181 – Applying the public value concept in local government using systems thinking

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         1100 words



Systems thinking is potentially a great lever for improvements in the design and delivery of local government services. However, it will require a major shift in thinking about how work is designed and managed because the systems thinker is focussed on the purpose of a service from the customer’s point of view.   This is a change from the needs of the organisation and the people working in it driving the design of work and delivery of services. Here are some thoughts building on the earlier post by Parkinson.

Local government needs to work harder to put the needs of customers first despite the realities of multiple and conflicting accountabilities, limited potential for increased income from rates, difficulty defining who the customer is, and increasing expectations of service levels, reliability and speed.

The principal focus of systems thinking is designing and managing the organisation with the customer mind. Continue reading

114 – Classic paper: ‘Forget your people – real leaders act on the system’. John Seddon.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         2200 words

john seddon

John Seddon won the first Harvard Business Review/ McKinsey Management Innovation Prize for ‘Reinventing Leadership’ in 2010 for this paper. The prize was awarded for:

“ … the best story (a real-world case study of management innovation) or hack (a bold idea for tackling a critical management challenge) around … redefining the work of leadership, increasing trust (reducing fear), and taking the work out of work.”

As the title suggests it is a provocative paper. In his usual way, Seddon provides challenging ideas supported by practical evidence.

The context for the story is Owen Buckwell, the head of housing at Portsmouth City Council in England. Over 40,000 people rely on him for warm, safe and comfortable homes. Each year he is responsible for dealing with 17,000 blocked toilets and 100,000 dripping taps in the 17,000 council houses.

Owen has been managing housing for 6 years. Seddon describes him as a curious man who likes to get to the bottom of things.

What does Owen do?

65 – Service suppliers to local government. What do they do differently and why?

Posted by Parkinson                                                                                       350 words

integrated systems

It has always intrigued me that the major suppliers of services to local government operate quite differently. What are some of the differences and why?

The first difference that is obvious is the investment in enterprise management systems. Some are better developed and more integrated than others but all have a third party accredited quality (ISO 9001), safety (AS4801), and environment (ISO 1400) systems. They will also have a corporate operations manual and a management manual setting out company policy and requirements. Continue reading

57 – Some types of thinking observed in local government.

Posted by Whistler                                                                          580 words

ant on leaf

Image from http://caracaschronicles.com

Convenient thinking. I think this is a preferred way of thinking for many people. It is the easiest. What is the quickest way to deal with this matter? Is there someone else who should be doing it? What is likely to have the least impact on me? Once you start asking these questions, you are well on the way to some convenient thinking. It is most problematic when senior management regularly engage in convenient thinking.

Consequential thinking. This is related to convenient thinking but is more focussed on the possible outcomes from doing something. What could go wrong? Who could be upset? Will it move my career forward? Continue reading

41 – ‘Where does the customer fit into a service operation?’ A brief discussion of the work of Richard B. Chase.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                                     1200 words

In 1978 Richard B. Chase published his paper Where does the customer fit into a service operation? John Seddon says this article began the separation of front and back office operations; something that he believes has created many problems in public sector service delivery today. Maybe he is right. But when you read the article, what Chase is advocating makes sense and I can’t help thinking that it isn’t necessarily a bad idea, rather it is an idea that has been used badly.

Chase is an operations manager. By 1978 he had already co-authored a popular operations management text. He starts his paper stating that a manager needs to understand the ‘operating characteristics that set one service system apart from another’ in order to make improvements. Continue reading

34 – Middle managers in local government: the ‘scrapers of burnt toast’?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                        620 words

burnt toast

This is the phrase used by Peter R. Scholtes in The Leaders Handbook to describe the work of many middle managers as ‘expediters or troubleshooters’ in organisations that have yet to eliminate waste and create ‘efficient, smooth, uncluttered flows of work’.   He says that in a ‘flat’ organisation the layers of middle management have been removed as part of the focus on eliminating waste. In an efficient system, they are unnecessary and non-value adding roles. I am sure he doesn’t think that middle managers aren’t required.  You just need less.  It is an interesting idea.

Scholtes says that removing layers as part of improving organisational performance reduces opportunities for promotion. As a result, people leave to find less efficient organisations where their skills in ‘expediting and troubleshooting’ are required to deal with inefficiencies and waste to make the system work. I started thinking about my role and the role of colleagues in middle management, and what we spend each day doing. What do we talk about when we meet in the corridors? Are we mostly adding value or just spending our time making dysfunctional systems work? Continue reading

17 – Interested in local government management? Four books you should read and why. Part 2

This post continues my discussion about the books that I discovered in 2014 that I think should influence management in local government.

3. Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organisation Chart by Geary A. Rummler and Alan P. Brache. Published in 1995, this book is quite different to the other two books recommended. It is not about the public sector and it is a hard core management book. The authors have developed a way of thinking about organisations and their performance that is very relevant to local government. Topics covered include managing processes and organisations as systems, linking performance to strategy, redesigning processes, and designing a performance measurement system.

Rummler and Brache apply their systems view by discussing the interdependence of nine performance variables shown in the diagram below.

the 9 performance variables

The levels of performance and the performance needs are described:

  • Organisation level – the organisational strategy, goals, and organisational structure.
  • Process level – how work flows across functions in the organisational structure.
  • Job/performer level – the people doing the work in processes.
  • Goals – the customer’s expectations of service quality, quantity, timeliness or cost, etc.
  • Design – of the organisation, processes and jobs to achieve the goals.
  • Management – the practices in place to ensure goals are current and being achieved.

It is a simple and powerful way to think about organisations vertically and horizontally. In a diverse organisation like local government, understanding the performance variables is critical to improving cross-functional services and reducing the ‘silo effect’ in which functional goals are put ahead of the goals of processes that deliver services to customers.  Read it if you are interested in cross functional processes and improving service delivery.

4. The Leaders Handbook by Peter R. Scholtes. Published in 1998, this book is also a serious management text. Written in an engaging way with lots of diagrams and case studies to illustrate points, it is accessible and easily read. So, don’t be put off. For someone who believes in systems thinking, it contains gems, such as this one below written in the context of performance appraisal and why Scholtes believes it isn’t effective;

“Successful work requires having a consistent and reliable set of systems, processes, and methods by which you and your people design, develop, and deliver what the customers need when and how the customers need it. Systems are created, sustained, and improved by insightful and interactive work on the system, not by using carrots and sticks. Measurable goals do not improve systems. Improving systems improves systems (p.303).”

Chapters cover a wide range of topics including, systems thinking; giving meaning, purpose, direction and focus to work; leading by asking good questions; and performance without appraisal. It is clear that Scholtes (a colleague of W. Edwards Deming) values systems and statistical thinking, relations with people, and learning to master improvement. He sees organisations as ‘complex systems of social networks and technical processes in which simplistic approaches will not help resolve complex problems’. He identifies 6 leadership competencies:

  1. Systems thinking – understanding the difference between systems and structure or policy; and seeking systemic causes, not culprits.
  2. Variability at work – knowing the difference between common cause and special causes of variation.
  3. Learning – understanding when a statement is theory or opinion versus fact, and acting accordingly; and knowing the difference between change and improvement.
  4. Psychology and human behaviour – understanding and applying the concepts of internal versus external motivation and demotivation.
  5. Interactions – seeing the interdependencies between systems thinking, variation, learning and human behaviour.
  6. Vision, meaning, direction and focus – providing clarity of purpose and developing and continuously communicating a clear sense of direction and focus.

Scholtes sets out a new paradigm for leadership for complex socio-technical systems.  Local government, with its political and organisational challenges, is nothing if not complex (as discussed in post 3).

I challenge you to read these books and then decide whether you think about your organisation as a system and if it is really focussed on creating public value by fulfilling customer-defined purpose through effective and efficient processes where variation is understood and performance is measured.

Lancing Farrell