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John Wenger

Quantum Shift Ltd.


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Successful systems thinking: Eliminate targets


In the first of a three-part series, John Wenger discusses the merits of John Seddon's 'successful systems thinking'.

“Systems thinkers know a number of counter-intuitive truths.”  John Seddon

One of these counter-intuitive truths is that “when you manage costs, your costs go up. When you learn to manage value, your costs come down.” There is the business case for systems thinking, if one was needed.

Thanks go to David Wilson through his fitforrandomness blog for bringing a presentation by Seddon to my attention. Makes great watching and listening. There is so much to learn from this talk on so many levels, but when I was watching the video, I kept making the link to management, leadership and new thinking. New thinking to me means a new set of assumptions about organisations and how they get things done.

I think Seddon accurately describes quite a lot of what happens in organisations today; doing the wrong things righter. We have managers who set targets for activity, who then focus people on meeting activity targets. Managers approach their work as target setters, people inspectors, people managers; when targets aren’t met, the managers try to manage individual performance. As he says, modern managers are trained (if at all) to do one-to-one, which he calls a therapy model.  I would say he’s not far off the mark.  If we are teaching people to be good people managers, we are training their gaze to the 5%, rather than the 95%. This is not to say there is no place for more empathy, respect and humanity in the workplace, far from it.  

However, in terms of getting things done, in terms of being more effective, treating people well is not the answer on its own. If the system is still set up for people to meet targets rather than work towards achieving purpose, we may just have a lot of lovely workplaces where people are still meaninglessly ticking boxes and shuffling bits of paper. If the system is still command-and-control, commanding and controlling with a smile will not make much difference to organisational effectiveness and betterment.  Command-and-control with a smile is like putting a cherry on a turd. Yes, we still need control in organisations, but not as we have understood it up till now. Not managers controlling people, but, as Seddon says, people having control over their work.  We need management that focuses on systems, not the people.

Loathe as I am to isolate just three of Deming’s 14 points (because he meant for all 14 to be taken on board together, not as a pick-n-choose menu), when he said:

Eliminate work standards (quotas). Substitute leadership.

Eliminate management by objective. Substitute leadership.

Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

... I believe he means substitute.  Put something in place of another. Put leadership in place of  targets, quotas and numerical goals, individual performance management, inspection and supervision of people. I understand it to mean that we stop doing targets, individual performance management and all that other stuff that aims to control what people do. As Deming also says, management by objective ensures mediocrity and stifles innovation. There you go, another counter-intuitive truth that Seddon speaks of, and a modern-day heresy.  I think it’s important to really consider what kind of management would actually serve organisations better, and we need to get clearer on what leadership means, too. I will add that I don’t think it’s making it a semantic exercise, calling managers “leaders” and getting them to keep doing the same old stuff. The picture I have is that managers start doing management differently AND they start doing leadership as well.

John Wenger is a director at Quantum Shift. This article first appeared on John's blog, which you can access here.

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John Wenger


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