The Vanguard Method

John Seddon

I first met John through the British Deming Association.  Apparently, AMED published one of his first articles in MEAD (Management Education and Development), ancestor to e-O&P.  His ‘Vanguard Method’ is a very practical application of systems thinking which brings astonishing improvements in performance and morale.  He works mostly in service organisations.

JS: It is the theory of control that is at fault and when we help leaders change that – to a theory that actually works (controls) – the freedom and autonomy to act is manifest because the better controls are at work where the work is done.

When people ask me about sustainability, I always say that, while we can point to organisations that have changed significantly and the change has been sustained, the better way to think about it is the number of people, especially leaders, who have crossed the thinking Rubicon; they can never go back to their old thinking about control (for they learned it wasn’t controlling but rather was causing sub-optimisation). While organisations count in tens, leaders count in thousands.

DM: Thank you, John.  I get what you’re saying about the thinking Rubicon.  Individual butterflies can’t go back to being caterpillars.  I used to comfort myself with a titration metaphor, if you did O level chemistry.  Add the last drop and the whole sample turns pink.  But lately I’ve not been so hopeful. 

Learning how to get real control by giving up imaginary control doesn’t seem to be available from the formal education system.  (Perhaps I’m wrong about this?)  So managers have to discover it, almost by accident, when they stumble across a transformation project.  If they’re not careful, they start to look unemployable by conventional organisations.  

I wasn’t sure what you mean by this: “While organisations count in tens, leaders count in thousands.”

JS: I agree, the education system doesn’t challenge theories of control and MBAs teach false controls.  We make the unlearning explicit in the work we do with leaders (studying their services as systems).

It is true that if one (only) goes out on this limb they suffer.  Some have even been fired.

My point about counting is: we can point to truly transformed and sustained organisations, they count in tens, but people who have changed their thinking and cannot go back, count in thousands.

DM: Ah! Nice. I appreciate the clarification. Thanks, John. 

Might you point me towards a case study of one of the tens? I remember Portsmouth housing maintenance. Would that be among them? 

JS: Yes, Portsmouth is one, now gone well beyond housing services. The housing work won an award from Gary Hamel in 2010. There are more in the ‘services’ section of our web site.

Impact on housing repairs

  • Tenant chooses day and time of visit
  • 125% increase in jobs completed with stock carried on the operative’s van.
  • 90% of all jobs completed, first time
  • 75% reduction in the value of van stock
John’s favourite horse, Calvin, ‘eventing’ with his daughter in the saddle

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