226 – Frog or bicycle? The Vanguard Method at work.

2250 words (8 minutes reading time)                                                   Colin Weatherby

frog on bike

Some time ago Tim Whistler wrote a brief post on the Vanguard Method in Australia. Since then I have been talking to a colleague who has been using the Vanguard Method. Their experience has highlighted aspects of the Vanguard Method that are different to other system thinking approaches. The originator of the Vanguard Method, John Seddon, has also written a new book (‘Beyond Command and Control’) that discusses some of the differences between the Vanguard Method and other popular approaches to organisational change. This is rather a long post but worth the effort to read it if you are interested in systems thinking and the Vanguard Method.

There have been several posts on systems thinking (‘Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Peter Stroh, Local government and systems thinking, and Applying the public value concept in local government using systems thinking). These might be useful for some of the theory on systems thinking and its relevance to local government.

The starting point for understanding the Vanguard Method is that it is based on systems thinking. There have been a number of systems thinkers who have published on the topic, for example Peter Checkland, Russell Ackoff and Peter Senge. The development of the Vanguard Method has also been influenced by W. Edwards Deming and Taiichi Ohno. An article by Brendan O’Donovan provides a detailed explanation of the influences on the development of the Vanguard Method as an application of systems thinking. It is worth reading.

O’Donovan discusses some of the key features of all systems thinking – i.e. the parts of the system are recognised as interdependent; the emphasis is on working to the whole system’s purpose; feedback loops are critical in refining a system’s performance; and systems need to be able to structure themselves to accommodate the ‘requisite variety’ of the operations. This last point is known as Ashby’s Law, which essentially says that systems are only viable if they have the same degree of variety as their environments, which typically requires organisations to reduce external variety and/or increase variety within the system.

O’Donovan also says that in systems thinking you need to learn about the system experientially, to expose the leaders to the experience of the system from the customers’ viewpoint, and to ‘dissolve’, rather than ‘solve’ problems by designing them out of the system. Accepting that you will understand the system experientially (i.e. from the real world through action) and from the customers’ viewpoint is a challenge for some leaders – it can’t be done from the executive suite.

The starting point for me in understanding the Vanguard Method has been acceptance of ‘systems thinking’ as a way to improve performance by looking at an organisation with all its moving parts. This is in contrast to ‘reductionist’ thinking, which seeks to reduce complexity by dividing the system into components that are simple enough to be analysed and understood, then improving each component before reconstructing the system. Reductionist thinking assumes that none of the complexity in the system arises from the way the components interact with each other.

Alistair Mant (‘Intelligent Leadership’) describes two different kinds of systems – the bicycle and the frog. The differences are important. A bicycle can be dismantled, each component part improved, and then the components reassembled and the bicycle operates as well or better than beforehand. I have a bicycle and I know this can work as intended if you know about bikes. In comparison, a frog cannot be ‘dismantled’ without immediately affecting the whole frog, often in ways that are unpredictable. The ‘frog’ (i.e. the system) will make adjustments to any change to achieve a new equilibrium and survive . At some point it will collapse if components continue to be removed. This makes sense to me as a person with some of the same biological features as a frog.

My experience has been that most systems involving people (e.g. customers, staff, suppliers, etc.) are more like a frog than a bicycle. Interactions between people can be complicated and they bring complexity to the system. Life in organisations would be a lot simpler if that were not the case.

Treating a service delivery system as though it is a ‘bicycle’, when it is actually a ‘frog’, can lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

If you believe that systems thinking (whether the system is a bicycle or a frog) is the approach required to improve your organisation, there are choices about the way to do it. O’Donovan’s article provides an analysis of the Vanguard Method and John Seddon goes further in his new book to contrast his method directly with other change management approaches. I am going to explain some of the unique aspects of the Vanguard Method that have been identified by my colleague.

The first is that when using the Vanguard Method the ‘problem to be solved’ through any change to the system is defined by the customer. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is not uncommon for the ‘problem to be solved’ through organisational change to be defined without real knowledge of what matters to the customers using the system. Often it is senior management or corporate services’ management who decide what problem is to be solved, frequently acting on external consultant advice. The role of consultants is frequently influential, especially if organisational leaders rely on the consultant’s understanding of the organisation and its problems instead of forming their own view about the work being done.

Using the Vanguard Method, knowledge about the work is obtained from ‘outside-to-in’ by studying the demands placed on the system to understand what the problem is to solve for each customer, what matters about how you help them to solve it, and what would be perfect if you could do it. Once this is understood, the system can be redesigned in response to value demands.

In studying demands, it will become apparent that not all demand is work to be done – some will be ‘value’ demands (i.e. the work we want to do) but much of the demand will be ‘failure’ demand (i.e. work resulting from failure to do something), which is created because the system is not providing the ‘requisite variety’ necessary to meet each customer’s demand effectively. John Seddon says ‘failure demand’ can be up to 80% of the work being done and my colleague verified this – i.e. 76% of the work being done in the systems she has studied shouldn’t exist. She also said that when the value demands are studied and the flow is understood, up to 96% of the work being done (i.e. process steps such as hand-offs, double checks, and approvals) doesn’t add any value for the customer. Not all the ‘waste’ can be eliminated (some of it is created by system conditions that cannot be easily changed – e.g. legislation) but it can be reduced by focussing on doing the value work.

This leads to the second aspect – the Vanguard Method doesn’t set out to focus attention on stopping the things that aren’t going right – i.e. reducing ‘failure demand’ or to eliminate ‘waste’ from the work flows. This is the usual response of management and many change management approaches – they try to stop failure and eliminate waste. John Seddon has said that “if you are doing the wrong thing without knowing it, you won’t be able to get to the right thing by studying why the wrong thing went wrong”. The Vanguard Method identifies failure demand’ and ‘waste’ in the work being done and then, and this is the important difference, it focuses on being better at responding to value demands and increasing the amount of value work being done. Doing these two things then leads to less failure and less waste.

The third important point of difference is that the understanding of demand and the re-design of the system to improve capability in responding to value demands in ways that are ‘perfect’, is done by the frontline workers delivering services. They study the demands and work flow to decide how they can improve the system.

In most organisations it is the frontline staff who face customers every day and try to satisfy them who have the best understanding of what is working and what isn’t. Unfortunately, they usually don’t have the authority to just fix problems, and frequently the problem extends beyond their immediate area of control.

This presents the second challenge of the Vanguard Method for many organisational leaders. More on this later.

The fourth unique aspect is that measurement of performance is relevant for the workers delivering services and re-designing the system and is intended to help them learn and improve. Measures are not determined by senior management or imposed externally. No doubt there will be some measurement done to reassure leaders and the people they are accountable to, but the focus is on customer purpose in placing a demand on the system, and what would be ‘perfect’ in response.

For example, workers can ask customers immediately about their experience in using the service – i.e. what score do you give me out of ten? Why have you given me that score? What can I do to improve? The customer feedback is real time and given to frontline workers who need it to improve their performance.

My colleague says using this approach has provided one of the more surprising outcomes for the staff involved. The most common response has been scores of 9/10 or 10/10, primarily because the customer has experienced a council service where what matters to them has been paramount (which they report as an unusual experience!). The service hasn’t always given them what they wanted or completely solved their problem but they know someone has seriously tried to help them. The feedback is also directly related to the service experience and many useful suggestions for further improvement have been provided by customers. These are used to make real time changes to the system so that it is improved for the next customer.

Staff have regularly reported that what starts out as a typical customer transaction (i.e. I want something and I am paying you to give it to me) often ends up with the customer taking a more ‘citizen-like’ view of the situation and the council’s responsibilities, which results in the solution to their problem becoming one that is better for them and their community.

This brings me to my last unique feature (and the one that causes no end of problems in conventional organisations!) – the Vanguard Method is experiential. The people involved in the system learn as they go. There are no assumptions about the system and re-design is determined by the understanding of demand and what would be perfect. There is no predetermined ‘cost/benefit analysis’ or detailed plan with milestones and goals. You have to trust that workers will do the right thing. They are supported to do this, and my colleague says the Vanguard consultants are effective in working with staff to help them understand demand and re-design systems, and then to train their colleagues as they are ‘rolled-in’ to the new way of working. That doesn’t mean it is easy.

The process of studying demands and how the system (i.e. the organisation and its staff) currently respond to those demands is confronting. Workers realise that they have been doing their work in ways that have not provided the best value to customers or solved their problems. They see the resultant ‘failure’ demand and the cost this places on the organisation. They ‘unlearn’ the old ways of working quickly and then create new ways of working as they re-design the system. It can be painful. There will be some people who don’t want to change from their old ways of working. There will be leaders who don’t want to leave ‘reductionist’, or, as John Seddon calls it, command-and-control, thinking behind.

This leads me to two of the key challenges for leaders.

The first is the absence of a conventional change management and cost/benefit analysis wrapped up in a written plan with milestones and targets. My colleague tells me that people ‘change themselves’ as they start to understand the types of demands and system capability. You don’t need a plan for this. They ‘unlearn’ old ways and build new ways for themselves. It is a ‘normative’ process, as compared to ‘coercive’ (i.e. you must do this) or ‘rational’ (i.e. you should do this because …) change processes. Allowing the change to happen through an experiential process requires confidence on the part of leaders. This can be challenging, especially when there isn’t a detailed plan that explains how they think the benefits will exceed costs. Plus, the reductionist, ‘command-and-control’ approach is comfortable – many leaders have succeeded in organisations and made their way into senior management because they are good at it.

The second challenge is that the speed of change and the cost is dependent on the organisation – i.e. the faster leaders change their thinking and lead workers in changing theirs, the faster the change will happen (and the lower the cost). It is up to you. This can be uncomfortable for organisational leaders who are used to setting budgets and timeframes for change ‘projects’ that have pre-determined targets to achieve. It is a challenge to the conventional ‘control’ methods used in organisations.

This is a very brief discussion of the Vanguard Method. To learn more, there are many resources on-line and John Seddon has published several books. The problem is, reading about the Vanguard Method is ‘rational’, not ‘normative’. I gather, it isn’t until you a start using the Vanguard Method that you will really learn about it.