• Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: Beyond Command and Control by John Seddon | 3 Big Ideas

Updated: Aug 31



3 Big Ideas


1. To optimise organisational performance you need to focus on three things:

  • Knowledge of customer demand

  • Appreciation of what constitutes the value work, what matters to the customers

  • Understanding how to measure the system’s achievement of purpose in customer terms

2. Managers must experience the customer's pain first-hand in order for the system to change. Meaningful change will not happen if customer pain and innovations are presented in their offices. Managers must “get out of their chairs” and spend a significant amount of time with customers. It is only through feeling the emotion of customer pain that managers will be inspired to make a change. Studying the system is a vital first step.



3. Two key measures

  • Capacity – The volume of demands we can service.

  • Capability  – How well we do them measured in terms that matter to customers. Timeliness, right first time etc.

2 Quotes:

Learning how to see is a critical skill management need to learn
“The vital purpose for leaders, is to gain knowledge of how the system generates and keeps customers“

1 Action


Help facilitate more direct interaction between Management and the customers. Create conditions where they can feel the emotions of their customers. Amplify the feeling between management and customers.

Buy the book

A longer book summary of Beyond Command and Control if you have more time…

A video explaining many of the concepts highlighted in the book:

My reading highlights:

What is command and control management?

  • Leaders often copy what they see from other organisations after going on “digital safaris”. These run traps of leaders assuming what they see are the ingredients for success rather than the hidden parts of the system

  • Even successful change can be quickly undone

  • Everything you need to know is there in your own system. If you have eyes to see it.

  • Learning how to see is a critical skill management need to learn

  • Empowerment is a command or control term, ie the boss empowers you the subordinate.

  • Command and control definition:

  • A top-down perspective, in which work is divided into functional specialisms

  • Decision making is separated from the work

  • Measures in use are related to the budget and worker activity

  • Error is assuming the problem with command and control is about bosses being bossy. The problem is control measures. Which means that bosses are bossy about the wrong things!

The Nature of Change:

  • Managers often evaluate change proposals and programmes in the abstract and at a distance.

  • For real change to happen leaders must Disintermediate. Experience the pain. It is vital!

  • Key to intervention theory is the work of the US academic Chris Argyris

  • To change your mental model requires double-loop learning. Questioning the assumptions behind one’s beliefs, single-loop learning, by contrast, is to repeat attempts at the same problem for example.

  • Three ways to affect change in human systems:

  • Rational (Presentations)

  • Normative (Through experience)

  • Coercive

  • Rational strategies usually results in dissonance with counterproductive consequences.

  • Command or Control leaders won’t give up their current controls until they have witnessed firsthand how they destabilise and send the system

  • Leaders pace dictates.

  • Managers need to go through a Normative learning process. Only through experiencing the pain points of their customers will they feel emotionally connected to the problem and have the desire to enable change. The intervention is crucial to anchor the perspective in and outside in the customer’s point of view.

  • The way people work together, behaviour and values, improves when they work in a better system with a sound purpose

  • A bad system will beat a good person every time.

A different approach – Vanguard Method:

  • To optimise organisational performance focus on:

  • Knowledge of customer demand

  • Appreciation of what constitutes the value work, what matters to the customers

  • Understanding how to measure the system’s achievement of purpose in customer terms

  • Most back-office organisations optimised for:

  • Cost of transactions

  • Standardisation

  • Activity management

  • The work is a handicapped by the system and the system belongs to management

  • Two key measures:

  • Capacity – The volume of demands we can service.

  • Capability  – How well we do them measured in terms that matter to customers. Timeliness, right first time etc.

Problems with traditional controls and budget management:

  • Budget Management is the primary tool of command and control managers.

  • Treating all demands as work to be done leads to volumes of failure demand embedded in the system. A giant cuckoo in the nest greedily consuming capacity and effort to remind you what we’re talking about here in financial services failure demand frequently runs between 40 and 70% of the total.

  • You must change the measure of control for the system in order to change behaviour.

  • Three essential means of control:

  • Demand

  • Value Work

  • Achievement of purpose

  • Example of cross-functional working outside of IT:

  • Home repairs: While plaster is needed to plaster a wall, other trades can learn how to fit in cracks in other associated trades. This reduces lead time for the customer and increases agility.

  • Russell Ackoff:

  • All attempts to do the wrong thing righter only makes them wronger.

  • Managing costs causes costs.

  • IT teams are often managed by system measures that drive sub-optimisation:

  • Utilisation

  • Billable time

  • Target dates

  • Activity

  • Having learned how managing costs drives costs up instead. Managements focus is on managing value by which we mean designing services to ensure customers get what they need. 

Study Demand:

  • Understanding demand is management treasure, a lever for improvement that is simply out of reach to command and control management teams.

  • Knowledge of customer demand is the most important lever.

  • The vital purpose for leaders is to gain knowledge of how the system generates and keeps customers.

  • Leadership expertise required is simply, the competence to listen. Understand, and help the citizen be clear about what matters to them.

  • Take an outside-in perspective. That is standing in the customer's shoes, rather than top-down, and work is designed according to the principles of demand value and flow, just doing the value work. Instead of being divided into functional specialisms, decision making is integrated with work and conventional measures are either abandoned or relegated to lagging status, not used for making decisions.

  • To make a change, managers first need to study the system. However many managers struggle to find any time. Their time is taken up with command and control management. Monitoring activity, managing the works and managing costs. Most managers delegate the change work to other people in their teams.

  • Upon studying demand most managers will be emotionally shocked at what they find. Most cannot ignore the dysfunction they find.

  • The management factory. Divide between operations and management. Those are the two systems, not one. Getting on in the management factory is dependent on having and being able to present good ideas, or at least perceived as good by current norms. Usually, management factory intervenes but never stay around long enough to see if the interventions had even been delivered, let alone whether they were effective or not. In the management factory initiatives are usually evaluate or being on plan, rather than actually working, there’s so much change or interference going on, that it’s difficult to attribute outcomes to any one initiative. Even substantial failure, such as channels stuffed with failure demand is often invisible to leaders because of the blind spots in their control systems. Gary Hamel estimates that in US organisations, as much as 80% of the workforce is employed in the management factory

Misc:

  • Start without IT. The first design has to be manual. Simple physical means like pinboards tea cards, spreadsheets. Record the job, and what matters to the customer. 

  • Starting with IT often just recreates a broken system in a digital form. It rarely has a positive or meaningful change to customer value

  • Many change agents use planned improvement conjecture in business cases as evidence of delivered improvement

  • HR is posed with a dilemma. Most improvements to performance come from changes to the system yet most HR practices focuses in development and management of the individual.

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©2020 by Toby Sinclair.