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






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