Where to close the field?

I’ve been reflecting further on the punchy attacks on managerialism made by John Seddon (blogged here). Here are some not massively coherent thoughts.

One of Seddon’s major arguments is that services get analysed by experts and chopped into smaller functional units. Front and back offices are created; some back office functions then get outsourced. Each unit is given its own performance targets. For example, a call centre operator has to clear 60 calls a day. Inevitably, everyone learns to game the system; one way to deal with lots of calls is to cut people off or pass them along – leading to even more calls later etc etc.

He says you need to look at the whole system to design intelligent measures and base those measures on customer needs.

It all makes lots of sense.

And I think of Harrison Owen, who talks about the risks of “closing the field”. In this context, if you focus on the operator in the call centre and set a target of 60 calls, you close the field around that person, and ignore externalities – the waste pushed elsewhere in they system by this closure.

What Seddon seems to suggest is to close the field around the whole system, and that seems to be determined by the customer. Leading (probably wisely) to reversing outsourcing of call centres to India, etc.

The only issue is, we still have to make a decision as to what the whole system is. Take Housing Benefit services from a council. Do we treat that as a discrete service? What about its externalities with other services?

Where do I close the field around Health services? At my GPs surgery? At the level of the hospital network it’s plugged into? At the Department of Health or whatever it’s called these days? (Governments have been renaming and redrawing fields around departments constantly.) What about the issue of High Fructorse Corn Syrup, which appears to be a mega-isse, how do we include that?

I’ve had a little inexpert involvement with Dominic Campbell’s excellent Safeguarding 2.0 initiative. In the wake of the Baby Peter scandal, how the heck do we create more effective care for vulnerable children? It’s very complex. It looks to me like Goverment efforts have been on getting better co-ordination of multiple agencies (schools, social services, police etc) which sounds intelligent. The field, in this case, gets ever bigger. But take a field that size and try to fix it and you end up demanding too many meetings of too many people and infrastructure collapses under its own weight. Where I think Safeguarding 2.0 is exploring is a more informal approach, where we don’t close any fields and use fuzzy human approaches. (And that’s a grotesque simplification, I know)

So it’s not that simple, is it? Though I love the passion and upfront style of John Seddon, I also see a shadow side to his certainty. Anyone can close a field with different boundaries and claim victory. You can’t tame wicked problems.

Of course just to get through our day, we have to make “field-closure” decisions all the time. Otherwise we’d be paralysed, agonising whether tea or coffee is a better drink, given the unpredictable consequences for the world food supply and alignment of planets. You can’t have a community that has no boundaries.

No easy answers to this one. But I think a lot of arguments are about where to close the field.

2 thoughts on “Where to close the field?

  1. Dave Briggs

    Johnnie – great post. I’ve recently started to look into Seddon’s thinking in a bit more detail, so your coincidental interest is timely for me!

    I think you are right to say that Seddon’s approach sounds eminently sensible and practical. My view though that there is something missing from it. This is possibly as a result of my lack of understanding of systems thinking but I can’t help but see it as being a rather limiting way of approaching change. It seems somehow too focused on the here and now and doesn’t seem to allow for really disruptive change and innovation.

    As I said, though, I could be wrong about this.

    Your thoughts on where to close the field is another interesting one – hopefully John Seddon is listening in and may respond!

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