John Seddon’s book Systems Thinking in the Public Sector is a well-written and powerful reminder of the limitations of targets and performance measures in public services. Targets, he argues oblige managers to pay attention to the wrong things, what politicians require rather than what local service users need and this leads to perverse consequences. Targets prevent staff from dealing with the variety of what they encounter by obliging them to serve inflexible and predetermined rules which have been set by someone else sitting outside the situation that local staff and managers are dealing with. Targets and performance measures arise out of an ideology of control and a pessimistic assessment of public sector staff: that if civil servants are not standing over them with exacting standards then somehow they won’t do their jobs properly. It has resulted in what he describes as an army of bureaucrats whose job it is to specify, inspect and report compliance on targets and measures which are driving public services away from what the public really wants and needs. In these ways this approach has contributed hugely to waste and cost.
He describes the difficulty he has had of getting many of his ideas accepted because setting targets has become axiomatic – to suggest that setting targets is the cause of many of the problems rather than the solution to the problems is to present oneself as being eccentric. Seddon points to the ways in which other ungrounded idelogical obsessions, that consumer ‘choice’ is the best way to develop services, that IT is always a cheaper option, that the private sector will always deliver a better deal for service users, have come to dominate decision-making and management in the public sector.
Seddon’s heroes are W Edwards Demning, who developed statistical techniques for better managing manufacturing processes, and the Toyota boss T Ohno. Ohno, for example, was deeply sceptical of ‘best practice’ regarding it as a kind of rigid thinking importing alien ideas from elsewhere. The key to developing work for Ohno was from within the work itself. What Seddon takes from these two management thinkers is their attention to work flow, rather than rules, and their prioritising of method. Developing a patient and detailed understanding of what it is you are dealing with, rather than coming up with answers in advance (‘how can we set up a one stop shop?’) is the only grounded and evidence-based way of improving services. Seddon would like to replace all the targets and measures with a simple question to all managers in the public sector; ‘What measures are you using to help you understand and improve the work?’ There are no other prescriptions than that.
There are many things that I would share with Seddon in his analysis of what goes wrong in organisations dominated by performance measures and targets. In general he is using the term ‘systems thinking’ in contexts where there is a factory-like process, such as processing benefits or matching people on the housing waiting list with vacant properties, where systematic approaches to mapping how the work flows through an organisation is extremely helpful to thinking about how to respond to that work. It is a kind of business process mapping. Where I part company with Seddon is with his idea that an organisation can be thought of as a system, rather than the patterning of the interactions of many, many people. When organsiations are thought of as systems it often leads to organsiational development initiatives where employees are treated as though they are parts of systems, which we have explored in previous posts. It would be possible to make the argument that the thinking that Seddon is criticising is also driven by systems thinking, although perhaps he would say that it is not systemic enough.
Seddon deals convincingly with better approaches to managing the work, but has little to say about managing people and why even the most rational of schemes may be taken up patchily and unevenly by employees. His question ‘how is the work working’ is a very valuable one, however.