Archive by Author | Benjamin Mitchell

How three forks on a hand-drawn chart helped a team improve

After visualising the workflow of a recent client’s software development process, and showing where the work was, the team realised there was a queue of tasks that had been developed and were waiting to be validated (‘tested’).  The team decided to move from a “I just do my task” approach to a “whole team” approach where they focussed on making a single task flow across all of the development process with minimum delay. They decided that rather than continuing to do more development and hoping that the validation work would eventually complete, the people who did development would go and help those who were validating the work.

The problem was that the Development Manager (who believed his role was to maximise the number of development tasks completed) was concerned that if the development work stopped to reduce the queue in validation, then eventually the validation step might run out of work to do.

In order to address the Development Manager’s concern we went to the hand-drawn cumulative flow diagram (sometimes called a finger chart). The cumulative flow diagram was drawn each day, by the team member who ran the daily stand up, by simply counting the number of tasks in each stage of the workflow. The x-axis shows time in days, and the y-axis shows the number of tasks in each step of the workflow.

As we had a couple of weeks data it was possible to extrapolate the rate at which the validation work was being completed. We were also able to extrapolate the rate at which development work was finishing. In order to do this extrapolation we grabbed the nearest straight-edge items we could find, which turned out to be forks!


As the photo shows, the forks indicated that it would take about two weeks for the validation step to run out of work to do if most of the people doing development spent their time helping do the validation. This data allowed the Development Manager to feel more comfortable about allowing the strategy a shot for a week, after which it could be reviewed.

This example demonstrated the benefits of using quick, low-fidelity data collection methods. The discipline of hand-drawing the chart each day meant that it was better understood by the team members than if it had been automatically produced in an electronic tool.  The team were also able to see how the data could be valuable, as it allowed them to discuss the Development Manager’s concerns with data rather than just opinion.

In the end, the strategy to work as a whole team and focus on the validation step turned out very well. The team were able to reduce the time it took to validate tasks, providing quicker feedback to development (which reduced defects), increase the amount of work they got done at the same time as improving the team’s morale.

Do you have stories of using quick, low-fidelity data collection techniques to improve team performance?

Helping overcome impediments between Managers and Agile Teams

Agile teams often experience difficulties when they have to deal with problems that occur outside the team and may require management involvement to resolve. I’ve seen several Agile teams lose motivation when they question whether managers are really committed to helping the team. Often the team struggle to be open with the manager about the perceived problems or how they could jointly come up with ways to improve the situation.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario based on my experience:

Mike, the Development Manager at a small company, asked Alice, an Agile coach, to come in and help introduce Agile to his organisation, starting with the key development team.

Alice ran some introductory workshops with Mike and the whole team. At the end of these sessions Mike told everyone “I’m really excited about the potential of Agile to help our organisation, starting with this team.  I want to do all that I can to support it”

When Alice came back to the organisation a few weeks later she found that the team were beginning to express doubts about how committed Mike was to adopting Agile. Mike had stopped coming to the daily stand-ups and worse, he wasn’t helping them remove the blockers they experienced with tasks that required a specialist user experience designer in another team.

The team told Alice: “Mike’s not doing anything to remove the delays caused by other teams. He says he supports Agile, but when we need him to help us out, he isn’t there for us. Yet again, the problem is with management! There’s no point us doing this Agile stuff if we’re not supported”

Alice agreed with the team Mike’s role is to help the team by overcoming organisational impediments. She decided to encourage Mike to attend the team’s daily stand-up where she hoped he’d recognise that the reasons for blocks which were causing delays on the tasks were things that he should help with. If Mike didn’t see this for himself, Alice would then model this behaviour for Mike by asking “What would it take to remove the blockers on those tasks? Would you benefit from help on those?” If this fails then Alice would be more direct to Mike by asking “What’s your view on talking to the team about the blockers and seeing how you could help?”

What’s your view of Alice’s approach to helping in this situation? Here’s my view – I welcome your thoughts if you see it differently.

  • Alice seems to assume that what the team complain about is valid – that Mike is not helping resolve the causes of the external blockages – without clarifying what the team have said or done to raise the issues they see with Mike. Alice seems to assume that the team’s complaint is valid without checking if the team have raised their issue with Mike.
  • Alice doesn’t ask the team for the reasoning behind the assumptions they seem to have made, firstly, that Mike is aware that he isn’t helping them, and secondly, he has deliberately chosen not to help them out. Alice doesn’t ask the team why they seem to think that Mike has deliberately chosen not to help them.  It would be useful to focus on directly observable data – what the team has seen Mike do or say that lead them to their views?
  • The next question is what have the team said or done to make Mike aware of the situation? Have they been explicit and described their point of view? If not, what, if anything prevented them from doing so?
  • Alice seems to jump straight to taking action to help the team out, and in doing so, taking responsibility for them, rather than discussing her approach with the team and giving them an opportunity to handle the situation more effectively.
  • Alice’s choice to ‘model’ the ‘correct’ behaviour for Mike, without explicitly saying that this is what she is doing, is an easing-in approach with the manager which may be based on assumptions that the Mike couldn’t handle being told directly. It’s likely that Mike will work out that Alice isn’t being direct with him, but rather than guessing what Alice’s view is, Mike is likely to feel puzzled or confused about what Alice is holding back.

Here are a couple of suggestions for how I think this situation could be dealt with more effectively.

Adopt a mindset of curiosity
First off, it’s worth trying to adopt a mindset of curiosity rather than certainty about the team’s view of the issue and the meaning and intent behind Mike’s behaviour. It’s common for the team in this situation to believe that they see the whole picture, that Mike is either lacking the right perspective or being deliberately difficult and the team’s task is to illustrate the obviousness of their perspective so that Mike will change. A more productive frame of mind is to believe that the team see many important things, but not the whole situation, Mike may see additional things they don’t and the task is to work together to design a productive way forward.

Focus on getting directly observable evidence rather than assumptions
It would be useful for Alice to ask the team to tell her what they’ve seen Mike say or avoid doing that leads them to believe he is aware of the blockers and has deliberately chosen not to do anything about them. Getting down to the level of directly observable data – what a video camera would capture – would allow Alice to understand more about the problem and potentially highlight how the team’s behaviour may (inadvertently) be contributing to the situation.

Strive to raise the issue with the people involved at the time it happens
An effective situation would be one where the team were able to raise their concerns directly with Mike and ask if he sees it similarly, or perhaps sees something that they are missing. For example, they might say:

“On our task board, there is a task that is blocked because we’re waiting on another team to do some work for us. Our understanding of the Agile process is that your role is to help us overcome these situations. Does that match your view? If so, can we share our view about what’s causing this blockage and how we could work together with you to remove it?”

In my experience working with teams using the suggestions above has created productive outcomes even in complex situations. I welcome your experiences or views in the comments.

Using a Case Study to learn the Mutual Learning Model

I’m currently focussed on improving my own skills around the Mutual Learning model (‘model II’ from Argyris & Schon’s Theory of Action). In order to do this, I’ve been using a Left Hand Right Hand Case Study approach, one of the key learning tools. In the interest of being open and sharing my experience with others, I wanted to highlight some of my recent reflections. I’m doing this to help me with my learning and to invite others to share their views on the approach and my goals.

Creating a Left Hand Column / Right Hand Column Case Study

The Left Hand Right Hand Case Study approach is a very simple tool.  In order describe what it is I’ll go through how I created mine.

I started by describing the situation and what I was trying to achieve in the situation. In my case, I’d had a conversation with someone from another organisation about my experiences of trying to discover if there was a potential to work together in future. I was unclear about the status of the discussions and had some concerns about how the situation had developed and wanted to talk to someone I knew from that organisation about the situation.

The next step is to create two columns. I started with the right hand column, which is “what was said” written like a script. I did this using my memory of the conversation (the conversation had happened a couple of weeks earlier. Many people worry about ‘if it will work’ when using a remembered conversation. The answer is yes). I put it aside for a week or so, before filling in the left hand column, “what I thought, but did not say”. I was pretty surprised when started filling that column in as it highlighted the gap between how I think I act and how I actually act (espoused theory and theory in use in Argyris’ theory) then put it aside for another couple of days because I found it quite confronting and I wanted to let myself ‘calm down’ and come back to it with a fresh mind.

Here’s a fictitious example similar to what mine looked like:

What I thought but did not say What was said
I think that this group have mucked me around. Let’s see if I can prove my case. Me: Hi Bob, have you got a minute for a quick chat?
Bob: [up beat] Sure!
I think they treated me badly and don’t even realise it. I’m going to show them. Me: I wanted to check out what was happening in terms of us working together. I caught up with your colleague the other day and they told me something that didn’t match my expectations [I briefly illustrated] and I felt mucked around!
Bob:[More serious] What they said was right.
What?! It looks like he agrees with his colleague. I can’t believe that! I need to show him that his view is wrong. Me: [Raising my voice and speaking quicker] Well there’s no way that what I was told was reasonable … 

[further justification of my position, point/counter-point discussion and a muted resolution when the conversation was ended by an interruption]

The next step was to reflect on what the case study had surfaced. I did this by answering the following kinds of questions:

  • What was my intent with this conversation? How effective was the conversation at achieving my intent? How effectively did I communicate my intent?
  • How effectively did I balance advocacy and inquiry?
  • What was my ‘frame’ of the conversation, how did I view myself, the other person and the task I was trying to accomplish?
  • What was I hiding from the other person, what was undiscussable and what prevented me from making it discussable?

I wasn’t expecting that I’d discover as many things about how I think and act as I did.  Here’s what I came up with as I reflected:

  • I wasn’t clear on my own intent. When I looked back over the conversation I realised that I’d entered the conversation without a clear understanding of what I wanted to achieve. From what I’d said I inferred that my goal was “to get the other person to make me feel better about the situation by agreeing with my view of the world”. Realising this gave me some insight into how it might have come across to the other person. If I wasn’t clear on it, what chance did they have of understanding me? Their difficulty may have been compounded by the fact that I didn’t express any tentativeness in my world view, in fact, the opposite is true!
  • There was no balance of advocacy and inquiry. In terms of balancing advocacy (explaining how I saw and felt about the situation) and inquiry (asking about their view of the world) I was poor. I discovered that I had asked only three questions and two of them were rhetorical! At the same time, I’d made around 27 statements in a 10 minute conversation. I was unaware that the conversation was this unbalanced whilst I was having it.
  • The goals I was trying to achieve were unilaterally controlling, fixed and hidden. I wanted the other person to see my view of the world and to agree with my position that they were wrong. I had no intention of changing my mind to accommodate their point of view. But I didn’t state any of these reasons as I was worried about how they might feel, and I didn’t tell them that I was hiding my intent because I was worried about their reaction. Although I say it was because I was worried about them, the fact that I didn’t test my beliefs meant that it was actually self-protective.
  • Without intending to, I created conditions I didn’t want. The case study helped me see more of how I acted from the other person’s point of view. The evidence I saw was that I lured them into a conversation where I was asking them to admit that I was right and they were wrong. When I told them about my point of view, I often used high-level judgements like “you acted weirdly!” without demonstrating any observable things they said or did that led me to that belief. I thought I was being open with them, but I can see how they might have felt accused and threatened (there was evidence for this in the kinds of responses they made and the fact that the conversation felt like a ‘tussle’). So, my behaviour may have inadvertently created exactly the conditions I wanted to avoid.
  • I wasn’t able to express myself as effectively as I thought I was. The conversation on paper highlighted there were many times when I used a kind of short-hand to describe my points, but in a way that, on reflection, was unclear or rife with potential points of confusion.

How did I feel after this?

On an intellectual level I found the case study interesting to do because it showed how unaware I was of how I actually acted. It was useful to realise that my framing of the situation (I’m right, they’re wrong / misguided, I have to convince them of my view) may have contributed to acting in the way I did (this gave me hope that maybe I could learn more about how I could be more effective in future).

On an emotional level, I felt pretty embarrassed (“How could I have acted like this without being aware of it? What if others knew I acted like this – in a way that I would not espouse?”), defensive (“I still believe that they were mostly responsible for the situation!”) and even a bit dejected (“How much more am I unaware of? It took me days to realise how blind I was to my involvement in the situation, and I produced all of these responses without even thinking about them, how am I ever going to learn to act differently? Is it even possible to learn a different way of thinking/acting?”).

Reflection is often improved by doing it with others

Reflecting is hard cognitive and emotional work. I had given myself some ‘rest days’ between filling in the case study to make it easier for me to reflect without getting emotionally engaged (I believe it’s a similar effect where it’s easy to spot things in other people’s behaviour, but it’s hard to spot it in ourselves when we are acting). It was interesting to me how each time I came back to look at the conversation I realised that I was able to reflect with more detachment, but I was still pretty attached to my view of the world being right! To help me further, I sent the case study to another person who reviewed it and provided some comments before a meeting where we discussed it.

The review comments were pretty confronting. I was secretly hoping that they might evaluate me positively and agree that the problem was the other person, but their comments highlighted how my behaviour may have had a lot more to do with the other person’s response than I was aware of / wanted to admit. The reviewer highlighted things such as:

  • I was stuck on advocacy. There wasn’t a single example of genuine inquiry from me into the other person’s view (which he stated at least three times in the conversation, but I never acknowledged).
  • I was hiding information. I was hiding a lot of useful information in my left hand column which would have been useful to find ways of sharing (and leaked out in the way I was treating the other person anyway)
  • I wasn’t Illustrating evaluations and judgements. When I was advocating (sharing my view of the world) I was using high level evaluations (“I was mucked around”) without explaining the data I used to come to that conclusion. In Argyris’ model, I was advocating from a high rung on the Ladder of Inference without describing the ‘lower rungs’ that lead me to my conclusion. Doing this may have contributed to the other person being defensive or feeling attacked (I used some pretty extreme emotive words!).
  • I was using ‘gimmicks’. I was using phrases and approaches associated with a Mutual Learning mindset but designed to achieve the goals of a Unilateral Control mindset (model I in Argyris’ approach).  I was using my knowledge of the Mutual Learning model (model II) to ‘win’ (a goal of the Unilateral Control model, model I). It was curious that I was using my knowledge of the Mutual Learning model to accuse the other person of acting in a way that was consistent with the Unilateral Control model, and I was blind to the irony that doing this demonstrated that I was acting in a way consistent with the Unilateral Control model (e.g. trying to win)!
  • I was punishing them for being wrong. Rather than testing if they shared my view, or being open to learning more about theirs, I was pushing them to admit they were wrong, and more than that, wrong for being wrong. I was in full righteous mode (at one point they even agreed with me that the way they acted had been unclear, but I didn’t listen to it because I was so focussed on ‘letting them have it’!)

Conversations with the reviewer

The conversation with the reviewer was very helpful. He wanted to check how I’d reacted to the case and his feedback and share the point that most people feel pretty embarrassed when confronted with what they find. There were several points I got out:

  • It’s important to take responsibility for identifying what triggered my behaviour. Understanding the triggers allows me then to be aware of what might be about to happen, and to ‘create a buffer’ where I can pause my natural response (usually to react to the other person by attacking or to withdraw by becoming passive aggressive) and act differently. The reviewer shared that this is what Argyris’ Model II / Mutual Learning model is all about – providing another ‘degree of freedom’ in choosing how to act (rather than trying to ‘be Model II all the time’)
  • The Ladder of Inference is a useful tool to help learning how to act differently. It was useful to realise that if I just state a high level evaluation without illustrating the data that I used (‘rung 1’) and the culturally meaning I applied (‘rung 2’) it could lead to the other person reacting defensively. Also, ‘staying low on the Ladder of Inference’ means that there is less likelihood that the other person will be confused, and ‘working slowly up the ladder’ helps more easily identify where the points of confusion/departure are.
  • Advocating effectively is a skill which takes practice. The conversation with the reviewer helped me practice being clearer about what I was advocating. At some times I was able to do this, at other times I found this very difficult and stumbled or spoke for too long. It was confronting to realise that this would take more practice.
  • Use the concept of binds, dilemmas or paradoxes to surface things that are undiscussable. I was worried about sharing that I had some concerns about whether I would be a compatible fit with the other group, but I didn’t want to raise this issue because I was worried that they would react negatively to it (“why would we want to work with you if you hold a negative belief about us?”). We spoke about how I could raise this in the form of a bind and ask for assistance from the other person (“I’m in a bind. On the one hand, I’d like to work with you. On the other hand, I’ve had a few experiences, which I could describe, which I’ve found confusing. I’d like your help to go through these experiences and check my understanding. Would you be interested in that?”) .
  • My own competitiveness is not helping me learn. For better or worse, I’m often quite competitive with myself and other people (this is something I observe in how I think and act, rather than something I’d espouse to others!). My initial reaction when seeing the gap between how I think I act (espoused theory) and how I actually behave (theory-in-use) I wanted to close it as quickly as possible as I found it deeply uncomfortable. However, the pressure to overcome it quickly sets me up for failure, which makes me less likely to practice.
  • My attitude to failure is not helping me learn. When confronted with feedback that I’m not as effective as I’d hope (e.g. demonstrating no examples of inquiry) I kind of collapse and go into a bit of a ‘doom zoom’. The problem with this approach is it means I find it harder to focus on learning to practice new behaviours that will help me be different in future.
  • Improving skills is a matter of practice and that means failing (a lot). In order to improve my skills I need to do lots of practice (Argyris compares learning Model II to learning to play tennis. It would be unreasonable to think a few books and a lecture on tennis would be enough to learn how to play – you need to actually hit some balls). Similarly learning more effective ways to handle difficult conversations and learn will require ‘hitting a few balls’ and trying behaviours that ‘fail’ in order to reflect and learn.
  • Changing how I frame the situation is useful. It was useful to reframe how I saw the discussion to think more about the fact I only have a partial view of the situation (self), that the other person may see parts I don’t (other) and the task of the conversation is to try and learn more about the situation together (task). It’s a challenge, in the heat of a difficult situation, to delay the natural tendency to attack / respond, and replace it with a ‘buffer’ around being curious about the other person’s perspective.

Where am I now?

I found the experience very useful. I’m now more humble about the scale of the task of learning a new set of skills and developing a different mindset. I’m grateful for having more insight into how I may have inadvertently been creating the conditions that I didn’t want. I’ve been able to try out some new skills in a few low-key conversations recently and I’ve been practicing watching for moments where I get ’emotionally hooked’ and trying to work out what caused it. These experiences have been very rewarding.

I’ve also noticed that I’m less angry when I see others acting in a unilaterally controlling way (getting angry or punishing people for acting the same way I frequently/mostly do isn’t fair). My mindset is shifting from an evangelical one (Argyris’ model is great! Everyone needs it! I need to go out and evangelise!) to more of a reflective one (I really like it, and find it useful myself so I’m going to use it and model it. I’d like more opportunities to practice it. I’d welcome talking to others, if they are interested). And mostly, I’m still struggling. I’d like to be better sooner, with less effort and fewer embarrassing failures and I’m aware of the paradox that those expectations are probably making is slower and harder!.

I’d welcome comments, feedback or questions. If you’d like to go through a case study, please contact me.

Can Agile overcome Organisational Defences to achieve Double Loop Learning?

Agile approaches are sometimes focussed on helping organisations experience transformational change. Many Agile adoptions have failed to achieve long-term change, especially outside core teams, where the problems are non-routine and potentially embarrassing or threatening. Chris Argyris has developed a theory that provides a possible explanation of why Agile adoption has failed to bring about these hoped-for organisational changes.

Argyris & Schön’s Theory of Action

Chris Argyris, a retired Harvard Professor, has spent his career developing ideas around Theory of Action (co-developed with Donald Schön) [1, 2]. The Theory of Action approach is based on the idea that we store programs in our heads which we use to determine action strategies (behaviours) that will achieve the consequences we desire in a way that is consistent with our governing values (preferred states we try to ‘satisfice’ when acting). Effective action is any action which produces an intended outcome that persists over time and achieves this without harming the current level of organisational performance.

Argyris and Schön believe there are two types of theories, those that we say we use (espoused theories), and those that we actually use (our ‘theories-in-use’). Espoused theories represent our ideals about effective action, whereas theories-in-use are used to produce real, concrete actions. We are often able to identify the gaps between what someone says and how they act, as the saying “watch what people do, not what they say” illustrates. However, we are often blind to the fact our own actions aren’t consistent with our espoused view of the world. If we are made aware of this gap, our usual reaction is to blame someone else or “the system”

Model I and Skilled Incompetence

Argyris and Schön have found that while there are differences between people’s espoused theories, there is very little difference in theories-in-use across cultures, age groups and gender (even after over 10,000 case studies). Argyris and Schön label this common theory-in-use “Model I” (other authors have describe it as “closed to learning” or the “unilateral control model”). The governing variables of Model I are:

  1. Maintain control the situation (unilaterally). Get what you want, achieve your objectives/goals
  2. “win, do not lose”
  3. suppress negative feelings, such as embarrassment, in yourself and others
  4. act “rationally” (suppress or deny emotions).

Based on these governing variables we choose action strategies such as advocating our own position, making evaluations of others’ performance and their intentions in ways that ensure we remain in control, maximise our chance of winning whilst ensuring that we act diplomatically and ensure that no-one expresses negative feelings. We do this in ways that encourage neither inquiry into our views nor the robust testing of claims that we make, often relying on self-sealing logic such as “Trust me; I know what I am doing” [3].

When we are producing these actions, especially in non-routine situations which might be embarrassing or threatening, we are often blind to our own Model I behaviour. Worse, we actively try and by-pass the embarrassment or threat and then cover-up the bypass, leading to situations where we are unable to “discuss the undiscussable”. Using Model I means that we are likely to produce consequences we don’t intend. Model I behaviour is learnt over a lifetime and is produced skilfully, which makes it even harder to spot when we are producing it, leading to what Argyris labels “Skilled Incompetence”.

One way of detecting the gap between your own espoused theory and your theory-in-use is to use the “Left Hand Right Hand Case Study” tool.  Describe an actual or an imagined conversation with another person on a difficult topic.   On the right hand side, write the script of what was said. Ideally this would be a transcript of an audio recording, but a description of the conversation will also work. On the left hand side, write what you thought but did not say.  Having done this, reflect on whether there was a gap between what you said and what you thought, but did not say.  Argyris describes this gap as an ethical gap since it involves deliberately hiding information that may be useful to test, or share with others, without admitting that this is what is actually happening (it is covered-up and the cover-up is also covered-up).  Argyris advocates striving to reduce the gap between what is on the left hand side and right hand side in a way that minimises the likelihood of all of those involved becoming defensive.

Individuals operating in a Model I fashion are likely to produce organisations full of defensive routines. Defensive routines are ways of acting that prevent us and others from threat or embarrassment, but also from learning. Common examples of defensive routines are mixed messages, such as “I didn’t mean to interrupt you …” (clearly you did, and just have) or “I don’t want to upset you, but …” or to say “that’s an interesting idea” when there is no intent to act on it. Defensive routines make it harder for organisations to surface the information needed in order to learn.

Double-Loop Learning

Argyris defines learning as “the detection and correction of error” where an error is a mismatch between what was intended and what was produced. Single-loop learning is where the changes only involve changing the action strategies (at its simplest ‘try harder!’). Double-loop learning goes one step further and requires changing the values that govern theory-in use, often by questioning the status quo. The most common analogy is a thermostat [4, p.10]:

A thermostat is a single-loop learner. It is programmed to increase or decrease the heat in order to keep the temperature constant. A thermostat could be a double-loop learner if it inquired into why it should measure heat and why it is set so that the temperature is constant

Single-loop learning can be compared with becoming more efficient at what you’re already doing, whereas double-loop learning is about questioning the effectiveness of the goals. Or in other words that single-loop learning is doing things right, while double-loop learning is doing the right things.

Double-loop learning can happen around technical problems, while at the same time not occurring around human problems. My view is that XP practices, such as Test Driven Development (TDD), have led to double-loop learning at the technical level because there has been a change in mind-set. Prior to TDD I remember people trying single loop solutions that only involved changes in action strategies, such as “just write better quality software, and leave testing to the testers” whereas now people talk more about TDD as a design tool. I do not believe that Agile approaches have led to double-loop learning in terms of human problems.

Model II: Overcoming organisational defensive routines

Changing the defensive routines requires double-loop learning because it involves people giving up their Model I theories-in-use. Argyris describes Model II as one possible theory-in-use that can produce double-loop learning. The three governing variables of Model II are:

  1. Produce valid information
  2. Informed Choice
  3. Internal (rather than external commitment)

These are used together with vigilant monitoring of the effectiveness of the implemented actions.

It’s important to note that Model II is more than just the opposite of Model I; in the same way that listening is more than just the suppression of the urge to talk. The governing variables of the opposite of Model I would be [4]:

  1. Everyone is in control
  2. Everyone wins
  3. [all] feelings are expressed
  4. rationality is downplayed

Model II is not a replacement for Model I; Model I behaviour is appropriate when problems are routine or in emergency situations. The action strategies of Model II include clearly articulating a position, the difference from Model I is that there is an emphasis on enquiry and testing, similar to Bob Sutton’s concept of “strong opinions, weakly held”.  Often when people realise the gaps between their espoused- and theory-in-use they want to quickly overcome this gap.  A common experience is that after a few days of trying to learn quickly, most people relax and slow down, realising that learning to produce actions consistent with Model II will take some time. Argyris argues that “most people require as much practice to overcome skilled incompetence [by learning Model II] as to play a not-so-decent game of tennis” [5].

Examples from Agile / XP

In general, Agile methodologies and frameworks have taken unsophisticated approaches to organisational change, most of which fit within a Model I view of the world.

Scrum talks about “shock therapy” where “teams are trained on exactly how to implement Scrum with no deviations for several sprints” [6]. It uses an openly coercive approach described as “forceful and mandatory way of implementing Scrum” [7] in the hope that managers will receive a “wake-up call” and change their view of the world and their behaviours once they see the “hyperproductive” results. The approach does not focus on organisational defensive routines, or even double loop learning at the management level. It does not ask questions like “What was stopping us from acting this way before? Can we be sure that the thinking behind the previous approaches has really changed?” Predictably, from an Argyris point of view, the authors report that management failed to change their view of the world: “…management tends to disrupt hyper-productive teams … in all but one case, management ‘killed the golden goose.’”.

XP and Agile often speak of the importance of underlying values, such as “courage”. The problem with values is that they are not usually described in an actionable way. Further, the interpretation of a value depends on whether a person has a Model I or Model II mindset, or view of the world. When courage is illustrated, it is often of examples that represent a coercive approach consistent with Model I, as mentioned in an interview on “What’s Missing from the Agile Manifesto?” [8]:

[Courage is] … the courage to do what is best for the team, the project, even the business, despite the pressure to do otherwise. … An example [credited to Ken Schwaber] is of a scrum master who disassembled the team’s cubicles, so that they could have the team space that they wanted. When confronted by the ‘furniture police’ she made it clear that she would quit if the cubicles were restored.

This advice seems to contain several potential errors. How is a “courageous person” meant to validate or test that what they believe is “best for the team” is actually the best for the team? Is it OK for them to decide simply by “asking themselves?” Do they need to make this known to others? How would this advice deal with the potential that the courageous person did not understand the wider context of their change? In the example given, the scrum master acted in a unilaterally controlling way, and when confronted blackmailed the organisation in order to get their way, entirely consistent with Model I.

Moving Forward: Detection and then correction of errors

If Agile approaches are to have an effective impact on organisations at more than just a local team level, across longer than just the short-term, then it would be useful to spend time focussing on personal and organisational defensive mechanisms. This starts with developing an awareness of the gaps between what we espouse and how we act, so that we can at least detect errors. A useful step is to acknowledge threatening or embarrassing issues that are likely to lead to defensive Model I behaviour at the individual and group level. The next step is to work on being able to demonstrate that we have learnt by being able to produce effective behaviour, even around threatening or embarrassing issues. The challenge for the Agile community is whether we want to deal with the feelings that come from acknowledging our own blindness to our current skilled incompetence and start practicing more effective ways of acting.


1 – Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organisational learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

2 – Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1996) Organisational learning II: Theory, Method, and Practice. Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

3 – Argyris, C. (2000) Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

4 – Argyris, C. (2004), Reasons and Rationalizations. The Limits to Organizational Knowledge, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

5 – Argyris, C (1986) Skilled incompetence. Harvard Business Review, 64(5), 74-79.

6 – Sutherland, J., Downey, S. & Granvick, B. (2009) Shock Therapy: A Bootstrap for Hyper-Productive Scrum.

7 – Sutherland, J. (2008) Shock Therapy: Bootstrapping Hyperproductive Scrum.

8 – Brian Marick: What’s Missing From the Agile Manifesto

Steve Allder: Systems Thinking in Health Services

Seddon introduces Steve by saying he’s done Systems Thinking without Vanguard. The only difference between having Vanguard consultants, versus doing itself, is that it may take longer and you may make more mistakes, but Vanguard’s purpose is to change management thinking, so they are happy for others to use their method.

Steve Allder is a consultant neurologist at Pymouth NHS hospital Trusts.  They had the worst stroke mortality in their region.  Strokes showed very consistent demand, but the length of stay in the stroke unit was incredibly variable. They were spending £6k on each patient, but being funded only £4k.  There was lots of debates about how to solve the problem. The government implemented targets, but no-one in the discussions at the local trust had any data, it was only folklore and opinion.  The two CEOs knew they didn’t have anything to spend on this, so Steve promised to get something without needing to spend.

If you come in with a stroke, you now go (within 2 hours on average) to the Stroke unit straight away. 100% of stroke patients go to the unit (previously 60%). The length of stay has dropped from 16 to 6 days. They are the only unit in the country to get near the government target of 90% (currently up to 80%).  They now ‘save’ £1K a stroke patient, with improved care. 

What has this got to do with Systems Thinking?

Steve was going to get a t-shirt saying “Peter Senge Change My Life” due to the pain of trying to create change. He liked Senge’s limiting conditions work.  You need to balance working on improvements with working on the limiting conditions, which was helpful for Steve.  He then read Seddon’s “Freedom from Command and Control” and got ideas like “true knowledge can easily be missed by the prevailing group, but the prevailing book has the power”.

For Steve, the words were “Purpose, Value, Demand, End to End and Capability”. It’s best to go in with an open mind and go back to first principles.  The value of Systems Thinking is that once you’ve learnt something it’s not possible to ‘unlearn’ – e.g. a point like ‘get knowledge’

The key to Steve’s intervention was an understanding of the six different groups within stroke patients (took 4 years of iterating to find this). Most patients were frail before they had a stroke, and had a huge stroke, which averaged a 50 day stay. The patients and the relatives just wanted to keep them comfortable, but we kept putting feeders into them.  Now we’ve recognised the patient group and talk about what might happen and they say “just keep them comfortable [rather than doing everything medically possible]”.  That group has radically improved.

If you were well before a big stroke, then you have to go to rehab, but the rehab unit would say “they are not well enough”, but for frail elderly patients they may not be up to rehab, they may just need time with nursing care.  Now they use that end-to-end lens, it’s liberated how they manage patients.  This has lead to all of the benefits they’ve got.

It wont work without a cast iron mandate

It is difficult to explain Systems Thinking to others. Steve has had this with most of the NHS. Steve talks about Flatland from “The Happiness Hypothesis” about a sphere visiting ‘flatland’ and everyone sees the sphere as a circle, getting bigger and smaller, but the two-dimensional square can’t understand the third dimension (“thickness as well as height, you say?”). The sphere yanks the square out of flatland into the third dimension and feels sickened and unnerved. When the square returns to flatland he can’t ‘preach the gospel’ to the other two-dimensional shapes.

Everyone in health agrees high quality and low cost, but don’t know how to get there. Steve says you need to work on the thinking.

What could this mean for the NHS?

As well as meeting the financial challenge it will help give patients what they need and allow employees to connect to their internal motivation and serve the wider society. You don’t know when you’ll need the NHS, but when you do, you’ll need it fast.

Questions and Answers

Why did it take so long to find out the different types of customers?

Because I wasn’t expecting it, it took me a while to understand what the data was telling me because I wasn’t expecting to see it.  The first thing I did was to do the capability chart without trying to guess what the answer would be.  Now, in health, frailty and multiple issues are current topics, so this might make it easier next time.

Seddon: The purpose of time-series data is to ask better question.  You might have to look at the data for a while, then get an inspiration and run more data.

The NHS has an issues of the revolving door with substance abuse. We’d like to engage with people earlier and get at the social issues at the cause of substance abuse. Do you have an idea about how to get through the medical arguments that doctors don’t want 3rd parties on the wards. Any advice?

We need a psycho-social model of health combined with a Systems Thinking approach.  Try and find the right advocate – a doctor outside the Trust with links inside and empower them to find someone credible in the NHS who has influence. It’s difficult to get traction.

Is there a way of extending what you’ve done to the rest of the hospital without getting managers to agree to it?

65% of beds are used by people who are stuck. The clinicians are unable to fix that. The managers, who work in the PCT / Local Authority, need to understand this, and they behave very badly.

Seddon: There’s a designed-in problem between clinicians and managers [not sure I got this right].  A bed manager is an absurd idea for a Systems Thinker.

Can you use Systems Thinking to help the community earlier in the health pathway?

GPs are paid to get blood pressure. Where we are, we have great GPs and blood pressure treatment is great.  Treatment of blood thining was not so good, but the demand data said there are only 4 patients per practice. Instead of an ‘education program’ they now ring the patients.  Now I look for the data, quantify the demand, and there’s somebody in the system that should already be doing it, and just need a little nudge.

Seddon: Isn’t it amazing we have a health service that doesn’t understand demand.

Steve: my aha moment was when the waiting time to see me or have a test was two years.  I was thinking ‘what value can I be adding?’. At that time, I thought ‘there’s not enough money and demand is increasing’ but that wasn’t correct. Demand is predictable and stable, the problem is the way we’ve designed the work.

How do I persuade my clinical colleagues that Systems Thinking will help them?

I am in management, but use the same approach to management that I used as a clinician. I have a framework, I gather data.  The problem is not the clinicians, the problem is getting their management to free up some time and support so that they might change things. Clinicians say they want to change, they just want someone to facilitate it. Find like-minded colleagues and look for easy starting points.

Seddon: Vanguard have found clinicians lap it up because they like to ‘get knowledge’.  The problem is that managers and the Dept of Health and they have been created in the last 20 years, and they believe they are doing “God’s Work”.  You need to get them out to study the system, and their thinking changes.

Why do clinicians change when they become managers?

I don’t think they do. McKinsey have found a correlation between improved productivity and percentage of clinicians in management roles.  If you show them the data they will respond to you. My experience hasn’t been that clinical managers change when they become managers.  There is a problem when managers don’t have a framework.

People who understand Systems Thinking feel liberated, so they often sound like they are talking about the spiritual and the divine.

Seddon: A clinician CEO ‘got it’, but the appointed non-clinical staff

Systems Thinking in Local Authorities

[Post-lunch dip was strong, so this session’s notes are not as comprehensive]

Phil Badley, Stockport

Interesting to hear Phil talk about his own realisation that his area, HR, was full of the same errors that he’d seen in other areas of the business.  I’d like to find out more about what it was that helped him go through this experience.  Phil Badly spoke about leadership buy-in.  Seddon says if you want to make organisational change, you need CEO or Local Authority buy-in, otherwise your chances are limited.

Denise Lyon, East Devon Council

The experience of going through Check was like an “honesty mirror” because the news we discovered was horrible.  They spent five out of six weeks of Check was spent arguing who the customer was, not what service they were getting.  They were horrified by how bad the service really was (141 days for some activities). It was so shocking because we had no measures in place that would have helped us see/understand this.  Our national indicators showed they were not meeting some measures, but none of them showed the scale of the problem.  Understanding value or failure (called “preventable demand” because staff didn’t like it) and one-stop capability and end to end times allowed them to see and understand their service levels. Their previous measures were always applied after the event.

The question they keep coming back to is, “who is accountable for this service? Which manager in this hierarchy of managers is responsible? Who’s feet do you hold to the fire?” Most managers thought “It’s not me; I’m strategic!” whilst the next level said “It’s not me, I’m strategic too! I’m too busy to deal with this!” while the manager at the bottom was looking at the top saying “You higher managers are paid a lot more than me, so it must be you!”

They don’t call them “interventions” (too much like Audit commission) so they call them reviews, but it’s stopped at management.  It’s only two years later that they are starting to do “something radical”(?) with the “management piece”.

The Vanguard consultant is described as a “class 1 drug” and a “mind bending hallucinogen” and a “guru” who was central to making fundamental changes to our thinking.

John van de Laarschot, Stoke City Council

John spoke about the idea of ‘red’ hats and ‘green’ hats (which I think refers to the idea, if there was a fire and everyone left the building, who would you let back in first, because they were central to doing business, and who would come in last) and discovered that 50% of their staff don’t contact the customers!

Interesting capability chart that showed after the initial intervention, performance trended worse for a period, showing that thinking hadn’t fully changed (people reverted to older behaviour).  John spoke about the need to “not walk away” from the intervention.

Example of Surface Water Management. A preventative maintenance program was set up to send a truck around on a calendar schedule, but the city is a flood risk so when it rains there are huge problems. But this shouldn’t happen because there’s a preventative program.  However, the frequency of maintenance didn’t match the fact that the drains at the bottom of the hill needed more cleaning than those at the top!  They overlaid the geography of the city onto the drains and re-drew the maintenance program.  They even used Google Earth to help with the mapping, with a “young person” (I love this phrase!).

Challenges are the scale and scope of the potential changes.  It’s hard to create the space to explore new ways of doing things. You can’t do this on a shoe-string (if you don’t have the capacity it will probably go slower).  There are also big political implications (often opposition groups want to ‘put it in a coffin’).  Systems Thinking creates a ‘different type of critter (employee)’ so there are issues of demarcation so having the Union on board at the start is important. 

Question and Answer Session

Q: Could John say more about ‘top level reporting’ with ‘systems thinking slipped in underneath’

John: Local Authorities are familiar with classical accounting and McKinsey / PwC. The type of methodology we want, to get change going, requires clear buy-in. The first attempts I had at selling the organisation on Systems Thinking was “we think it’s you and your mates”, so we needed to be ‘creative’. We’ve had Vanguard and PwC in the same room; and it’s like oil and water.  Out of the work that we’ve done, we’ve managed to keep them away from our customer-oriented interventions.  We were able to show it in ways that Command and Control types can understand. [So they showed reports and model to Command and Control types while running a separate set of ‘books’ showing their Systems Thinking view of the world]

Seddon: When you get to the evidence, it speaks for itself, but then you have a problem that people want it for the wrong reason.  I want it because it works, not because it’s about thinking. Buy-in is the wrong word, ‘understanding’ is the thing.  The Vanguard Network is for middle-managers to do the Vanguard Method but not telling the boss, which we encourage them to do.

Denise: Support was essential for the funding, support, opportunity to view other places.  If you can do it yourself, in your part of the organisation, then this might be a good start – better than no start, I think.

Q: If you hadn’t done Systems Thinking, where would you be now?

Denise: We were in the bottom quartile in national rankings. As time has moved on, and the financial crisis has hit, we have been in a good position to understand how we can sensibly take out from management and services. I dread to think about Local Authorities that are doing 10 – 20% cuts across all services, which I think is a poor way to manage. We feel in a strong position in the troubled times we’re in.

Q: Where was your ‘moment of truth?’ where you said ‘I will never do it the other way?’

Phil: Reading Seddon’s “Systems Thinking in the Public Sector”. I read it on holiday and realised that I’d been accountable for change in the past, and now understood ‘why’ it didn’t stick.

Seddon: The number of people who tell me “I wished I’d never met you …” (joke)

Rob Brown: Systems Thinking in a Complex Organisation

Rob Brown from Aviva is up next.  They started in 2008 with Barry Wrighton from Vanguard (also involved with BNP Paribas Fortis).  He’s currently the Lead for Systems Thinking but looks forward to the day when his role is obsolete.

Some of Rob’s learning are that Senior Management engagement is crucial. They have gone at the pace of the leader’s understanding.  In the Policyholder contact area they have no targets but have gone from 50 – 92% customer satisfaction in 6 months with a ‘clean audit’ with no issues.  The pace has been driven by the correct leadership engagements at all levels.  It took them several years for general insurance to start with their journey, but it is down to people decided when they want to start.  They decided to ‘see what would happen if they tried’.

Phrases from Senior Leaders to watch out for when introducing Systems Thinking

If he had his time again, the killer phrases he would look out for are:

  • When a leader says “I’ll delegate that to …” because they will be a blocker to redesign.  Where it has happened it didn’t work.
  • “What targets do we use?”. Senior managers, not in the work, want to set a ‘stretch target’ to get ‘better Systems Thinking’
  • “I get it!” when a leader says this, it usually is followed up with a question that shows they don’t. You have to get past the ego to get onto the work.  We have worked without/despite leaders but it has been hard.  They need to hold a mirror up to say “we need to do this in your area” in order to have dramatic further progress.
  • “Why can’t you go faster?”. Even though other projects have produced no benefits but were delivered to date/time targets, people still find Systems Thinking hard to understand.

Budgets, Plans, Risks & Regulation, Audit

It was important for them to work with the audit team so that they understood the new process.  Legal, Compliance and Risk said they felt they were labelled “Level 3″ waste (incorrectly). It’s been much better to work together with them so that they develop an understanding.

Observations from Check

There were 500+ numbers customers could use to ring in, with 48 Integrated Voice Response systems (IVR) with call centres for different product silos.  16% of all calls were transferred (which would happen given the IVRs). Customers were on hold for a quarter of the call (a single loop fix was to ‘choose better music for customers on hold’!). 15% were passed-back, 42% passed on.  Then there was the split as the call went into a back office system. Typically customers called in 3 or 4 times for a single piece of work! Yet, all of this was happening while we were ‘green’ on budgets and targets. But 50% of the time we were not giving customers what they want. By looking at the work differently, after re-design, they were able to turn off off-shoring and achieve 92% value demand.


There has been a move from intervention support to a focus on leadership and embedding behaviours.  To fully embed Systems Thinking they need much more work at all levels.

Question and Answers (with Benny Devos)

Benny on Emotional Intelligence and Systems Thinking:

People have to be open. The management used to ask people to take their brains out of their heads as they arrived at work, only to put them in when they left the building. The manager needs to understand what the customer wants as well as his team. Therefore, you need empathy. Also, the manager has to change personally.  The leader needs to help the team become leaders themselves. You need EI to detect how other people are thinking.

People change is often thought of as being a HR function. How has HR been?

Rob: We’ve learnt some lesson. When changing roles and remuneration, HR didn’t get it. What we should have done was take them through the work much more before that point. We are part of a global company and I can’t switch off the remuneration.  What we have done is given Systems Thinkers to remunerate as they see fit.  We have a new HR Director and understands that HR needs to understand how they can help if Systems Thinking is going to be extended. HR knows they don’t need to ‘do culture’.  We had employee forums who felt threatened, so we took them in and allowed them to see and understand themselves.

Benny: HR people were in the intervention from the beginning.  What we saw was that if you needed a decision you had to re-explain what it is all about. If you put enough energy in then they accept it and it changes. But this is counter-productive and wasteful because the solution takes a long time. In terms of the workers council, in Belgium, you had to go to a council every time. They were skeptical, given the McKinsey experience, so we explained and invited them to the work floor. We invited them and involved them and they understood.

Seddon: A lot of HR is dealing with symptoms of traditional Command and Control design. When you change the system, many HR symptoms go away.

Would Systems Thinking have prevented Sub-prime in the Banking arena?

Rob: If you understand the controls, and they are part of the work, and specialties help design it, it is much better control than the ‘remote sign-offs’ that most businesses used.  Sign-offs are fine until something happens, but with Systems Thinking the right people are involved at the right time, so it’s a stronger sense of control.

Benny: Don’t repair – put right the first time.  Top managers don’t have any understanding of what they are signing off – it doesn’t make sense.

Seddon: The regulators played a part. Regulation is a catch-up. They assume it applies to all products. They should make it a preventative thing. You shouldn’t be able to launch a financial product without showing what it would do. Politicians also thought that finance would drive growth. Some economists think that financial servers should help the economy, not be an economy in its own right.

“We’ve also done it this way, it’s how it works … it’s how it’s regulated”. Is there any one thing you’ve done that helps managers avoid this? where do you start in terms of getting people to think in a different way:

Rob: Get the right people to look at what’s happening in the work differently. You can’t have a debate about ‘what’s the better method’ – focus on getting people to see what’s going wrong and allow that to drive what should be done differently. Leaders should look at their world differently. Don’t do it at tables in offices.

Seddon: It’s an intervention problem. Man is not rational. It is not I explain, you understand. It just creates conflict with two mindsets using different language. If you put them in a normative experience then together they develop, building a common understanding, and that helps the change.

Benny: It’s a common understanding, and it’s not the managers that are doing the redesign, it is the workers. They do trial and error and demonstrated that it’s not normative. The managers were focussed on the measures, not how the work is done. We focussed on ‘positive’ people and worked with them. We gave managers an ‘Informed Choice’ some managers wanted to join early.  They were only rolled in if they wanted to.  Those who decided not to, went to different areas.

Seddon: Roll-in is a deliberate phrase we use instead of ‘roll-out’. Now that we have understanding, how do we ‘roll people in’. We need people to see the relationship between assumptions and policies, which requires normative experience.  You might think this will take longer – but try doing the wrong thing, it will never happen!

Another question on Emotional Intelligence. In the examples there were less workers, was this a threat to the rest of the workforce?

Rob: We had a cost-reduction promise hanging over us, which is tricky. We faced up to this fact and had discussion about the fact it would happen, but we would do it from a ‘where’s the value’. It was tough. We told the frontline that they were sacrosanct because they understood the demand.  People work out that you may not need as many people, but there are lots of other places they could go in the organisation to add value.

Benny: The biggest problem was getting people to believe that we weren’t threatening jobs (there was no budget or cuts over our heads). People didn’t believe me; it took time, energy, talk and waste from my point of view to convince them. It’s a normative experience; they find out themselves.

Seddon: Systems Thinking in the private sector is about driving growth.  We provide a framework, so if you have to take people out, it helps make sensible decisions about where to take people out.  We tend to always find too many people in the “management factory” (which Seddon admitted was pejorative)?

Benny Devos: Systems Thinking in Financial Services

Benny works in ‘industrialised credit operations’ in BNP Paribas Fortis in Belgium (mortgage and consumer loans and insurance, across the value chain including rate revisions, partial re-imbursement, credit recovery).  The biggest challenge is management, the workforce like Systems Thinking.

Benny Devos talks about how they started with McKinsey working on ‘process improvement’. They used a stop watch to see how long it took someone to agree to a loan (it’s incredible to hear that this still happens). They averaged the time across easy and complex decisions – without any knowledge or understanding other than a stop watch! After 6 months the motivation was low, the workers’ council were complaining.  They went for McKinsey Plus and added an ‘emotional aspect’ by involving people on the floor. Instead of a stop watch they asked “how long do you think this task will take?” – they averaged the guesses and started all over again (single loop!).

Benny says once you get caught by Systems Thinking it never leaves you.  He worked with Barry Wrighton.

Purpose – what matters to the customers

They invited 350 people to call customers who had loans, or refused loans, to hear what they expected of us.  The easiest way to find out what matters to the customer is to ask them.  Logic such as “I know customers because I am one myself” is myopic.  The results was they were not working in ways that customers valued.  The branches were effectively ‘crying for help’.  Instead, after the McKinsey approach, if you had a file and couldn’t make a decision (missing data) you had to send the file back, you could not phone them (because you would miss the target). When it came back to the branch, they couldn’t do anything more with the file – if they could have they would already have done it.  The branch weren’t allowed to call the person who did the work, they had to call a call centre, who could only answer 50%. They had to escalate back to the group who identified the problem, who got back to the branch, who fixed the file, to send it back to the processing group.  85% of files were being sent back!   This was very confronting – easier for Benny because he was new, but for the existing managers it was like looking at yourself in the mirror and not liking what you see.

Demand – type and frequency

They worked with 1300 file s a day with up to 95% failure demand (the files were repeat files, after being fixed through help desk and second line support).  The only measures they had were SLA’s of 3 days.  But the SLAs were for a complete file which lead to ‘cheating’.

They used a new kind of project language using ‘bringing in, live with, get rid of … (process problem)’


There was an assumption that customers wanted a mortgage loan response instantly.  Knowing that there was a 3 day SLA didn’t help the fact that sometimes it was taking 25 days.  The customer wants confidence they can get an answer within a promised time, with one visit to the branch.  85% of times the customer did have to come back to the branch.  The measures we had were budgets, productivities and SLAs (internally foused at the department level). The new measures where varation, predictability of it, end to end custoemr times, iterations (numbers and kind of …), help desk calls (number and kind of …) and capability charts.

Capability charts focussed on the extremes; ‘why is that taking so long? as well as ‘why was that so fast?’


They used Process Mapping

System Conditions

There were two groups for loans; consumer and mortgage were separate.  There was an assumption that people dealing with mortgages weren’t able to deal with consumer loans. There were duplicate departments, managers, IT workflow tools (there was even a competition between departments).  They found that the demand was cut into pieces to fit into the silo-ed parts of the organisation.  HR rules meant that it was difficult to ask people to do different jobs.

Management Thinking Assumptions

Standard Vanguard issues were identified.

After Check, Comes Redesign (Plan)

The question was ‘given what the customer expects of us, how should we organise ourselves?.  The custom gives us a demand, we need to analyse, data entry and treat it.  In the old system a demand was split into 5 or 6 different requests.  It wasn’t possible for people to handle every type of demand (they have 160 different types of actions that are needed).  The goal was to have a maximum of one hand-off.  Other goals were end-to-end, first time right, one stop and minimise hand-overs, only do the ‘added’ value work and a client oriented approach.  They decided to be client oriented, rather than product-oriented by combing mortgage and consumer loans handled by the same people. The staff decided on the measures and the decision-making was integrated with the work.

Roll-in of progressive change

They started off with small teams (4 people in the beginning) so not a big bang approach.  They trialled the principles of the re-design. They had the right to experiment and make errors, and little by little it stabilised until the team said they could do more work and we increased the team to seven people.

They found that for some operations it took 32 days end to end involving 52 people.  After redesign, it was simplified into “decisions + contracting” –> “branch” –> “customer”. There were assumptions that it would take 2 years to train people in contracting, but experience showed 95% of demand could be trained in just two weeks!  The new redesign involved telling the decision makers to call the branch (previously prohibited).  The result was 10 days for end to end with 42 people.  The workload increased by 30% over that same period as well.

An example of mixed demand, where one customer had a mortgage and a consumer loan.  They used to have to split it, but after the redesign where the team could deal with both requests as a single piece of work, the end to end times dropped from 15 days to 5 days. 

Main Results

The ‘bring-in’ phase resulted in e2e times for 28 days to 12 days, handling this with 20% fewer people involve.  The workload was up 20% (+29% in amount of loans, +8% market share). In ‘live with’ e2e when from 10 days to 5 days, but they were able to offer more flexible mortgages with new features. ‘Get rid of’ if the customer needs help, they now start straight away, rather than waiting until they started the financial recovery process.

The Global People Survey across the bank showed that the groups involved had the highest motivation, but they were more critical of how well they were satisfying customers than other areas of the bank (possibly because they are more connected to the customers). Absenteeism reduced from 8.5% to 3.5% in 1.5 years. There were also no appeals in the appraisal exercise (previously there were 20 appeals out of 280, but last year there were no appeals).  People are more motivated by the work than by the money associated with the financial bonuses.  Last year they didn’t use their discretionary bonus funds for ‘paying off’ (my words) dissatisfied staff.

What is management’s role?

The hardest part is working with managers and helping them see their new role.  Their role becomes understanding demand, thinking outside in, engage staff, walk the process, allow staff to experiment with design and evaluate etc.  Previously managers used to be specialists at solving tricky decisions, but now they have to become a specialist in training (moving from ‘disablers’ to ‘enablers).  They now need to create conditions that enable workers to reach their goals.  They need to support and encourage the initiative of the workers.  They need to ensure that the process / initiative is end to end.  Also, building agreement with others outside the process.

Lessons Learned

In Benny’s experience, the managers who went through the intervention decided that they no longer wanted to do the new management role. They decided to step back and do other functions. They had 32 managers at the beginning and ended up with 19. You need leaders, not managers.  It’s not about big bang, but progressive change.  Everyone agrees with the logic of Systems Thinking but stopping “Command and Control” is not easy and requires vigilance, especially if the rest of your organisation is still using a traditional approach (it’s a lot easier to stand still and follow the heard).  Also, managers are often hired for analytical ability, but Systems Thinking needs more Emotional Intelligence than IQ/analytical ability.  The manager needs to have an enabling role, not a disabling role.

The roll-in started very small, with a small team, it made a lot of waves in the beginning, but the larger the team grew, the fewer waves that were produced.

Owen Buckwell: Systems Thinking in Housing Services

Owen Buckwell is describing the award-winning work as Head of Housing at Portsmouth Council.  Here are a selection of key points

Things they used to pay attention to now take care of themselves.  For example there is no more training events for morale. We don’t manage sickness, but sickness leave has gone down. 65% of all sickness is with 20% of the people (grounds maintenance) and the cause of their issues was back pain. So we’ve given them training on how to lift and sicknesses have gone down! Cleaners were eating without washing their hands and getting stomach issues, so now we’ve given them hand gels.  Awesome example of studying the system and going to find root causes, rather than working on the symptoms!

They no longer spend with Vanguard, they lead the change themselves now.

A control chart(!) shows that formal complaints about housing repairs have fallen (80% reduction).

Ian Gilson, from Comserve, a contractor to Porstmouth Council is on the stage.  He speaks about the Vanguard intervention in October 2008.  Multi-trade Supplies was invented after this intervention.  Owen used “brute force” on Comserve to force the contractors to look at their service from outside-in.  The measures that they used showed they were doing well.  Owen took them to the tenants and walk through the jobs to identify the issues, which ‘opened their eyes’ and ‘made them curious’ about what they saw. Ian mentions that they realised they had ‘management filters’ which prevented them from seeing the problems of the work.

In ‘Check’ they realised they had no effective measures of the work, or to understand the purpose (above ‘make money and provide a decent service’). They found a lot of waste – replacing a wooden front door took four visits! They used to go at times that were not convenient to the tenants and surprise, the tenants weren’t there.  The people wanted to do a good job but the system wasn’t letting them.  Check is very difficult for a leader of a business to go through, since the leaders have created the systems that cause the problem (not enough stock in the van because they weren’t trusted to have the stock).  They had to go through an un-learning about the fact that what you were doing that you thought was effective is not.

In ‘Redesign’ they talked about the ‘art of the possible’ and started with a ‘blank slate’. They worked with John Little from Vanguard.  They started to run experiments and identified the purpose (‘Do the right work at the right time’). The tenants want a first-time fix, in one visit.  The right time for a tenant meant the specific (not time boxed or choosing a slot) time.  It is there job to resource against demand.

They developed an IT package (sadly, it didn’t take much programming – will Systems Thinking mean less work for software developers? I say, ‘probably’).  There are two columns, essentially Demand and Capacity.

Creating a trade supplies company (in the middle of a financial crisis!)

[Comserve set up MTS – multi-trade supply in 2008 in the middle of the financial crisis after the issues around trade supply they found when they studied the work during ‘Check’]

They found major problems with operatives having the right stock at the right time to finish the job.  Often the stock wasn’t in the van. Many times the tradesmen had to go to a trade supply.  Intriguingly there is often a burger van outside the trade supply store – showing how much time tradesman were waiting there! (1.8 hours a day per operative going to the trade counter – £560,000 a year!)

End to end cost – how much does it cost to supply a replacement bath? The focus was on getting on the cheapest bath, but often this meant the operative going past 2 or 3 stores, to go to a place to get a bath £5 cheaper! (a unit cost focus), not factoring in the £20 an hour the operative wasted driving past the stores to save the £5

Comserve tried to get another supplier to deliver stock to the operatives on site.  They had to set up their own database about what was used, by who and when. They then went back to the vans to review the stock that they had in.  Previously they’d had meetings about ‘what stock do we need in a van’ (without checking).  After 13 weeks of data, they realised that 75% of the stock in the vans wasn’t used. Of the top 20 items, they didn’t have 10 of them in the van! By studying and collecting data they were able to improve it to 85% of the van contents being used.

It wasn’t practical to have every piece of stock in the van. They realised that big items, such as baths, had a lead time (about 30 minutes), so they could get someone to deliver it, leaving the operative on site to keep doing useful work.  The operative rings ahead of time and says “I need a batch in 20 minutes” and the trade supply group deliver it.

They have capability measures.  An example of how often MTS were on time – how long do operatives have to wait? Sometimes a door can be taken off quicker than it can be delivered.  They know that people are waiting 256 minutes a day waiting for supplies.  They believe that they are now saving £245,000 a year even factoring in the costs of the delivery group.

Customer satisfaction wasn’t in a control chart because ‘it was a flat line’ at 9.93 / 10.  If it wasn’t rated a 10 we ask “why wasn’t it a 10?” this lets us look for trends that allow us to improve the service.

For the leaders, they have happy customers and an engaged workforce.  Management decisions are based on fact.  Without taking on more staff they have increased turnover 66% in 18 months.  They have new clients.

Seddon’s Summary

If you told repair organisations they shouldn’t work to standard times, people would say ‘that would be tricky!’ but Portsmouth shows it can be done.  When an operative gets to a house they phone in ‘how long it will take’. Most managers don’t trust operatives to make this decision – “they’d just bugger off if we let them do that”!”. Portsmouth have ‘designed for perfect’ around ‘optimising the system to fix the problem first time when we visit a house’.  The audit commission have downrated it because there are no benchmarking and schedule of rates – but would they have done this if they’d visit other people? Deming said ‘don’t copy without knowledge’.  Benchmarking is the fastest way to mediocrity and being like everyone else.

Question Session

Owen answered a question about how to introduce this with managers:

Managers thought that it was mad, because it didn’t fit with their MBA, so we had to help them with a ‘normative experience’. They did start by looking at Toyota, Virgin and Tesco who described themselves as ‘Systems Thinking’.  We put people through a 3 day crash course on ‘Lean fundamentals’ from Vanguard to build knowledge and learning. But it became clear that training wasn’t going to be as effective as doing; we needed to improve something.  So we started with something that involved customer focus, so that we could start measure or learn.  It wasn’t easy – you are trying to make this normal. It can’t collapse if a leader leaves the organisation. It took me a long time to work out that I needed to work out how to work on people’s thinking, not on what they do. It took 2 interventions to do this.  Even today, at Portsmouth, there are people who don’t think this is the right thing to do. Sometimes you just have to be tough and say ‘this isn’t an option, this isn’t a democracy, this is what we’re going to do!’

More from Owen:

The management are very focussed on reducing unit costs of phone calls, but they aren’t looking at why people are having those calls!

People in the organisation now want to know about Systems Thinking because they need to start saving, but they are 5 years too late to start achieving in-year savings.

In focussing on traffic wardens the focus was on reducing the number of people walking the street, because they ‘seemed to be doing the same thing’. But now, for example, if someone sees fly tipping they have to ring a call centre, that then have to send it out to another person on the street – all of this is activity that doesn’t related to helping the public, but what managers are focussing on is on reducing the cost of the call!

We aren’t trying to make services more efficient – we are trying to redesign them”!

Ian on how they collect data for their database:

Our data comes from the on-site operatives.  We’ve done away with PDA’s because we found they didn’t work. When they go to site, the time they are sent is logged.  They assess the repair on site and ring back to the call handlers to say they are on site and how long it will take (we’ve captured travel time automatically). When they are finished they say ‘this is what I did and what parts I used from the van stock’ (giving times for completion, parts used, number of operatives, number of visits to complete the repair).  All of the data goes straight into the database without using any paper forms.  We use these data (real data as Seddon says, not arbitrary things like targets).  The database is custom developed.  It took 3 weeks to write and cost £3,500! and this was with a 1,500 bonus to do it in 3 weeks rather than 4!

Owen on regulations in housing:

We asked users what they wanted, and they said they didn’t want the measure that the Minister wanted.  It was the same with choice-based lettings.  Choice ended up discounting those most in need because they weren’t savvy enough to handle the bidding process, so we told the minister we weren’t going to do it.  It got to a sessions where we said “Are you going to make it the law? If not, we’re not we’re going to do”. Sometime you need to have the fortitude to stand up to the minister to say “no, our residents don’t want this, were not going to do this”. Sometimes you just have to do what is right.

Did the efficiency savings reduce the oeprative’s pay. Ian answered:

All of our operatives are on salary so it’s had no impact.

Question: “If I said we’d do repairs when the customers want them, the manager would say we need a buffer of repairs to deal with peaks and the troughs”. Ian answered:

When we started doing repairs when customers wanted, there were peaks at 10am and 2pm with troughs in-between. This was a challenge for the first month or two, and we missed many promised times.  We found that we had two teams – repairs and voids (where one tenant leaves and it has to be fixed for the next tenant).  The void work now gives us this buffer. We have strict void times, and we make sure we get them done, but by blending them together. All operatives do repairs in the morning and then switch to voids in the afternoon, allowing us to meet customer demand on voids and repairs.  Also, block repairs help with buffering.  As an example, we used to take doors to site ‘unprimed’, but now in the downtime we have for painters and decorators we prime the wood up so that they go to site already (which takes out the peaks and trough for painters and decorators).  It takes 3 – 4 months to get a good enough picture of demand to be able to resource against it.

What happened to the managers? Owen answers:

None of the managers have left. The ones who had the locks on their doors changed are still there. One said “if you think that I’ll give up this office that took me 30 years to get, you’re dreaming” (Owen got the carpenter in). Now that manager says they now love being out in the work.  We’ve placed our managers to go through a normative experience to do interventions with Ian’s team (their outsourced supplier!).  Lots of people say ‘how can you resource this?’ but when you look at what their current job is they waste their time on meetings and e-mail.

Question about self-contained teams or clusters who are resistant? Owen answers:

We believe most people want to do a good job. You didn’t advertise for ‘negative, recalcitrant people’ – they turned up as good positive people.  What’s happened in the mean time? We have, giving them a system that didn’t allow them to do their job. We’ve found working on the system works.  When you start, you think it’s “people problems”, but after you realised

John Seddon: Starting ‘change’ by ‘studying’ isn’t sexy but it’s right!

John Seddon starts the Vanguard “Systems Thinking: The Leaders’ Summit”:

“It’s not very sexy to say we’ll start change by studying.  Managers like to do something, let’s start and do our ‘programs of change’.  ‘Let’s study’ is also rude because it implies we don’t know what’s going on. Deming used to say managers knew everything except how to improve.  He said you need help from outside, but really you need to have a different way of seeing and studying.”

There were some interesting discussions in the taxi about people being worried about this being an ‘evangelical event’ and that many of the videos of ‘success stories’ on Systems Thinking Review had people speaking about ‘how I was blind, but now I can see’.  It’s an interesting dilemma; if the results are counter-intuitive and people do go through a learning loop that feels like they can now ‘see’ how can you describe this to others without being evangelical? Also, how would you present this in a way that was vigilant against it becoming religious/evangelical?