Study and purpose: Systems thinking and public services
Inspired by conversations with Kelly Doonan and the GovCamp Cymru Books Channel on Slack, I’ve recently finished reading John Seddon’s “The Whitehall Effect”. The book is billed as being “an uncompromising account of the way Whitehall has systematically and perversely made public services worse”, so I wasn’t expecting a light and breezy read. He’s also fairly scathing about the role of audit and inspection, so I’m not entirely sure that he’d want to be stuck in a lift with me. Having said that, I’m pretty sure he’d like to have a good conversation with me about it. Here’s what I learnt from the book:
Recently, the Good Practice Exchange held our first team away day in order to give us the space to think about whether we are working as effectively as we could be. There was some discussion about how we measure success, which is something that I’ve thought a fair bit about since my previous role, where funders’ targets led to me counting things that didn’t really indicate service improvement. I ended up measuring things like numbers of subscribers to our newsletter. We were asked to do this because it was an easy thing to measure, which contrasts with the difficult task of evidencing actual service change. Seddon’s point is that such thinking creates a defacto purpose (getting more subscribers) instead of the actual purpose (facilitating improvement). By deriving measures from the customer’s perspective of the organisation’s purpose, we measure things that matter.
Applying this to our work, if we measured success by the number of delegates that attend our events, we might stop doing work on things like Open Standards and focus on popular topics instead, even though we know that their use supports public service integration. Our real measures should be derived from our purpose, which is to help public services to improve and to deliver better services. This means looking at outcomes rather than outputs – we need to continue our evaluation approach where we evidence how our work has led to public service improvement.
Learning from…. studying
John Seddon reflects on the Toyota Production System in the book. He talks about how the tools from the process have been applied as part of a lean methodology to gain savings.
To give you a bit of background, Toyota developed the Andon Cord, which empowers employees to stop production when a defect is found and call for help. This flew in the face of conventional thinking, as people thought this would slow productivity. Which it did initially, before they started producing their products faster, cheaper, and more reliably.
What Seddon counsels against is putting those tools into practice without first understanding the context that people are working in, which is particularly true in complex public service environments. We’ve previously blogged on how the Cynefin Framework can be used to better understand the application of these tools when the relationship between cause and effect is muddy.
So how did Toyota put this into practice? Seddon talks about how Ohno would “draw a chalk circle on the factory floor and tell his managers to stand there and study the system in action, on the ground.” This study phase is something that is rarely given meaningful resources in the public sector, but it’s something that organisations like Ricoh UK are doing through the Gemba Mat and the Government Digital Service is doing by focussing on user needs.
This struck a chord with me, because our team’s founding principles are that one size does not fit all, and that people should look to adapt, not adopt the approaches we share. The study phase then is key to understanding how any learning from the Good Practice Exchange’s work can be put into practice. To revert back to the Toyota example, setting up an Andon Cord won’t improve the quality of cars in and of itself. The thinking behind the cord needs to be put into practice too. The same results can’t be expected without the right mind-set or if the organisation hasn’t taken the appropriate steps to empowering staff.
Where do we go next?
If you’d like a bit more information on the study phase, then Simon Pickthall has written a great post for us on how studying mitigates risk. He’s also previously looked at how Vanguard use normative experiences to encourage buy-in in another excellent post.
If you’d like to see examples of how Welsh public services are putting Systems thinking into practice, Dilwyn Williams of Gwynedd Council shared with us how they’re doing just that, and we also shared how Monmouthshire Council used the FISH approach (Find Individiual Solutions Here) at our Prevention seminar. The below video is a great overview of what they’re doing.
As for me, I’ll be thinking about thinking! I’m going to think about how we apply this study phase to our work, and also relay some of this thinking around measures into our evaluation approaches. As we work to improve public services, it’s important that we walk the talk, and also that our measures really are derived from purpose if we’re going to effectively support organisations in Wales to deliver better public services.