Vanguard Network Day 25th February 2010 – Part 1

The Vanguard Method as a Framework for Learning  by Jeremy Cox

Jeremy Cox kicked things off by describing the focus for the day; the morning would be split into two sessions focussing on examples of “how to” followed by case studies in the afternoon. The theme for this network day was “Change or Improvement?”, making changes is relatively easy, however do these changes lead to sustainable improvement?

Systems Thinkers need to tackle learning and changing the system. The latter has been well documented and is certainly described in detail in Vanguard’s books and white papers along with the work of say Deming. The former isn’t as well known or understood. Intervention is about people and working at the cognitive level. As Chris Argyris described “management need to experience double loop learning”.

The model is Thinking -> System -> Performance

When people change the way they think about the design and management of work, the system changes, and performance improves as a consequence.

The Vanguard method is a framework for learning and has been specifically designed as such. A common mistake made by new Systems Thinkers is not working with people at the congnitive level. For example when Jeremy first learned Systems Thinking he tried to preach to/teach everyone about control charts (sounds familiar!), he soon discovered that this was tackling things the wrong way round, he modified this approach to talk about variation, capability and predictability first, which then led into the subject of SPC charts as a means of showing variation.


Everyone has assumptions and their own frames of reference, some of these may be flawed. Jeremy tested this theory by asking a group the following:

  1. What you have you been wrong about?
  2. How did that affect your view of the world?
  3. What did you do differently as a result?

During the discussions at our table one person mentioned that although a Systems Thinking intervention had gone well, it had resulted in several people losing their jobs as the department in question was over staffed, due to the enormous amounts of failure demand prevalent prior to the intervention. People were busy, but not necessarily busy on value work. Toyota talk about the three Rs (Retrain, Re-deploy, Remove) but his organisation had jumped straight to Remove. The rest of the staff in that organisation then became fearful of losing their jobs and waste became “hidden” in a move to protect themselves. Others talked about fledgling Systems Thinkers reducing the number of targets in an organisation (not removing them), which is really just doing less of the wrong thing and not changing thinking itself. One referred to Systems Thinkers in their intervention team be regarded as terrorists!

Following these discussions Jeremy advised it is important for all of those interested in Systems Thinking to understand the roots of the current management thinking; Command and Control. The example given was that of front office and back office. Why do command-and- control managers like front-office / back-office designs? Jeremy advised people to read the article ‘Where does the customer fit in a service operation?’ from the Harvard Business Review written by Robert Chase. I would also advise reading more on TaylorismFordism and Alfred Sloan.

Command and Control is extremely prevalent in most organisations. It is the norm. The advice was not to get cross with command and control thinkers but to try to understand their point of view and their frames of reference. We have to tackle command and control thinking but undermining their assumptions and getting senior leaders into the work to actually see what is going on. Vanguard are not having a go at managers, they are not bad people, we just need to change thinking and what they consider as the norm.

Questioning assumptions is key, the Vanguard model for Check will help facilitate this, leading to an informed choice. This is far more productive than a Systems Thinker trying to “persuade people” that its the right method for improvement.

The model is Assumptions -> Action Strategies -> Consequences

Command and Control view vs Systems Thinking view

Next up Jeremy challenged the audience by showing a series of common Command and Control views and asking how each of these differ with the view of Systems Thinking.

The last point was expanded upon. Organisations are complex adaptive systems. You can’t with any certainty plan for x number of years in the future. Change is emergent. Vanguard recognise the human need for structure and plans, but these should be based on knowledge and data not on assumptions. Finally costs were also expanded upon, we want to introduce a new economic paradigm, focusing on costs frequently makes them worse, focusing on flow reduces costs. We must learn to identify the causes of costs. Look at the economies of the system. In most organisations the budgeting processes is something like, take last years budget figure, cascade down explicitly stating we want to reduce this number by 10% this year. To reduce costs we want to design for value.

To get knowledge Vanguard recommend Check -> Plan -> Do as a method.
Jeremy commented that this can sometimes take a day, other times weeks, but this method leads to systemic improvement.

What happens after Check

Managers experience double loop learning* They start reframing their assumptions. Together we redesign and roll in changes, experimenting with the aim of perfecting flow. Do different assumptions lead to improved performance? How do we make these normal and sustainable?

Sometimes after Check you will be presented by a statement such as “we will setup a new back office to solve the problem” Jeremy’s advice was to use words from Deming “by what method will this solve the problem?” this helps to question assumptions and leads to double loop learning.

* Double Loop Learning – Argyris & Schon (1978) distinguished between single-loop and double-loop learning, related to Gregory Bateson’s concepts of first and second order learning. In single-loop learning, individuals, groups, or organisations modify their actions according to the difference between expected and obtained outcomes. In double-loop learning, the entities (individuals, groups or organization) question the values, assumptions and policies that led to the actions in the first place; if they are able to view and modify those, then second-order or double-loop learning has taken place. Double loop learning is the learning about single-loop learning – source Wikipedia

* Double-loop learning is the detection and correction of errors where the correction requires a change not only in the action strategies but also in the values that govern the theory-in-use – Argyris 2004

Basic requirements for intervention

You need valid data not opinion, this leads to free informed choice and ultimately to internal commitment to choices made (Argyris 1973). As people are involved they will buy into and commit to choices they have made, the opposite would be true if they are just told to do something. Interestingly Jeremy used the pig and chicken story that is used in Scrum to describe commitment.

3 Approaches to changing people’s behaviour

Often when your eyes are opened by Systems Thinking and you learn to see then a natural reaction is: why isn’t everyone doing this? isn’t it just common sense? Then when you start explaining it to others within your organisation, those that are used to command and control, you find it incredulous that they dont get it! This can often lead to anger and frustration on behalf of the Systems Thinker. Instead of getting annoyed you need to think about the 3 approaches to changing people’s behaviour.


Just telling someone something doesn’t mean they are going to agree with it or like it, especially if it is against their core values or inbred assumptions. It is better to try and generate curiosity instead. Jeremy cited the recent TV programme where Anne Widecombe and Stephen Fry debated the ten commandments, both were entrenched in their views and assumptions and would never change based on an rational argument, in fact both left the debate by becoming even more entrenched in their views.


This may work in the short term either using by using an incentive or a threat, but this will not be sustainable, and at some point the person will return to the values and assumptions that they hold true.


This approach is around doing things to change people’s norms, values and assumptions. In essence double loop learning has to happen.

The 3 approaches were discussed by the conference attendees. Several reported that generating curiosity was often successful and this often led to Check (of Check, Plan, Do). However in several cases although Check was successful, with those involved amazed at what they discovered now that they were able to see, very often they then just returned back to their day jobs and continued as they were. They were powerless to effect change in their organisation. Other people reported that managers dont have time to go and see and will delegate this to others, and not believe the results! One lady at our table used the term “lets get better not busier” to generate curiosity with her senior leaders.

Jeremy recommended reading on Intervention Theory, a book called Good Communication that Blocks Learning by Chris Argyris.

He also stated that people will naturally follow those that lead them, there is a great book on the psychology, containing studies on obedience called Opening Skinners box.

In closing when using the Vanguard Method of Check, Plan, Do reflect on

  • Valid data, informed choice, internal commitment?
  • Coercive, rational or normative?
  • Single loop or double loop?

Intervention Design – Setting up for Success by Toby Rubbra

Jeremy focussed on method, Toby focussed on practical application.

Avoiding punching the jelly

Sometimes we make a change which has an impact but after a while it reverts back. Typical issues with change are:

  • Leaders want to change but they delegate responsibility
  • Change is seen as a project with a finite end
  • We start on one programme of change but then follow another because its the latest fad
  • There are numerous and simultaneous change initiatives happening at the same time
  • We deploy tools only
  • We look at the symptoms and not the causes (doing the wrong thing righter)
  • Staff hiding and disengaged

We are punching jelly because we aren’t changing thinking. We need to “unpeel the onion” using this method Thinking -> System -> Performance. Toby challenged; does learning and improvement just stop after an intervention? If the intervention truly has changed thinking then the answer to this is no.

Toby asked the audience what are the measures of success, what would the signs of a success look like before we start. Those in the audience came back with:

  • Have costs reduced?
  • Have sales increased?
  • Has service improved, are customers more satisfied?
  • Have end to end times to fulfil a customer demand reduced?

Toby reported that the answer to what are the measures of success comes down to service, efficiency and revenue in most senior leader’s minds.

Barometers in change in thinking – Leadership thinking questions

  • What are senior leaders focusing on?
  • What are managers and staff paying attention to?
  • How are people spending their time?
  • What are leaders and managers asking for?
  • How are managers adding value?
  • How are people interacting/communicating?
    • Meeting and decision making/problem solving process?
    • Performance management?
    • Stuck in Email?
    • Chained to Blackberrys?
  • How are we managing the system today?
    • Contracts
    • Governance
    • Audits
    • Inspection
    • Measurement

The above are typical within a command and control organisation and need to change. We need to be clear on the problem that needs to be solved (and the outcomes) using this model:

What is the problem we are trying to solve? -> The Approach -> The Design (what are we going to do to resolve the problem?) -> The Outcomes.

We can use the above to tackle changing thinking:

Changing Thinking -> Change based on knowledge (get knowledge and data in Check) -> Unlearn and learn (double loop) -> Act on the System -> Results (better service, efficiency, revenue and morale).

Some leaders might insist on cost benefit analysis prior to agreeing to start. Dig out some old ones for that organisation, did we get these benefits? have people even looked to see if we did achieve them? Other leaders might insist on plans. Dig out some old plans. Did we meet them? were they useful? Toby mentioned that 5 year plans are often created by those most removed from the work (and the customer!) in isolation.

3 key aspects and differences

When working with senior leaders one of the starting points is defining purpose (from the customers point of view). We need clarity on what we are here to do. This is often unclear and causes organisational schizophrenia.

Creating leadership curiosity – principles, methods and tactics

  1. Create normative opportunities. Design opportunities for senior leaders to see/hear what is really going on. Find something and then ask them to come and see. Just ask them to come and listen at the point of where we interact with customers or partners. This can lead to profound learning for that leader.
  2. Empiricism not opinion. Get data, link issues to this data, highlight opportunities for change. Discuss variation and then use SPC charts showing variation in their system. What’s important is knowing the extent of the variation and why (the causes). SPC gets people curious. Vanguard look at common causes to help improvements. Drop data on leaders and managers desks, “Whats that?” good question! “Why is it like that?” even better question!
  3. Orientation. Describe Command and Control principles vs Systems Thinking principles.  Note that this is the third step and not the first step. If you begin with this step then you are creating an rational environment and not normative, don’t jump into this too soon unless you are confident that your audience is open to this learning.

Helping leaders to see

Intervention route map. As an interventionist you want to go through the following:

Step 1 – Orientation
Step 2 – Familiarisation of the work
Step 3 – Scoping (involving the right people)
Step 4 – Setup logistics
Step 5 – Run Check
Step 6 – Trial/prototype design changes
Step 7 – Make normal
Step 8 – Align support

You want to have the following considerations:

  1. Create normative opportunities – Design structured opportunities for people to see / hear
  2. Empiricism not opinion – Get qualitative and quantitative data, link issues to data, quantify opportunities
  3. Explore causes of the issues (which leads to double loop learning) – Link system conditions to waste / failure, causes for the system conditions
  4. Expose the current thinking – The data being used

Toby showed the “oh shit” graph, depicting the number of decisions reached and when. This particular organisation had a target of reaching a decision on a piece of work within 8 weeks. They gathered data on when decisions where actually made against the number of days that each piece of work had been opened. It clearly depicts that the majority of decisions were made just before the 8th week, in other words “oh shit this is nearly at the 8 week limit so I better do something about it”. When this was shown to management, after the initial shock, they asked what is the tail? The answer is “oh well we have missed the target so lets just leave it”.

Helping leaders to act – The crucial relationship

Purpose -> Measures -> Method

Purpose – What are we hear to do? Create a discussion and dialogue.

Measures – Most people start here rather than at purpose, however this approach then results in the creation of a defacto purpose (meet the measures/targets). Instead we want to ask what measures do we have to help guide us in our attainment of purpose?

Method – Do we know what “good” looks like?

Purpose and measures are like a compass and chart for a ships captain.

Changing thinking is not a project, its an emergent journey of learning. We want to define a manageable system scope for change. We need to engage key people and stakeholders across the end to end system. We need leaders to demonstrably lead, not delegate change. Leaders need to explain that their intervention team are positioned to help people “see”, not to “do to”.

These two morning sessions were fantastic learning about intervention theory, hopefully you will find the above as useful as I did. Much of the above is copyright to Vanguard and its methods.

The second part of the network day was around case studies. I have blogged about the two that I attended in two other posts on my blog.


4 thoughts on “Vanguard Network Day 25th February 2010 – Part 1

  1. I really enjoyed the Vanguard Network Day, and your notes are exceptionally comprehensive. I’ll certainly be suggesting that some of my colleagues check out your blog. Maybe that’ll stir up some curiosity!

    It was great to meet you and I look forward to the next time our paths cross.

  2. Your excelent post about the Deming 14 points caught my attention, but I didn’t read this one and the others about the Vanguard Method.
    As a Vanguard consultant I have to tell you that your explanation is very comprehensive and usefull to understand our interventions in service organizations.
    Thanks to spread systems thinking !!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s