Systems thinking, customer service and unlearning the way we do things – Interview with John Seddon of Vanguard


Back in November, I shared an interview with you called: Using systems thinking to improve customer satisfaction and employee engagement – Interview with Rob Brown of Aviva.

I met Rob at an event run by John Seddon and Vanguard Consulting. John was speaking at the event too and I and was lucky enough to get John to agree to be interviewed and share a few thoughts with us.

This interview makes up number forty-two in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things and helping create businesses that customers love.

Below are highlights from our interview:

  • John is an occupational psychologist and helps service organisations change from a command and control design to a systems design.
  • Systems thinking is all about a better way to design and manage work
  • Intervention theory is all about how do you make that change
  • John was taught by W. Edwards Deming
  • The Vanguard Method is all about how do you study service organisations to find out what is wrong with how you currently think.
  • If you change they way that managers look at and think about the way that they currently work then that energises them and motivates them to think differently and design their businesses differently.
  • It is a mistake to do an employee engagement programme in a command and control organisation
  • Culture change is free because your culture is a product of your system.
  • The reason that more organisations don’t adopt this type of approach is that it is counter-intuitive.
  • As a result, you have to go through and unlearning phase before you can learn a new way of approaching work.
  • Asking your frontline staff about where the problems lie may not be the best approach as they are just as conditioned and socialised into the command and control system as their managers.
  • Deming’s idea was that 95% of all business performance issues stems from the system and not the other 5% associated with people.
  • Consulting staff is likely to identify problems they have have in their current working life but is unlikely to come up with ideas about the system as their thinking is conditioned by the current command and control system. This is where the intervention comes in and helps people unlearn what they already know before they can start to change their thinking and look at things afresh.
  • The hardest part of any of this work is the intervention part of the work. The changing of thinking and how do you change to a systems design.
  • One thing you could do if you have regular calls coming into your business, in a call centre say, is to go and listen to a number of calls and on each call ask yourself is this call a valid demand or is it failure demand ie. ‘demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the customer’
  • Failure demand is caused by system design and is not about process or people.
  • John often says to managers: ‘When you manage for cost your costs always go up’

About John (taken from his Amazon author bio)

John Seddon

Professor John Seddon is a widely-published occupational psychologist and management thinker credited with translating the Toyota Production System (TPS) for service organisations. John began his career researching the reasons for failures of major change programmes. This led him to W. Edwards Deming, who taught him the importance of understanding and managing organisations as systems and Taiichi Ohno who showed the practicality and power of doing so in manufacturing. The economic performance of the TPS is legendary. John is Managing Director of Vanguard, a systems thinking consultancy practice for service organisations, and Visiting Professor at the Lean Enterprise Research Centre, University of Cardiff. He is an entertaining, controversial and informed public speaker

You can check out John’s book’s on Amazon here. However, if you are interested in applying systems thinking to your service organisation and want to find out more then check out Vanguard’s new site: which has a great library of resources and e-learning site for you to start your journey away from a command and control business design to a systems design.

Thanks to Brett Jordan for the image.

35 comments On Systems thinking, customer service and unlearning the way we do things – Interview with John Seddon of Vanguard

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  • Hello Adrian
    I love the work of John Seddon and Vanguard. I have read and prize two of his books. Why? Because that which he speaks makes sense to me. It accords with my own experience. His distinctions such as value demand and failure demand make good sense to me as I have experienced/grappled with both. His admonition to let go of ideologies, tools, ‘best practices’ and quick fixes and study the system – the nature of the work that is following on the system and how it is dealt with shows up as ‘logically correct’.

    I love that he comes out and says it straight. Like pointing out that dabbling in ’employee engagement’ in a command and control environment is plainly stupid – it is fools gold, chase it for all you want and you still end up showing up as a fool!

    His assertion that you cannot just interview people who work in the system to get radical insight is on the nail. People are so embedded in the organisational paradigm that they see/report everything through that paradigm. So one needs outside eyes coming from a radically different paradigm.

    Once concept that you did not mention is ‘flow’. The idea being that one strives for flow or work rather than break it into chunks, put it into batches and then process the batches. While making sense individually, it does not make sense if you look at it from a systems and flow perspective.

    Now, the interesting this is how little is work is embraced. And how long he has been talking about it. And the impressive results his work has delivered. That tells me the power of entrenched paradigms and practices.


    • Hi Maz,
      I am really glad that you too enjoyed the interview. John is a really insightful gentleman and he and his team are doing some great work. Also, you make a great point about flow too something that didn’t occur to me when we were talking but I wish it had.

      I agree also that it is surprising that their approach is not taken up more and that has to have a lot to do with the learnt way of doing things: the command and control system. I think it is up to all of us to keep chipping away at this and to keep planting the seeds of change and to keep whispering about alternative and better ways to deliver value for all.


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  • Adrian,

    It never occurred to me before that culture is an output of the system.

    I would have thought that culture was an input in to the system.

    Maybe it is a chicken and egg argument, though I suppose however you look at it the two things are inextricably interlinked, which is I suppose why it is foolish to look at one (employee engagement) without looking at the other.


    • Hi James,
      Speaking with John really made me think too. I guess I was going through my own unlearning process too.

      But, I believe he is right when he says that to look at an employee engagement exercise in isolation is foolish. Doing so makes a huge assumption that the current system is the best way to do things.

      Fascinating stuff,


    • Hello James,
      One way to look at this is to realise that the room as it shows up in human experience is made up of the totality of stuff in the room. That is to say the room is not a room without the stuff. Just take the stuff out of your living room and you will experience what I am pointing at here.

      Likewise culture is embodied in language, in speaking/talking, in practices, in equipment, in paraphernalia. Which is what I assume John Seddon is referring to when he speaks ‘the system’. And he is accurate on that. When you enter into an organisation what acts on you – the people, the paraphernalia, the language, the practices that are in operation. You never encounter culture as such.

      Your point on chicken and egg occurs as accurate. Cultures arise slowly as a group of people deal with challenges successfully. Over the time it sediments into practices, equipment, language etc. And then this becomes the background that shapes the people being born into this group of people. Culture shift is brought about by challenges that the existing ‘culture’ cannot cope successfully with. And it is not an easy process.

      This is my understanding of culture. And I am often wrong.


  • Thanks for the ideas. They are very useful and handy

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