How Gwynedd Council is using Systems Thinking

Gwynedd Council has been looking at how they can provide more effective services. Dyfrig Williams spoke with Dilwyn Williams, Chief Executive of the Council to see what we can learn from this work.

A Photo of Dilwyn Williams

Dilwyn Williams, Chief Executive of Gwynedd Council

Dilwyn Williams and Gwynedd Council first became aware of Systems Thinking at the Welsh Local Government Association conference a few years ago. The method is used to focus the organisational mind on what’s important for residents and how to get rid of systemic barriers that prevent staff (often consciously) from providing a better service. The approach also seeks to change the command and control mindset in order to equip the organisation with a better approach to how it designs and manages work. They decided to hold seminars on the method for members and officers, and this led to the council undertaking work on applying the method to its systems dealing with homelessness and buildings maintenance.

These seminars asked some really tough questions about the way that Gwynedd Council provides services:

  • Are the services really focused on the needs of citizens?
  • How can can we overcome some of the difficulties that stop the organisation from performing to the highest possible level, such as work arrangements and a historical overemphasis on risk and budgets?

Staff are asked to always consider ‘What’s important to the people of Gwynedd?’ and now the council’s performance is measured against this instead of traditional outcomes. In the past, when service users gave the Council’s services a score, the Council has used the average score of 7 to 8 as proof of good performance. Now the score is used as an indication of the relative level of performance. Everyone is asked to consider the reason why that score isn’t 10, and if there is something that they can do about that. This means that a change in culture and mindset is required, as performance management moves away from being a process of comparing numbers to be a system of looking for improvement opportunities. As Dilwyn said, ‘The why is important – why not 10? This is an opportunity to improve.’

Pilot projects

The maintenance project was successful, which has resulted in the council using different performance measures. It became clear from the preparatory work that the most important measures for service users were around the speed of the work and the satisfaction with how that work was done. The level of satisfaction gives a clear opportunity for improvement by asking ‘Why is it not 10?’

At the same time as improving the service, the Council also saved money as it stopped sending inspectors to identify the work that needed to be done. Now contractors are told to go and do the work on the basis of a relationship of trust, and if the contractors betray that trust, there are obviously consequences to that.

The homelessness project did not work as well, not because of the efforts of the teams involved, but because of a failure of leadership. But the Council learnt a lot more about what didn’t work through that and it highlighted the importance of good leadership.

How the learning was put into practice

The Ffordd Gwynedd (Gwynedd Way) Strategy grew out of the two pilot projects, taking what the Council has learnt from the Vanguard experience and implementing it in the context of the local culture. Ffordd Gwynedd is now on the monthly agenda of every Heads of Service meeting, since it’s vital that the Senior Leadership take ownership of the strategy. Now when interventions take place, the work starts with the Head of Service and a briefing session is held with the leader of the work.

The strategy requires that intensive work is undertaken with managers, as many of them have been working for the council for such a long time that they have been immersed in the organisation’s traditional culture and management techniques that have been derived from the production world. Some managers may have been working for 20 years with the same mentality, often on the basis of what was seen in traditional management books, but the world has moved on. A self-learning and discussion group was started to look at team characteristics for Ffordd Gwynedd. In the future the organisation intends to look at whether the teams demonstrate each characteristic and whether they’re clear about their purpose. The Vanguard Systems Thinking Mantra is used, which is purpose, measures and approach. It’s critical to measure what’s important, and the council is working through this at the moment to create a different culture.

The intention is to create an “expert” in the culture in each service, and each service is asked to put a manager forward for intense training to lead the challenge work. There is an element of continuity planning here, which gives people the opportunity to gain experience in order to lead the work in the future, as managers work three days a week on Ffordd Gwynedd and 2 days a week back in the service so that their experience feeds into the work.

Staff are asked to consider what they do to put people at the heart of services. Do they have an opportunity to discuss this in their team meetings? Some people may feel that it’s the manager’s role to improve services and that their role is to follow what the manager is saying. The Ffordd Gwynedd Strategy stresses that if a person knows about a barrier that is preventing the people of Gwynedd from receiving effective services, then they have a duty to everyone to do something about it. The Council is demonstrating to staff that it is challenging how services are delivered, and for this to be effective it is important that there is no culture of blame – people need to take the opportunity to change how they work and to put that culture into practice. Experimenting with new service arrangements can result in failure, but it’s only through experimenting that there is real innovation. Dilwyn also explained that learning from complaints goes hand in hand with this and that it can be used as a way to learn from failure.

Lessons learned

One of the learning points that Dilwyn shared was that if you start the work with a mentality of saving money, you’re not really able to put people first and redesign services effectively. The financial side cannot be ignored, but by considering how the council can meet people’s needs first and then looking at financial considerations, the service can very often meet those needs, and it’s often cheaper.

Dilwyn said that following a process can make staff feel safer, especially if something goes wrong, because they were following a process that was set by someone else. So it’s essential that staff are empowered so that they can make people central to their services.

Dilwyn also said that it’s important that the people at the top of the organisation think in terms of systems so that it is strategically consistent across the organisation. Some members are eager to move quickly because they see positive results from the work, but it is important to remember that the work is about trying to change the culture, and this does not happen overnight. Also the strategy must be kept simple – the simpler the strategy, the easier it is for staff to understand and the closer it can be to reality. The more complex the strategy, the more difficult it is to implement it in the way that you intended.

Gwynedd Council is now holding a series of events with staff to hear the views of staff about the difference the work has made. How does their work now compare to what they were doing a year and a half ago? We look forward to hearing more so we can share the learning.

One thought on “How Gwynedd Council is using Systems Thinking

  1. Pingback: Study and purpose: Systems thinking and public services | Good Practice Exchange at The Wales Audit Office

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