227 – Frogs or bikes – I’d love to see that.

600 words (3 minutes reading time)                                                                   Tim Whistler

frog on road

I read Colin Weatherby’s post on the Vanguard Method and systems thinking with some interest. There have been a number of posts on systems thinking on this blog. It is not a new idea. I am intrigued by what makes the Vanguard Method any different to other applications of systems thinking. I am also interested in how it relates to concepts like public value. How does the Vanguard Method achieve better or different results?

As previously posted, I have some interest in the Vanguard Method. I suppose, I am sceptical about the likelihood of any method being taken up in local government if it relies on ‘counter-intuitive’ truths and if there is no detailed plan to say what will be achieved and when. It is always hard to justify expenditure of public funds without a written plan with measurable outcomes – even if everyone suspects the plan is ill-founded or optimistic. If you aim for the stars, if you fail you will at least land on the moon. A plan gives you something to measure the effort against and hold people accountable. After all, isn’t public accountability the aim?

It is also less risk to simply do the same thing that others are already doing and seek to improve using a conventional business transformation approach. There are many change management approaches and most organisations would have several already in use – Kotter, Lean, digital transformation, customer-centred design, Agile, organisational restructuring, etc. Couldn’t these all be bundled up and coordinated through a ‘systems thinking’ approach? Why should a council try to do something different? Play it safe, I say.

I am also concerned that if it is the customer who decides what the ‘problem’ is to be solved (which then defines the ‘system’ to be improved) and what matters about how it is solved, how does that constitute public value? Isn’t it simply a version of private value? A transaction about what each individual customer wants? What about the interests of others who may use that service in the future or who don’t use the service at all but contribute to paying for it? How are their views considered? I would like to see how the Vanguard Method impacts annual planning and the development of the council’s mandatory annual and long-term plans.

The idea that measurement of performance will assist staff to do their work better and deliver more value to customers is fine. I would have thought that should be happening already. But what about the performance reporting required by senior management? How do they have visibility of the resources being used to do the work and whether it is being done to the required standards? What about State government reporting requirements? People in the community need to know how their council measures up against other councils in delivering services. How else will they know they are getting value for their money?

My other concern is that improving customer-defined systems doesn’t solve the problem of what to do in the future to accommodate new customer demands. How do you plan for the future of your services when the system is being determined by the customers of today? They may not reflect the values, needs and aspirations of the next generation of customers. Plus, many councils are now developing service catalogues to describe the services they offer and define the service levels – how does that thinking fit into the Vanguard Method?

What happens to the role of leaders? If they are not there to set budgets, allocate EFT, make the big decisions and tell the frontline workers what to do and how to do it, what are they there for? How will they justify their positions in the hierarchy and be held accountable for the work being done? What if budgets are exceeded because more resources are needed to ‘solve’ customer problems than they have expected? What if fulfilling ‘customer purpose’ requires more EFT that they have allocated? It sounds to me like there is a risk that systems thinmking will allow the system to spiral out of control.

Isn’t management about having the skills to take the system apart, fix the bits, and then put it back together? Isn’t that why we have HR and finance and IT? Their leaders are specialists and they know what needs to be done in their area. What about the engineers, librarians, and social workers? They lead their functions with expertise and industry knowledge. They know industry best practice and aim to excel in their work. I fail to understand why everyone doing their best in their area isn’t the right way to deliver best value to customers.

I know this might just seem like an endless list of questions but I think they should have answers.

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