Vanguard Network Day 25th February 2010 – Part 3

Housing Benefits by Bridget Kelly

Bridget described her work with a local council housing benefits division. She drew up a breakdown of the division by function and org chart, adding in number of employees and managers. Unsurprisingly there had been a lot of empire building with lots of separate teams comprised of 3-5 workers and either a team leader or manager. In addition there were several over arching managers.

Bridget discussed intervention. During scoping she talks to senior leaders asking them

  • what and how things look like today
  • what is the problem they are trying to solve

The usual response to the second question is reduce headcount or reduce costs. Delving deeper helps her to understand the real problems they are trying to resolve (from the customer perspective) and tries to help them to change their thinking. This is achieved by the Systems Thinking orientation mentioned in a previous post. The orientation may result in a rational experience but at least the senior leaders have a grasp of terminology and what Vanguard’s method entails. Bridget convinces senior leaders to be a customer for the day to take them on a walkthrough from the customer’s experience, and together go into the work to really see what is going on, leading to a normative experience.

Managers and staff are briefed by their leaders that they will be coming to look at the work together with Vanguard. They explicitly state that they are there to look at the system and not individuals performance. The washing machine story* is added to this introduction to put the staff at ease and to start them thinking. Most managers act rational at first, even after a Systems Thinking orientation, however when they go into the work their assumptions often change.

Those doing the work are often only too happy to tell/show their leaders what really goes on in their organisation, it doesn’t take long for stories to emerge or varying degrees of dysfunction. Leaders get a shock that the data and reports they have been receiving are often depciting a better view than is reality for their customers. As they go into the work managers and leaders start to understand, double loop learning is occurring, you ask “is this good for your customers” or “how is this meeting your purpose?”.

Managers will sometimes want to go straight into solutions mode as soon as they find a problem whilst in the work during scoping. The intervention team have to tell them to “hold on” and wait to get the whole picture, getting more knowledge and data first. We need to understand the effect of any change on the entire system, remember the story in my second post about John Dunion’s change to opening savings accounts and how it created waste downstream. The advice given to those managers is that they should record the solution for improvement that they think they can see and what they feel the problem actual is.

After going into the work leaders are asked if they would like to try a different approach, “shall we design a better system, together?”.

If the leaders agree then we start working on a new purpose (from the customer’s perspective). We agree to setup an intervention team comprised of people who are parts of the whole. This should be a small team not of consultants but of staff. An intervention should not be “done to” an organisation by consultants. Some managers may argue that they can not lose staff for that period of time, or that they do this in parallel to their normal work. Leaders need to show that it is an investment in time to make big improvements and will lead to more capacity for those managers. Capacity = work + waste.

Some leaders may ask where the savings will come from and how much exactly will we save and by when. You have to talk about efficiencies and improvements in service they will receive. You can’t quantify this up front, change is emergent, but it will improve. They would have already seen some of the waste and its affect on system economics from being in the work with you. Reducing Failure demand will save you a lot. You can also point to other organisations that have benefited and various case studies.

Engage with the sponsors and agree on what they want out of it and focus on this. A pilot Check will give enough indication to present to a sponsor to see if we should proceed. A fundamental part of Check is engaging with senior leaders and agreeing scope. Don’t start too large, the faster you go after waste the sooner you will know how long it will be to take it out. Don’t spend enormous amounts of time trying to get *exact* Failure demand figures for business cases.

Sometimes as an employee of the company you are unable to just “walk away” if leaders are unable to see. In this case you will have to compromise (a word Vanguard despise). The advice is to pick off one system at a time and not to try and chew it all at once. Don’t start with your biggest challenge. You can ask leaders if they would be willing to just try and then to review the results.

Attitude to change

You may run into well poisoners who feel they have seen it all before with other change initiative “fads” and didn’t see any results. These are the hardest to work with and to experience double loop learning. You will only get sustainability if you have made the right change and have changed thinking. Ask managers what success/sustainability looks like. Make the whole thing transparent, with the team involved and committed to the ideas, this approach makes it more likely that everyone will buy into the change and for it to be sustained.


You don’t have to call it Systems Thinking if it helps! Same applies to some of the terminology with some customers preferring preventable demand rather than failure demand. Build roles and structure to maintain flow. Don’t lose sight of purpose and what the customers value.

* Example: The washing machine service engineer

Your washing machine has broken and the engineer arrives to fix it. The way the engineer behaves in your home is governed by his system. The engineer does not have the part needed to fix your washing machine. At this time two things could happen.

The engineer says he cannot fix your machine and suggests you ring the company to tell them you need a further visit. Meanwhile, he says, he will fill in a form to tell someone what spare is needed. How would you feel as the customer?

The engineer makes a call to ascertain the availability of the part he needs and then tells you when he can be back to fit it, checking how well that suits you. How would you feel as the customer?

The problem is the same: your washing machine is still not fixed, but the engineer was able to make a commitment to you. What accounts for the difference? Not the engineer, but his system. The engineer was able to make a commitment because his system supported him.

What is in a washing machine engineer’s system?

  • A manager
  • Call dispatch
  • Logistics

If those people see their jobs as doing what the engineer needs to serve the customer – the customer will get good service. All too often these jobs are designed in a different way.

A traditional, functional system:

Call dispatch

– Measured on activity – how many calls handled. Are discouraged by managers from talking to engineers. Believe they know best how to route engineers, and know little about the practical problems engineers experience in getting around.


– See their job as managing inventory. Measure spares as costs. Discourage engineers from holding stock. Provide forms to engineers for getting and returning spares.


– Thinks he needs to keep close control of the engineers otherwise they’ll waste their time. Measures engineers’ activity – calls per man per day, traveling time and so on.
A system designed to support engineers:

Call dispatch

– Talk to engineers about how best to route them. Seek regular feedback from engineers on how to improve the work done in call dispatch – improving the quality of information the engineer receives and thus the “end-to-end” quality of the service delivery.


– See their job as providing spares to engineers, on time as needed by customer demands, measuring fulfillment time rather than parts costs (cutting the time from purchase to use will reduce costs).


– Spends his time with engineers asking “What do you need from me to help you service washing machines better?” Sees his job as acting on the system. Uses measures of system performance not activity.
If you have a good system behind the engineer, the customer will experience good service. In a bad system the engineer can only do his best.

No amount of “Customer Care” training or “people management” will change this; the engineers are not the problem.


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