Saturday, October 09, 2010

Easier Seddon Done 2

#JohnSeddon has developed a simple approach to service design, which he and his followers call "systems thinking", much to the annoyance of everyone else in the systems thinking world. He has also developed a critique of what he calls The Regime, including some very pertinent observations about the failings of the target culture.

Seddon adopts a highly political language in attacking The Regime, and this hasn't always been helpful in-the-large for tackling the problems of the UK public sector. In my previous post Easier Seddon Done, I noted his complaint that when he wrote a letter to representatives of the regime explaining their errors, he got a “snotty, curt reply”. (Well, who could have predicted this?) Today I found another example of this kind of thing in a heated debate started by @leanblog, The One Where John Seddon Might Be Lying (or Has His Facts Very Very Wrong) (October 2010). In his contribution to the debate, Bill S points to the Vanguard Newsletter Feb 2010 where Seddon admits to harrassing the head of HMRC.

The great systems thinker C. West Churchman identified politics as one of the enemies of the systems approach. Seddon's campaigning approach has resulted in a considerable politicization of the "systems thinking" label. Seddon himself certainly understands the POSIWID principle (in his books he refers to "de facto purpose") so he must take some responsibility for this.

Some additional points about lenscraft

The first point about lenscraft is the principle that no single lens is adequate to solve difficult problems. That principle applies both to the UK government's obsession with targets (which it is thankfully now backing away from) and to Seddon's simple service design alternative. It is when the claims of a given lens are overstated that politicization occurs.

The second point about lenscraft is that any lens can be useful sometimes. There may well be specific contexts where targets are valuable (although I can't think of any right now), and there are probably situations where Seddon's way of looking at the world is useful.

The third point about lenscraft is that any lens needs to be used reflectively and critically. In other words, we need to pay attention to the nature of our own intervention in the situation, and the limitations of the lenses we are using, rather than imagine we have some privileged observation platform. For my part, I am particularly wary of the claim that a given lens is "integral" or for that matter "holistic", because such words imply a kind of cognitive closure, as well as inviting arguments with proponents of rival lenses.

The question this discussion raises for me is what kind of practical systems work is viable (both politically and financially) in an ecosystem that is dominated by such claims and counter-claims.

Related Posts

Easier Seddon Done (June 2008)
Changing How We Think (May 2010)

Demanding Change: Lenscraft


TriBabbitt said...


I often am fascinated by those that can comment on the work of John Seddon when they have not been exposed to it in real life application. I suspect his book or newsletter is the only source in most cases.

What i have seen is a method that opens the door to a deeper dive into system dynamics, but to get there organizations need a practical system to help them. The Vanguard Method is the alpha, not the omega. There is so much more that this sets up for an organization to continue to learn.

Those that are upset about his writings need to understand he has evidence of how certain approaches make things worse. Nothing wrong with that. If things are not challenged how do we learn?

Richard Veryard said...

Thanks Tripp

As you say, if things are not challenged how do we learn? John Seddon engages in at least two different kinds of work - campaigning and consulting - and I'm interested in the relationship between the two.

In addition to his published work, his writings include unsolicited letters of criticism to public servants, in reference to systems that presumably have not yet been subject to a rigorous Vanguard analysis.

I have already acknowledged that many of Seddon's criticisms are well-made, but my point was not about the intellectual justice of his claims but about the political effects of his campaigning style.

Seddon may well believe his campaigning style to be an effective way of marketing the Vanguard approach, but surely he appreciates the difference between unsolicited criticism and systemic intervention?

Richard Veryard said...

By the way Tripp, I assume your first sentence is intended as a rhetorical device to challenge my credibility in commenting on the work of John Seddon when (as you presume) I have not been exposed to it in real life application.

I do not generally direct my comments at those who are swayed by ad hominem argument, so I don't always talk explicitly about my own experience or claim private knowledge of these matters.

However, I would note that John Seddon himself doesn't appear to limit his analysis to those systems of which he has had first-hand insider experience, but carries out second-hand analysis on problems where he perhaps hopes for future involvement and influence. I also note that you are happy to comment on education on your blog (The Education Witch Hunt Continues in NYC) without being or ever having been a teacher.

So is there one rule for John and yourself, and a different rule for anyone who questions the way John attempts to influence systems policy and to engage with stakeholders with whom he doesn't have a consultancy relationship?

And is Vanguard sales and marketing guided by "systems thinking", just as much as the delivery of Vanguard projects?

TriBabbitt said...

#JohnSeddon has developed a simple approach to service design, which he and his followers call "systems thinking", much to the annoyance of everyone else in the systems thinking world.

This is the comment that I am challenging. Sounds like you are the expert on the Vanguard Method. You are not, your annoyance is your own bias to something you already said you don't know about.

Richard Veryard said...

I am often fascinated by those who can write books about Systems Thinking without acknowledging the deep epistemological issues that have exercised the minds of the greatest of systems thinkers.

My statement, to which Tripp objects, was not about the Vanguard Method in isolation but about its relationship to other systems thinking schools and practitioners; as it happens, I do have considerable knowledge and experience in systems thinking, as well as considerable knowledge and experience in designing and evaluating methodologies.

(For further discussion on the epistemological limitations of the Vanguard Method, see the Demanding Change blog Changing How We Think.)

Richard Veryard said...

In a discussion on the Linked-In Systems Thinking group, David Alman says it's easy to be an armchair critic of John Seddon's work, and requests that those with criticism should put up something that demonstrates equal or better solutions.

Like most people with something interesting to say, John Seddon works at a number of different logical levels - solving practical problems, distilling his knowledge and experience into a method that can be taught to other people, and making public claims for this method. These logical levels can (and probably should) be regarded as separate systems: criticism of Seddon's claims for the Vanguard Method is not equivalent to criticism of the Vanguard Method itself.

Whatever success he and his followers have had in solving practical problems does not give him the right to make unlimited claims for the power and applicability of the Vanguard Method. If Seddon were to claim that the Vanguard Method was suitable for designing aeroplane dashboards, it would be perfectly reasonable for people with expertise in aeroengineering to challenge this, especially if they couldn't see how Seddon/Vanguard was paying attention to what they regarded as the critical issues. Similarly, when Seddon and his followers equate "Vanguard" with "systems thinking", this is open to legitimate challenge by people who have knowledge and experience of systems thinking.

Whenever I raise questions about the claims made for the Vanguard Method, I get replies from the Seddonites to the effect that the Vanguard Method works, so what's the problem. And yet when I read Seddon's own newsletter, I sense enormous frustration on his part when his attempts to influence the public sector agenda don't work. As a systems thinker, I'm interested in the relationship between a system that apparently works and another system that apparently doesn't work, and I'd have expected the Seddonites to use "systems thinking" when addressing what must be a real systemic problem for them.

TriBabbitt said...


Don't mind the challenge, but here is food for thought.

W. Edwards Deming wrote about an appreciation for a system in the New Economics. His attempt to verbalize this gave way to the word systems thinking. Many of us in Deming User groups studied Ackoff, Senge and others. At the time your operational definition of systems thinking was called system dynamics.

You are coming at it from a different perspective which I actually enjoy reading the theories, but have great difficulty in "operationalizing" them in to improvements.

The Vanguard Method comes from this Deming perspective of systems thinking and deeper rooted human change theories and methods. I suspect it is not the end the consultants by taking action on the system continue to study and learn new ways to improve organizations. This to me is very inclusive of other theories as we are always looking for new perspective that can lead to breakthroughs.

I believe you will find John Seddon calling out people when he has evidence that things are running poorly and he knows that the outcomes are preventable through better thinking. Many times they have proven this in other similar systems.

Like anyone go to and read what the agencies that have been through this experience say or better go to the leadership summit in Milton Keynes on November 25th and see for yourself.