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An interview with John Seddon

Interview by: Alistair Craven

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John SeddonJohn Seddon, controversial but informed commentator on management thinking, has a reputation for challenging convention.

His consulting business - Vanguard - seeks to help service organizations change from command and control to a systems approach to the design and management of work. John has translated the Toyota System, whose results are legendary, for service organizations. Systems designs are essential for tackling waste, improving service and, moreover, transforming morale. Vanguard consults to leading organizations in the private and public sectors.

John built his reputation on his anti ISO 9000 stance. His argument against the standard is based on the same logic with which he attacks other management fads - CRM, BPR, IiP, the Excellence Model and so on. John insists it is management thinking that needs to change.

Can you tell us briefly about the objectives behind the Vanguard Consulting web site?

John Seddon:

To help people learn about a better way to make work work. Vanguard has translated the ideas behind the Toyota Production System for service organizations. In manufacturing Toyota stands as a beacon in terms of economic performance; service organizations differ in important respects from manufacturing but can achieve a parallel change and in much less time as nothing is 'made'.

Interestingly, you have stated that many public services in the UK have in fact been made worse by government interference. Why is this so?

John Seddon:

Government is attracted to the ideas associated with 'command and control'. The public sector has seen massive growth of 'specifications' bodies - people who decide what the public sector organizations ought to do. To date I have not yet found a specification based on knowledge, the consequences are public sector managers find themselves obliged to do things to satisfy the opinions of the specifiers. The consequence is worse service at higher cost. We should hold ministers accountable.

You have suggested that there are four kinds of waste in the UK public sector. Can you elaborate on these four areas for us?

John Seddon:

  • The cost of paying for the specifiers to do their work: These are the regulators, target-setters and inventors of requirements.
  • The cost associated with inspection: Along with the rise in specifications comes more auditors. In excess of £100bn is now spent on regulatory jobs.
  • The cost of preparing for inspection in every public sector organization: Every public sector organization has a bureaucracy of counting and reporting.
  • The cost of the specifications themselves being the wrong things to do (the biggest cost): In every case I have seen, the specifications - inappropriate targets and requirements - were part of the problem, not part of the solution.

And you could add to that the unknowable cost of destroying morale in the public sector.

"The public sector is vocational, people care about the services they provide, these people need help with method and will never make genuine and sustainable change in a climate of bullying and fear."

Earlier in your career you researched the reasons for the failure of major change programmes. How would you assess the public sector's ability to change and modernize?

John Seddon:

Public sector management needs help, not beatings from ministers. Those in the public sector who have adopted the systems approach - and all have achieved outstanding results - are testament to the fact that public sector managers are ready for change.The public sector is vocational, people care about the services they provide, these people need help with method and will never make genuine and sustainable change in a climate of bullying and fear.

You have suggested that setting targets actually undermines achievement of purpose, which is improving public sector performance. With performance management becoming such an important topic, what changes do you believe need to be made in this area?

John Seddon:

We need to get rid of all targets. Targets are arbitrary measures, they lead people to use their ingenuity to do whatever they can (good or bad) to be seen to achieve the target, hence, for example, 'gaming' in the health service. The distortion of peoples' energy is nothing, however, to the distortions to performance - setting targets actually makes performance worse.

The better way is to use real measures, derived from the work, that help you understand and improve the work. The consequence is a level of performance that could never have been considered as a target. Take, for example, housing repairs, the organizations using the systems approach do all repairs in about a week (the government targets are for repairs to be done in a month). If this were set as a target everyone would say it is impossible.

You advocate the adoption of systems - or lean - thinking to public sector systems. What are the major benefits of systems thinking?

John Seddon:

It is a better way to make the work work. It leads to better service at lower costs and, moreover, it has an enormous and positive impact on morale.

A letter on your website states that many public sector employees are very enthusiastic about Vanguard's methods. But is there any evidence yet of government's official recognition of the strategic importance of systems thinking?

John Seddon:

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is funding pilot programmes using the Vanguard approach. As with all other cases the results have been very impressive. The report of the evaluation panel will be out in March 2005.

Some reports talk of a lack of motivation amongst public sector workers. Performance-related pay has been put forward as a possible way of tackling this. What are your views on this area?

John Seddon:

Performance-related pay systems do not work, in fact the research evidence is unequivocal about this: performance-related pay always gets you LESS performance. The problem of public sector motivation is caused by the incessant and irrelevant imposition of arbitrary and unthinking specifications by ministers and their servants.

Your latest book - "Freedom from Command and Control" has been described as a "management book that challenges convention". What inspired you to write it?

John Seddon:

The need to explain to managers, in simple terms and with plenty of examples, that there is, quite simply, a better way to design and manage work. Managers need to be reminded that we 'invented' command and control, so we can 'un-invent' it.

Finally, what article or book has had the most profound effect on your professional outlook, and why?

John Seddon:

You will have to allow me two books. Deming's Out of the Crisis was the first book to make me really think about management; it introduced me to the diseases caused by command and control thinking and encouraged me to think about the design and management of work in a completely different way.

Taiichi Ohno's book The Toyota Production System illustrated the completely innovative ideas behind the Toyota System; it inspired me to translate these ideas for service organizations.

For more information on John Seddon and Vanguard, visit