and doing more of what is most likely to give the best results”. I like the intent.  I hope that those involved watch (or have already watched) the Jeremy Cox video, and consider the messages within.


!cid_image001_png@01D18034So it seems that many an organisation repeats a mantra that we must “simplify, simplify, simplify”…they accompany this thrice repeated word with rhetoric that implies that this is so blindingly obvious that only a fool would query this!

As such, anyone questioning this logic is likely to hold their tongue…but I’ll be that fool and question it, and here’s why:

It’s too simple!

Here’s where I mention the ‘Law of requisite variety’ which was formulated by the cyberneticist1 W. Ross Ashby in the context of studying biological systems. Stafford Beer extended Ashby’s thinking by applying it to organisations.

Now, rather than stating Ashby’s technical definition, I’ll put forward an informal definition that I think is of use:

“In order to deal properly with the diversity of problems the world throws at you, you need to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems you face.” (What is requisite variety?)


Using the diagram above, let’s say that the problem types on the left (shown by different coloured arrows) represent the different types of value demands from our customers.

Let’s say that the responses on the right are what our system* is designed to cope with (* where system means the whole thing – people, process, technology – it doesn’t refer merely to ‘the computer’).

We can see that our system above is not designed to cope with the red arrows and incorrectly copes with some of the yellow arrows (with an orange response)….the customers with these value demands will be somewhat disappointed! Further, we would waste a great deal of time, effort and money trying to cope with this situation.

What on earth are you on about?!

“Management always hopes to devise systems that are simple…but often ends up spending vast sums of money to inject requisite variety – which should have been designed into the system in the first place.” (Stafford Beer)

Many large organisations engage in ill thought out and/or overly zealous ‘complexity reduction’ initiatives (incidentally, system replacement projects* are corkers for this!) that strip out more than they should and the outcome is unusable and/or hugely harmful towards satisfying customer value demands…which ends up creating un-necessary complexity as the necessary variety is ‘put back in’ via workarounds and ugly add-ons and patch-ups.

(* Large public sector departments have been excellent at this….often scrapping multi-million $ projects before a single live transaction gets into a database.)

Note: for readers aware of the ‘Lean Start-up’ thinking, you might cry out that this appears to go against the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)/ experimentation point…but it doesn’t…in fact it supports thinking in terms of target conditions rather than merely stating ‘make it simple’ objectives and setting related arbitrary targets.


You might think that, because service demand is infinitely variable 2, then I am suggesting that we need to build infinitely complex systems that can cope with every eventuality with standardised responses. Well, no, that would be mad…and impossible.

In service, we can’t hope to know every ‘coloured arrow’ that might come at us! Instead, we need to ensure that our service system can absorb variety! This means providing a flexible environment (e.g. guidelines, not ‘straight jacket’ rules), and empowering front line staff to ‘do the right thing’ for the specific variety of the customer’s demand before them, and pulling appropriate expertise when required.

Standardisation in service is not the answer.

Cause and Effect

Don’t confuse cause and effect. Simplification should not be the goal…but it can be a very agreeable side effect.

“To remove waste [e.g. complexity], you need to understand its causes….if the system conditions that caused the waste are not removed, any improvements will be marginal and unsustainable.” (John Seddon)

If you think “We’ve got too many products and IT applications…we need to run projects to get rid of the majority of them!” then ask yourself this: “Did anyone set out specifically to have loads of products and IT applications?” I very much doubt it…

You can say that you want fewer products, less technology applications, less complex processes…less xyz. But first, you need to be absolutely clear on what caused you to be (and remain) this way. Then you would be in a position to improve, which will likely result in the effect of appropriate simplification (towards customer purpose).

If you don’t understand the ‘why’ then:

  • how can you be sure that removing all those products and systems and processes will be a success? and
  • what’s to stop  them from multiplying again?

The goal should be what you want, not what you don’t want

“If you get rid of something that you don’t want, you don’t necessarily get something that you do want…improvement should be directed at what you want, not at what you don’t want.” (Russell Ackoff)

The starting point should be:

  • studying your (value stream) systems and getting knowledge; and then
  • experimenting towards purpose (from the customers point of view) , whilst monitoring your capability measures

The starting point is NOT simplification.

A classic example of the simplification mantra usurping the customer purpose is where organisations force their customers down a ‘digital’ path rather than providing them with the choice.

  • To force them will create dissatisfaction, failure demand and the complexity of dealing with it;
  • To provide them with choice will create the simplicity of delivering what they want, how they want it…with the side effect of educating them as to what is possible and likely moving them into forging new habits (accepting that this takes time).

In conclusion

So I’d like to end on the quote that I have worn out most over my working life to date:

“Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.” (attributed to Einstein)

The great thing about this quote is that it contrasts ‘relative’ with ‘absolute’. “As simple as possible” is relative 3 – it necessitates a comparison against purpose. “Simple” is absolute and, as such, our pursuit of simplification for its own sake will destroy value.

Thus, the quote requires us to start with, and constantly test against, customer purpose…and the appropriate simplicity will find itself.


  1. Cybernetics: the science of control and communication in animals, men and machines. Cyberneticians try to understand how systems describe themselves, control themselves, and organize themselves.
  2. Infinite variability: We are all unique and, whilst we will likely identify a range of common cause variation within service demand (i.e. predictable), we need to see each customer as an individual and aim to satisfy their specific need.
  3. There’s probably an Einstein ‘relativity’ joke in there somewhere. 

What do germs have to do with modern management?

5248_1651_2006-021If a hugely important message is so different to how people currently believe and behave, how do we best help people ‘get it’ and, even better, passionately ‘jump ship’?

I’d like to use an excellent ‘germ theory’ analogy, written about by Myron Tribus (see credit at bottom of this post).

Imagine it is the year 1869

Louis Pasteur has recently demonstrated that fermentation is caused by organisms which are carried in the air. Joseph Lister has applied Pasteur’s work and experimented with the first antiseptic and found that it worked to prevent infection after surgery.

Between them (and others), they have opened up a whole new theory – the germ theory of disease.

However, their contemporaries, the doctors administering to their patients have no understanding of this knowledge. Worse, current practises contaminate patients with virtually every action taken. Surgeons routinely operate with unwashed instruments and unwashed hands and then ‘sew death into the wound’ with unsterilised needles and unsterilised thread. Some people recover, some stay the same, but many die. In each case, some rationale (from what is currently believed) can be used to explain the outcome.

Today we cringe at the actions of these doctors…but at that time the medical world believed in a totally different (Miasma) theory and, as such, the practising doctors were constrained by this thinking. These professionals knew no better – they were prisoners to the state of knowledge of their profession, to the current way of thinking and were under pressure to conform, to follow ‘best practise’. They could not apply what they did not know or believe.

So, going back to the year 1869…the American civil war has recently ended. Imagine you are a young researcher in an American medical school and you have learned about these incredibly important new European developments in germ theory. The spread of such knowledge is rather slower than it is today (there’s no internet, no email).

You want to spread the new germ theory knowledge and the importance of sterilisation! You’ve been invited to speak in front of a group of distinguished doctors. They have achieved their fame from heroic work as surgeons in the field during the war (they are very good at sawing limbs off!)…but your underlying message to them is that they have been killing their patients.

So your task is to persuade them to forget what they have been taught, to abandon the wisdom they thought they had gained through many years of experience and to rebuild their understanding around a new theory…but think about this:

  • they have a very nice life based on what they have been doing (respect and prestige in their community, a nice house, some fine horses and a few servants);
  • you are effectively telling them that they are (currently) a menace…that they are dangerous!
  • …what about their reputation if this ‘gets out’?

How do you go about winning them over? Do you think they will be glad to hear you?

Let’s apply this analogy to management

Here’s the preface to W. Edwards Deming’s important book ‘The New Economics’:

“This book is for people who are living under the tyranny of the prevailing [command and control] style of management…Most people imagine that the present style of management has always existed, and is a fixture. Actually it is a modern invention – a prison created by the way people interact.”

Deming’s book (and his famous lectures) goes on to explain that what is considered as ‘best practise’ in management is in fact not…and that, instead, it is doing much harm and there is a better way….which sounds rather familiar to trying to educate doctors about germs in the late 1800s.

Now there are successful companies (think Japan for starters, and many forward thinking companies) and hugely respected educators (Ackoff, Scholtes, Womack & Jones, Seddon,….) around the world that have taken on and advanced Deming’s work. Deming is for management what Pasteur and Lister were for medicine.

But Deming’s message is some mouthful for the successful ‘command and control’ Executive to take!

In the same way that the doctors wouldn’t have liked to hear the “you are killing your patients” message, neither would an executive who has ‘got to the top’ using their knowledge and understanding of the traditional ‘command and control’ management system.

So what reactions should we expect from the 1869 doctors and today’s ‘command and control’ executives to a new way of thinking? Well, that depends on how the message is delivered!

One way will result in denial, the other curiosity (by some) to learn more.

Rational vs. Normative change

So what actually happened? Well, the doctors fought tooth and nail against the idea of having a sterile environment. “What, stop to wash my hands…don’t be silly. I have important things to do!”

But, consider this. Those doctors who were curious leapt ahead…those who wouldn’t change eventually became ridiculed, sidelined and even ruined. It took time…but the new theory eventually won out.

So back to delivering that message…here’s a comparison of two intervention methods:

  • Intervention Method 1: Rational change – This is the idea that you can use logical arguments to rationalise the proposed change (you explain, they listen)…but, if you do this, they will always map what you are saying onto their current world view (which is the very thing you are trying to change!) and then they will defend their current thinking since they know no better – this results in denial. You won’t get any traction here!

  • Intervention Method 2: Normative change – This is where you get them curious to look for themselves, to study their system (stand back, observe, collect information, consider) and thereby open their eyes to that which they could not see. Then, and only then, will they be ready to change. This change in thinking (unlearning and relearning) is achieved through experiential learning – people don’t deny what they see.

So, the task is to get ‘command and control’ leaders to become curious and then help them study their system, to open their eyes to what is actually happening….and then work with them to experiment towards a new way of management.

There are a couple of obvious ways to begin this study:

  • Demand: Take them to where the demand comes in (a branch, a contact centre, the mail) and get them to listen to/ observe demand. Get them to classify this as value or failure demand… get them thinking about what they ‘see’;

  • Flow: Get them to follow some units of value demand all the way through the current system, from when the demand first arose (from the customer’s point of view) all the way to when the customer achieved a satisfactory closure (to them) to their actual needs. Get them to identify the value work, seeing everything else as waste…get them thinking about what they ‘see’.

…now they should be curious to think about the why, why, why.

“Okay Steve, we get the ‘germ theory’ example….but what’s your supposedly missing management theory?”

Well, actually, it’s not just one missing theory – there are four!! I’ve put an introductory table at the bottom of this post if you are curious 🙂

Deming aptly referred to the understanding of these four theories, and their inter-relationships, as ‘profound knowledge’. Obviously, my simple (rational) writing about these can’t change anything much…but it might help you when studying your system.

So who’s this post actually written for?

If you are reading this, are part of the system and already ‘see’ some or all of the new way, then it is to explain to you that rational change is unlikely to work…so try to go down the normative change track with your leaders.

If you are a leader who is responsible for the system, then this post is merely to make you curious. I cannot rationally convince you that there is a far better way than your existing ‘command and control’ management system but I can help you study and learn for yourself.

…and finally, on a positive note…

Not everything that the doctors, or ‘command and control’ managers did was wrong. They did what they could with what they knew and they were sincere in their efforts to do the right things.

Four missing theories from command-and-control management:

The theory of:

Meaning…: Which will show the madness of:
A system When we break up the system into competitive components, we destroy value of unknown magnitude.

What matters most is how the components fit, not how they act taken separately.

An unclear purpose, vertical hierarchical silo’d thinking, continual reorganisations, cascaded personal objectives, and the rating & ranking of peoples’ performance;

Failure demand and waste

Variation There is natural variation in everything: we need to understand the difference between a signal and noise.

Targets are ‘outside’ the system and cause dysfunctional behaviour.

Binary comparisons, targets, traffic lights and tampering.
Human Psychology Understanding people and why they behave as they do (particularly in respect of motivation, relationships and trust). The use of extrinsic motivators, such as competitive awards and incentives (and a misunderstanding of money);

Management by fear and compliance; Treating people as the same, an obsession with ’empowerment’ and the missed opportunity of developing people

Knowledge True learning and development occurs through experimentation (e.g. PDSA) – from a theory that is properly tested and then reflected upon…leading to true and sustainable improvement.

Benchmarking and implementing solutions rather than experimentation; saying something is ‘an experiment’ when it’s not; a focus on results rather than their causes; Speeches and workshops rather than Gemba walking.

After thought: ‘Germ theory’ is but one example of a scientific theory that could have been used as the analogy in this post. In generic terms, ‘old knowledge’ hangs around for a while in spite of our efforts…but it does eventually die out, allowing us to move forward.


  • The analogy comes from Myron Tribus: ‘The Germ theory of management’ (1992), SPC Press
  • The intervention thinking comes from an enlightening email exchange with John Seddon

Image: I had some fun looking for an appropriate image to go with this post. I came across some gruesome pictures of 19th century (unsterilised) amputations but, given that some of you might not appreciate seeing this, I limited myself to just showing you a 19th century surgeon’s instrument kit…and those of you that want to can let your imagination run riot 🙂

A Service Revolution!

RevolutionService is different to manufacturing…and this difference is gob-smackingly important for a service organisation to understand if it is to truly move towards its (stated) customer purpose.

I was recently passed a link to a Malcolm Gladwell TED talk by a colleague and whilst watching it I thought…

“Nice! This is a simple tie-in to the incredibly important concept of variety in customer demand.”

So here’s the link to the very watchable talk (18 mins): Choice, happiness and spaghetti

Here’s the key points from the talk:

  • that Howard Moskowitz (a psychophysicist) had his ‘aha moment’ that “they had been looking for the perfect pickle…but they should have been looking for the perfect pickles“;  
  • the false assumption that the way to find out about what people want is to ask them….leading to years of fruitless and misleading focus groups. The truth is that:
    • people commonly don’t actually know, or cannot (and even will not) express, what they want; and
    • they will be constrained by what they currently know. No customer asked for an automobile. We have horses: what could be better.” (Deming)  
  • the importance of horizontal rather than hierarchical thinking about customer demand: we thought that customer demand was hierarchical (from cheap up to expensive products or services). Instead, there are only different kinds of products and services that suit different kinds of people;
  • that, instead of looking for one way to treat all of us, we now understand the importance of variability;
  • when we pursue universal truths [one standardised product/ service/ way of doing things], we aren’t just making an error, we are actually doing our customers a massive disservice;
  • We need to embrace the diversity of human beings

Hang on a minute….

So, I started off this post by saying that service is different to manufacturing but Gladwell uses lots of examples of physical products in his TED talk to make his point about the importance of customer variety (cola, pickle, spaghetti sauce, coffee,)…“make your mind up Steve!”

Well, this is a nice segue to explain about two types of variation, and how incredibly important this understanding should be to a service organisation (or the service part of any value stream).

These two types of variety are:

  • Customer-introduced (i.e. within their demand); and
  • Internally created within the process (regarding flow)

To go back to Gladwell’s spaghetti sauce: Different consumers like different sauces (this is variety in demand) but, once they have determined which variety of sauce they like, they then expect each jar they buy to be the same week in, week out (i.e. minimal variation in the process that creates that sauce).

So, whilst we definitely want to reduce and remove variation in the quality of the process, we should not remove the ability of the process to provide a suitably varied experience and outcome. Rather, it is the opposite – we should be trying to cater for this variety.

In fact, variety in service is MUCH bigger than Gladwell’s product examples:

One of my earlier posts set out five categories of variety in customer demand, as identified by Professor Frances Frei (see The Spice of Life).

Now, whilst it might be useful to categorise service variation (purely to help you ‘see’), the bigger point is that the customer sets the nominal value – the specific value of a service to them.

“The customer comes in customer shaped

…there is virtually infinite variety in people….and that variety can change for a given person depending on, say, time of day/ external influences/ mood….

Standardisation is NOT the answer…in fact, it is often the problem:

There are legions of service organisations that have hired manufacturing improvement experts (or people who have read books about them) to ‘standardise, specialise, centralise and automate’ because they say “this is the solution”.

Examples at attempts to standardise the customer include:

  • using IVRs to standardise customers into categories (“press 1, then press 3…”);
  • using call scripts to standardise the content of customer conversations;
  • using average handling times to standardise the length of a conversation;
  • using ‘box ticking’ forms to standardise customer information collection;
  • using ‘black and white’ rules above common sense, when dealing with a customer’s needs;
  • forcing customers down one path (e.g. you can only pay by direct debit, you can only interact online, you can only use these suppliers, …….and on and on).
  • …..

Interestingly, if you read the list above with your ‘I am a customer’ hat on, you will likely recall many instances where you have tried interacting with a service organisation and one or many of the above attempts at standardising you and your demand has seriously frustrated you!

This leads to much failure demand, waste (and cost) but with little value delivered (as written about in an earlier post).

Clarification: this isn’t to say that technology cannot assist or that there is no place for any standards. It’s making the point that the starting point should be that:

“….in service organisations, the problem is how to design the system to absorb variety” [and not frustrate it]. (Seddon)

Our starting point always seems to be ‘efficiency’ and a focus on activity cost. Perverse as it may seem, a focus on activity cost often has the unintended consequence of increasing total cost (though this is not visible to a silo’d organisation and is nigh on impossible for them to measure).

If we standardise, say, a site visit (the activity) such that it can’t absorb the variety in the customer’s demand…then don’t be surprised that:

  • there is failure demand from the customer when they complain and/or disagree with the outcome of the visit;
  • there is much ‘expert’ time spent reviewing this complaint;
  • there are yet more site visits required to resolve the problems;
  • there is lots more paperwork/ computer inputting/ workflow management required;
  • there is much confusion created by all this extra work (who did what when, who authorised what change from the standard, who is explaining all this jumble to the customer?); and
  • trust has been lost with the customer who now questions everything we do

The most important point to note is that “cost is in flow, not in activity”

So why the title of this post?

Well, the above is quite different thinking to where ‘command and control’ service organisations have been going. A revolution if you will.

Put simply, if we understand the variety in our customer demand and try to design our system to absorb (rather than frustrate) it we will go a long way towards our customer purpose…with the likely side effect of doing so for less cost.

“Managing value [for the customer] drives out cost….Focussing on cost paradoxically adds cost and harms value.” (Seddon)


FunnelAny of you reading this who have been on my Systems Thinking course will have had the fun of being involved in Dr Deming’s famous red bead experiment.

This post is about Dr Deming’s other (not quite so famous but equally important) Funnel experiment. The experiment teaches about the harm caused by ‘Management by Results’ (MBR) …where this occurs through tampering.

Here’s the experiment set up:

Funnel experiment set upWe have a flat horizontal surface (let’s say a table) with a piece of paper placed on top of it. We also have a kitchen funnel (like we would use to decant a liquid from one bottle to another), and a marble that we will drop through the funnel towards the paper below.

Let’s assume that the funnel is held upright in some sort of stand, say 50cm above the piece of paper.

Now we mark a cross in the middle of the piece of paper.

Goal: to hit the cross with the marble by dropping it through the funnel.

Round 1: We position the funnel over the cross and then drop the marble through the funnel 50 times. For each marble drop, we mark the spot on the paper where it hits.

We are likely to see something like this on the paper (looking from above):


Remember, we simply dropped 50 marbles without attempting to make any changes in-between drops and the paper shows the system to be stable. However, note that there is variation as to where the marble landed. It continually landed near the cross (with probably a few direct hits) but there was variation.

Round 2: So this time, we think that by adjusting the position of the funnel between each marble drop, we can ensure that the marble hits the cross on the next drop!

So we drop the 1st marble, note where it lands as compared to the cross and then move the funnel to compensate for this error. i.e.

  • if the marble landed 1 cm to the left (west) of the cross, we move the funnel 1cm to the right (east) of its current position….because this ‘fine tuning’ will make the next drop hit the cross, right?;
  • if this 2nd marble lands 2cm below (south of) its new position, then we move the funnel 2cm north from where it is currently positioned;
  • ….and so on, iteratively moving the funnel

So, what happens after we use this approach with our 50 marbles, iteratively adjusting the funnel’s position after each drop?

Well, it’s somewhat disappointing!


Our attempts at compensation have made the variation increase drastically (experiments show by approx. 40%). We’ve made things much worse.

Clearly our ’round 2′ method of compensating didn’t work as we wished. Is there another way of compensating and therefore getting better at hitting the cross?

Round 3: The new idea is to do the opposite of the last idea! This time, we will move the funnel directly over where the last marble landed and keep doing this for the 50 drops.

Oh dear, the marble is moving away from the cross and will eventually move off the table and (as Deming put it) all the way “off to the Milky Way”.


Perhaps using the last marble drop as a guide isn’t a good idea!

Conclusions: So which method was best?

  • Round 1 was clearly the best.
  • Round’s 2 and 3 are examples of tampering (though in different ways). They show the effects of tweaking a process based on the ongoing results of that process…it will simply increase the variation and the chances of failures.

So, what should we do? To actually improve a process requires an understanding of the sources of the variation…and then the performance of controlled experiments to identify process improvements.

For our Funnel system we could experiment with:

  • lowering the funnel;
  • decreasing the size of the funnel hole;
  • strengthening the stand holding the funnel to make it more stable;
  • …performing the process in a vacuum 🙂

All of these proposed improvements involve changing the system rather than merely tampering with it based on previous results.

So what?

Now all of the above looks like good fun…I’m already thinking about borrowing a funnel…but it seems an awful long way from our working lives. So let’s explain why in fact it’s not…

Taking the production/ selling of something, let’s say a sandwich shop as an example:

  • you sold 10 sandwiches on Monday, so you make 10 for Tuesday..
  • you only sold 2 sandwiches on Tuesday, so you throw 8 in the bin (not fresh anymore) and you only make 2 sandwiches for Wednesday….
  • you have 6 customers on Wednesday, so you sell the 2 sandwiches you made, have 4 disappointed would-be-customers but make 6 sandwiches for Thursday…
  • …and so on. You can expect to have major stock problems and a lot of unhappy customers!
  • it would be much better to make a set number of sandwiches each day, collect information about demand variation over a sensible period of time and then adjust your system accordingly.

The sandwiches are a very simple example of any process. What about taking a call centre as an example:

  • There will be a great deal of natural variation in customer calls throughout a day (with a number of causes, categorised and explained in this earlier ‘Spice of Life’ post)…so the number of ‘calls waiting’ will constantly fluctuate, though likely between predictable bounds. No surprises there.
  • …let’s assume that Bob’s job is to constantly monitor the current ‘calls waiting’…
  • …it gets to a point where Bob thinks the number of calls waiting is high…so he sends out an urgent request for everyone to drop what else they are doing and get on the phones…and they all rush to do so…
  • ….so the number of ‘calls waiting’ now drops really low and even disappears…excellent. Now Bob sends out a screen pop-up message along the lines of “panic over, people who missed out on their breaks can go now”
  • ….so the number of ‘calls waiting’ now jumps up again…and the up-and-down cycle continues.
  • Bob has a really stressful job looking at the numbers and continually tampering (using the ’round 2′ method) in a hopeless attempt to exactly match supply to demand.
  • A better way would be to increase our understanding of the system by studying demand (its types and frequencies) and amending its design based on what we learned. There might be:
    • loads of failure demand in there (which is a waste of capacity); and
    • frequency patterns within the different types of value demand

Clarification: Many of you working in contact centres may say “but Steve, of course we analyse incoming calls and look for patterns!” I would note that:

  • whilst you can, and should, look for predictable patterns in the data, I doubt that you can tell me how many calls you will get in the next 15 minutes and how long they will take. There will be variation and this is outside your control….does this make you tamper?
  • Nearly all contact centres simply see incoming calls as ‘work to do’ with an ‘average handling time’. Hardly any will analyse this demand. Can you tell me what types of value and failure demand you get, and their frequencies…and what conclusions you draw from this?

I’m not picking on contact centres – I simply use it as an example that we should all be able to understand. Tampering happens all over the place.

In general, managers often look at the results of the last hour/ day/ week/ month* and attempt to make adjustments accordingly, whether by congratulating or berating staff, moving people between queues, changing work quotas, knee-jerk reacting to defects and so on.

(* where the unit of time will depend on the nature of the transactional service being provided)

In fact, praising someone one week for a perceived outstanding result (likely against the lottery of a target that they had very little control over meeting) and then giving them a ‘talking to’ the next because their result was considered poor is tampering.

The point is to understand the system and the reasons for variation. Then (and only then) you can make meaningful changes instead of merely tampering.

Note: The ‘Round 3’ type of tampering is not as common as the ‘Round 2’ type…but it does happen. Consider the following cases of using the last example to inform the next:

  • Using the last board cut as a pattern for the next; or
  • Train the trainer: Mary trains John who trains Bob who trains Jess.

Both of these examples show that any variation from purpose will be retained and amplified as it is passed on, like a chain of whispers.

Credit: I’ve seen the funnel experiment performed a few times now but, rather than taking the laborious time to recreate it, I have borrowed the 3 marble drop pattern pictures used above from this website.

Note: For those aficionados amongst you, this post represents a slightly simplified version of Deming’s full funnel experiment. There is yet another tampering rule (which I have left out for the sake of brevity) …but, just so you know, it also doesn’t work. You can read all about the funnel experiment in Chapter 9 of Deming’s book ‘The New Economics’.

Demand, demand everywhere…but not a drop of value to drink!

PhoneScream…so I contact a (world renowned) bank about opening an account, but it’s not a basic request:

The comedy begins:

  • I look up the bank’s internet site to find a number to ring for my specific need. I can’t find anything that fits. The best I find is a ‘contact us’ email form, so I fill it in, explaining my need and asking for the right contact number.
  • I get an email back providing me with a contact number and instructions as to which IVR selections to make when I ring it (‘press 2 for blah, then 1 for blah, then 3 for blah’).
  • I ring the number. The IVR is nothing like the instructions. I listen to the (long list of) options. None fit my need so I wait for someone to pick up.
  • I explain my need to the agent that picks up and am told that “oh no, we don’t deal with that. You need to speak with ‘abc’ department. Would you like me to pass you through to them?” I say that, yes, I surely would.
  • I am ‘cold passed’ to this 2nd queue and therefore have to wait in line and then re-explain my need to the agent. They say “No, they shouldn’t have passed you through to us. You need ‘xyz’ department. I’ll put you through.”
  • Once again, I am ‘cold passed’ through to a 3rd queue, wait in line and re-explain. They say “We don’t deal with that. You need to speak with ‘blah’ department”
  • I listen to the original bloody IVR again! I’m really annoyed now. I think about hanging up, but I really want to talk to someone about my need. I decide to wait.
  • I get another agent and explain about what has just happened to me…this took time and I was clearly exhibiting signs of annoyance (funny that!). I asked them to PLEASE listen to my actual need and spend time with me to figure out if they can assist and then who can. They say that they need to transfer me to someone who can help. I pleadingly ask them to ‘warm transfer’ me over to that person so that I don’t start the merry-go-round again!
  • I was cold transferred to another number!!! After waiting for an agent, guess what, they couldn’t help and would need to transfer me to…..I hung up.
  • I went back on to the website, found the ‘contact us’ email address and wrote what I shall describe as a ‘strong email’….I am yet to receive a response.

Now, whilst the above is (verging on) humorous for those not involved, sadly I bet most of you reading it have examples of similar ‘service’ experiences to have happened to you.

To summarise the above:

  • there was 1 ‘white marble’ of value demand, the actual need for which the bank is there for;
  • there were 6 ‘blue marbles’ of failure demand (so far!), each of which the bank had to handle*, as if it were a valid unit of production;
    • * for each unit of demand they had to: plan and roster staff; handle the queue; handle the call (welcome, understand need, action, closure); record in their systems; performance review the agent as to how the call was ‘handled’….etc
  • each silo within the bank experienced their vertical unit of activity and probably met each target they set themselves: call answering time, average handling time, call resolution rate….and probably celebrated their success, perhaps with some awards, even some contingent rewards! ;
  • the bank is oblivious to the horizontal flow that I experienced;
  • and, worst of all, my need remained unresolved!
    • simply and clearly explaining to me that they can’t do what I was asking (if this were the case) would have resolved my value demand.

To use a current buzz phrase, there is nothing ‘customer-centric’ about this experience.

Why does the bank have this problem?

Because it bought into the economies of scale mantra of ‘standardise, specialise, centralise.’

Because it believed that what has been seen/ heard about in manufacturing can simply be applied to service.

Because it bought into technology as an automator of service provision.

What does this cause?

Silo’d thinking, in which effort is put into the efficiency of each vertical activity…at the expense of the effectiveness of the horizontal flow of value, from customer demand through to its satisfaction.

Massive waste that is unseen (though paid for) by the business yet is acutely felt by the customer.

“Cost is in flow, not activity….economies come from flow, not scale.” (John Seddon)

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” (Peter Drucker)

Now you might laugh at this, and think “wow, daft bank!” but, before we dismiss this as not something that could happen to us, I could equally have written about a similar experience I had from ringing an internal helpline at the company I work for. I didn’t (and won’t) write about this internal example because the point is to think about the problem and its causes, not to get caught by the error of blame.

The reason for the madness is the system (and management’s beliefs and behaviours), not the people within it.

None of the ‘customer service agents’ will have enjoyed handling my units of demand – there was no satisfaction to be had in helping me with my need. Each will have been left hollow by their inability to assist…and then they will have moved on to their next call….safe in the knowledge that they cannot change their reality whilst they work within their ‘command and control’ paradigm.

Stating the obvious!

Copy-of-dumb_blondeIt is really easy for any leader to say “I want…

  • Continuous Improvement;
  • Removal of waste;
  • Reduction in failure demand*.”

(* explained in my earlier marbles post here)

All are sensible, in fact obvious! But it’s a bit like a financial advisor telling you to ‘buy low and sell high’…what have you actually learned that you didn’t already know, and how does this help?

It’s much harder to understand the system conditions (structures, policies, procedures, measurement, IT), and underlying management thinking (beliefs and behaviours) that protect the status quo, create the waste and cause the failure demand….because you have to change your thinking!

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” (attributed to Einstein)

If you:

  • set numeric activity targets to make improvements…
  • …and offer rewards for their achievement…
  • …and rate (and rank) people’s performance against them…

…then you haven’t understood (or accepted) about systems, measurement and motivation.

To quote from John Seddon:

“Treating improvement as merely process improvements is folly; if the system conditions that caused the waste are not removed, any improvements will be marginal and unsustainable.