228 – Frog or bike. Does it matter?

1720 words (6 minutes reading time)                                                                Lancing Farrell

thinking frog

Colin Weatherby and Tim Whistler have made some interesting points in their contributions to the discussion about the Vanguard Method. Clearly, Colin’s colleague has had some success in using it and has been able to identify unique features of the Vanguard Method. In contrast, Tim has raised some legitimate concerns, especially from a local government perspective. I have spent some time thinking about both points of view and reading some of the material mentioned. Here are my thoughts for what they are worth.

Services are complex and the interactions between the parts, especially when people are involved, is important. Experience says that changing one part of a system does often have unintended consequences elsewhere. Even using the bicycle system as an example, changing one worn-out tyre isn’t going to improve the whole bike if the other tyre is also worn out. A blow out is still possible. Upgrading the group set to a 500g lighter (and much more expensive) set isn’t going to make much difference if the rider is 10kg over weight. Successful cyclists understand what they are doing as a ‘system’ and coordinate their effort across all aspects of their cycling.

‘Frog’ systems add another degree of difficulty. Sometimes, that difficulty can’t be seen or understood until you start to change the system. This is why ecologists intervening in natural systems often use ‘adaptive management’ approaches – e.g. trial and error – to make small changes and monitor the effect before committing to do more. They have adopted a structured and iterative process in the face of uncertainty. I know organisations are not ‘natural’ systems but human nature does apply and people don’t always behave predictably.

On the basis of this, I would support systems thinking as a way to understand an organisation and implement change. It places the emphasis on the ‘whole’ rather than the ‘parts’. Despite Tim Whistler’s concerns, risks must be taken to change a system. The trick is to manage those risks. Even when changing a bicycle system success is not guaranteed. There are many examples of organisations that have set out to implement structured, planned and documented changes that have not achieved the intended outcomes. Even having multiple change processes and coordinating them is not straightforward. It might be what we are used to doing, but that doesn’t mean we should continue if there is a better alternative.

At this point, the differences of the Vanguard Method become relevant.

Anything you do has to start somewhere. In a service, it makes sense for it to start with a person receiving the service and their purpose in using it. There doesn’t seem to be any point in giving someone a service that isn’t what they need. I am not saying they should get what they say they want, but unless they get what they need to solve their problem, they will not be satisfied. Then they must either put up with what they get or they will seek to solve their problem by re-presenting or going elsewhere. This is the source of the failure demand identified by John Seddon. It is more likely to occur if someone other than the customer has determined the purpose of the system.

This is an interesting point and raises the question of why the work is designed the way it is. If it is not to fulfil a customer purpose, whose purpose is it intended to fulfil? You might argue that it is the role of leaders to determine the purpose, but does that mean it should serve their purpose? It is a common criticism of public sector organisations that work is designed to suit the workers. Even designing the system to suit external regulators or to satisfy regulatory obligations or reduce risk is not going to work unless it also fulfils customer purpose. It is customers who create the value demands in the system.

If you study enough customers using a service, there will be common and predictable problems to be solved. This is the ‘requisite variety’ and the value demands that should form the basis for designing the system. It is not ‘standardisation’ because the system will be designed to respond effectively to what matter for customers in solving their problems. And it doesn’t mean that it won’t change over time. Once you have worked out how to deliver a service to meet value demands, you can continuously change it in response to changing demands. If that happens, the periodic service transformations we use to re-set services when they get out of step with customers won’t be required.

The worst thing that can happen is that the service design responds to unpredictable problems or exceptions. This is how additional steps get added into work flows and much of the avoidable waste (i.e. work done that doesn’t add any value for the customer) finds its way into systems. This leads to Tim’s concern that the Vanguard Method won’t deliver public value.

Mark Moore defines public value as the “collective view of the public or community about what they regard as valuable with regard to the use of public money and authority”.

Moore has placed public value on a continuum from private to public value. This is discussed in more detail in an earlier post and the fundamental concept is illustrated in this diagram.

Moore degrees of publicness

Allowing people to define the system from the viewpoint of their problem to be solved is clearly a private value situation (i.e. an individual seeking material well being). This is an unavoidable situation because people don’t like standardised services. We know that. They want choice to ensure their needs are met. My favourite example is to imagine how you would feel if doctors treated each patient according to the illnesses prevalent in their post code, rather than examining them for their specific illness. I can’t imagine anyone thinking that would be helpful or acceptable to the patient.

 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.

However, if, as evidenced above in the advice given by Colin Weatherby’s colleague, a discussion that starts with private value can move along the Moore’s continuum to end up with a public value outcome (i.e. both individual and collective valued states are achieved), surely it is public value. In fact, it is likely that all demands have elements of both private and public value. An example used in a previous post to illustrate the transition of value from private to public has been the planting of a street tree outside a house in a street. The resident living in the house gets value in beautifying their street, as does the broader community in reducing the heat island effect.

The issue of performance measurement is always contentious. If measures are not used to understand whether services are effective as they are delivered, how can they be improved? Relying on surveys of customer satisfaction (which seems commonplace in councils) or waiting until external comparison reporting shows you have dropped down the ‘league table’ of councils, is inadequate. I can’t imagine successful private sector service organisations waiting for that sort of feedback. In reality, there probably needs to be both sorts of measurement and reporting – leading measures that help improve systems and services, and lagging measures that reassure decision makers and the community that needs are being met and problems solved.

The link made by Tim between todays services and the services needed tomorrow is an important one. There is no point in putting improvements in place today that solve a problem and then just waiting until a new problem emerges before doing further analysis and change. We know services are dynamic and that customers and the variety they bring to the system will change over time. Why not set up a system capable of changing continuously in response to demands?

I think the main reason this doesn’t happen often is that management hasn’t worked out how to do it effectively. It also challenges the traditional ‘command-and-control’ mindset of leaders. The idea of a service catalogue is one that I have long supported (I have posted on it before). My rationale has been that no one knows with certainty what an organisation does, or does not do, unless you tell them. Write it down. Having thought more about the Vanguard Method, I can see that a rigid catalogue of services and service levels is not the solution, particularly if it is developed ‘inside-out’ by people within the organisation. The services offered need to be those required by customers or they are irrelevant.

This leads to Tim’s final point, and one that is addressed partially in Colin’s post – what happens to leaders? Leaders must change if the Vanguard Method is to be successful. It is probably the greatest threat to its success. They must change their thinking first because that will lead to a change in their behaviour. The power of what leaders do is well documented. The blog Thinkpurpose.com has a popular post about systems thinking called the ‘7 reasons you shouldn’t touch systems thinking’. The seven reasons are the frustrations that occur when workers are exposed to systems thinking but management is not committed. This seems to be a real risk.

It is a risk for leaders to adopt systems thinking and introduce a method like the Vanguard Method to change their organisation. Leaders have accountabilities that are designed around ‘command-and-control’ thinking. Many leaders have been successful in a ‘command-and-control’ environment – they are accustomed to deciding what will happen next, creating priorities and allocating resources. People rely on them to do it. However, leaders that continue with reductionist management thinking and practice will defeat the Vanguard Method or any version of systems thinking.

They have to change first.



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.

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.



221 -The Vanguard method in Australia.

By Tim Whistler                                                                                                         1000 words

Progressive leaders

The summit offered an opportunity for those who are unfamiliar with the Vanguard method to hear about work that has been done in Australia by IOOF (a superannuation fund manager) and the County Courts Registry using the Vanguard method. Vanguard team members presented public service case studies from the UK.

It was an interesting event and it highlighted the potential for leaders to think differently and better understand how work is being performed in their organisation, what is happening in delivering value to customers, and how improvements can be made.

There were several issues relevant to local government in Victoria. Continue reading

216 – Some further thoughts on systems thinking.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              1600 words

Rodin's The Thinker

There have been a number of posts on systems thinking examining both its theoretical underpinnings and practical application. I recently had reason to consider how systems thinking, or lack thereof, affects organisations from day to day, and the ways that systems thinking can shape or influence organisational culture.

This was prompted by an article by Brian Martens on ‘the impact of leadership in applying systems thinking to organisations’. It is a thoughtful explanation of his research and thinking.

“Systems thinking is a natural way to look at the world and all the relationships and interconnections that are involved in its functioning.”

I think it is the only way to think about leadership or management in councils because connections matter so much in delivering services that meet the expectations of recipients and because resources are scarce and must be shared whenever possible. Continue reading

203 – ‘Systems Thinking for Social Change’ by David Peter Stroh.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                                         950 words

systems thinking for social chnage

The subtitle of this book says it all – ‘A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results’.   Every so often you pick up a book and it provides answers to problems that you and thousands of others grapple with every day. This is one of those books.   David Stroh co-founded ‘Innovation Associates’ with Peter Senge, who later wrote the management classic ‘The Fifth Discipline’. Both are proponents of systems thinking. The premise of this book is that ‘applying systems thinking principles and tools enables you to achieve better results with fewer resources in more lasting ways’. Wow.

Stroh uses detailed, real-world examples to make his case. His ‘systems stories’ explain how people can improve performance by shifting from just trying to optimise their part of the system, to improving the relationships between all parts of the system.   The systems stories start with seeing the big picture.

It is often the case in local government that people focus mainly on their functional responsibilities and either fail to see connections to the work of others, or they are not interested. Life is simpler when achievable goals can be set and complexity is overlooked. Putting the effort in to understanding the whole system is seldom rewarded. Local government is epitomised by sayings like ‘keep it simple’, ‘look for quick wins’, and ‘pick the low hanging fruit’.

In contrast, Stroh uses the ancient Indian story of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate the importance of the big picture. Continue reading

191 – Essay No. 3 – Local government and systems thinking.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              1250 words


systems thinking checkland

Systems Model, Peter Checkland, 1981.

Systems thinking has featured in a number of posts (see  Some types of thinking observed in local government,  Classic paper: ‘Forget your people – real leaders act on the system’. John SeddonApplying the public value concept using systems thinking in local government). As someone with an interest in systems thinking I felt it deserved some discussion in the context of local government using ideas gathered from Peter Checkland, Alistair Mant and John Seddon.

The cover of Peter Checkland’s book ‘Systems Thinking, Systems Practice’ says that it is about the ‘interaction between theory and practice of problem solving methodology’, as derived from a decade of action research. It is a seminal text on the ‘meta-discipline’ of systems thinking.

Checkland has set out to ‘develop an explicit account of the systems outlook’ and, based on that view, to ‘develop ways of using systems ideas in practical problem situations’. The book is about the ‘use of a particular set of ideas, systems ideas, in trying to understand the world’s complexity’.

“The central concept ‘system’ embodies the idea of a set of elements connected together which form a whole, this showing properties which are properties of the whole, rather than properties of its component parts.”

Systems thinking is centred on the concept of ‘wholeness’. In some ways it is a reaction to the classical scientific method, which emphasises ‘reducing the situation observed in order to increase the chance that experimentally reproducible observations will be obtained’.   Eliminating variables in order to study something to determine cause and effect is useful but ultimately limiting in complex systems where the interactions of all variables matters.

Systems thinkers have called it ‘organised complexity’ to describe the space between ‘organised simplicity’ and ‘chaotic complexity’. In some ways it is seeking to understand the simplicity that exists on the far side of complexity. In a nutshell, systems thinking is concerned with organisation and the principles underlying the existence of any whole entity.

Australian management author, Alistair Mant, describes two types of systems in his book ‘Intelligent Leadership’. He calls them the ‘frog’ and the ‘bicycle’ systems and he believes that leaders need to be able to distinguish between the two systems when applying systems thinking and directing a change and shift in systems. He sees ‘pointing systems in intelligent directions’ as one of the critical leadership responsibilities.

Frogs and bicycles are metaphors for different kinds of systems. The essential difference lies in the relationship of the parts to the whole. A bicycle can be completely disassembled and then reassembled with confidence that it will work as well as before.  This is not possible with a frog. Once you remove a single part the whole system is affected instantaneously and unpredictably. Furthermore, as you continue to remove parts the frog will make a ‘series of subtle, but still unpredictable, adjustments in order to survive’.

“This sort of system, at a level beneath consciousness, wants to survive and will continue for an astonishing length of time to achieve a rough equilibrium as bits are excised – until it can do so no longer. At that point, again quite unpredictably, the whole system will tip over into collapse. The frog is dead and it won’t help to sew the parts back on.”

This is a salient warning for those planning to intervene in a system without due care. Mant believes that most big organisational systems contain bits of frog and bicycle systems.   He says that the bicycle parts can be hived off and reattached in a new way without harming the overall system, but that the frog parts are really the core process.   In a way, he is describing systems at two different levels – the component-level (bicycle) and the system-level (frog).

Checkland says that ‘any system which serves another cannot be modelled until a definition and model of the system served is available’. This approach should prevent action on component ‘bicycle’ systems occurring before the potential implications for the whole ‘frog’ system is understood.

In common with Checkland, Mant holds the view that systems are complex and need to be considered as a whole. The systems model developed by Checkland (shown above) illustrates the process of systems thinking. He says that it starts with a ‘focus of interest’ or set of concerns that exist in the real world. This could be a problem or something about which we have aspirations. This leads to an idea. From that idea two kinds of theory can be formulated:

  1. Substantive – theories about the subject matter.
  2. Methodological – theories about how to go about investigating the subject matter.

Once theories exist, it is possible to state problems not only as they exist in the real world, but also as ‘problems within a discipline’. For example, engineering, chemistry or town planning. All of the resources of the discipline (i.e. previous problems, its paradigms, models and techniques) can then be used in an appropriate methodology to test the theory.

The results of this test, which involves action in the real world (i.e. interventions, influencing and observation), then provides case records of ‘happenings under certain conditions’.   These are the crucial source of criticisms that enable better theories, models, techniques and methodologies to be developed. It is the improvement loop.

For those proponents of the Vanguard Method this might be starting to sound familiar. John Seddon has developed an application of systems thinking in organisations that has demonstrated its value in improving organisational systems. The Vanguard Method has the following steps:

  1. Check
  • What is the purpose of this system?
  • What are the types and frequencies of customer demand?
  • How well does the system respond to demand?
  • What is the ‘flow’ of work?
  • What are the conditions that make the system behave this way?
  1. Plan
  • What needs changing to improve performance?
  • What action could be taken and what would we predict the consequences to be?
  • Against what measures should action be taken?
  1. Do
  • Take the planned action and monitor the consequence in relation to the purpose.

It features systems thinking in the need to understand a concern in the real world (what are the demands?), develop a theory or approach to improvement (what needs to change?), and then seeks to implement that action and monitor consequences (how can the approach be improved?).

“The outcome of studying the work in this way is a system picture that puts together everything that has been learned and which illustrates the dynamics of the particular service.” John Seddon.

Mant says that most complex systems containing and serving people have ‘natural properties’. Effective management aligns itself with the natural flows and processes to help them along – like a leaf floating on water running in a stream that naturally takes it to its destination. Bad or dogmatic management fails to recognise these natural properties and attempts to ‘shoehorn the system into shape’ to meet externally determined priorities. This has been identified as a problem for public sector management in a previous long read post.

Local government has spent too long looking out of the window hoping to see a ’business-like’ way of managing that will solve all of its problems, rather than having the confidence to work out what is needed from first principles. It is vulnerable to the next externally imposed management fad.

Seddon is particularly harsh in his judgement of public service reform for the past 35 years in Britain. He describes the contribution of each Prime Minister in some detail. Overall, he paints a picture of political interference and the projection of a narrative that has primarily focussed on reducing costs, yet costs have increased. This is principally because they have failed to understand the system. The complexity of systems containing and serving people has been overlooked.

Checkland, Peter, 1981. ‘Systems Thinking, Systems Practice’.

Mant, Alistair, 1997. ‘Intelligent Leadership’.

Seddon, John, 2014. ‘The Whitehall Effect’.