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It seems that Lean and Vanguard can evoke extreme reactions from some systems practitioners, whilst others seem much more accepting.  So far they are the only things I have come across that seem to create controversy in the systems world.

I have to confess to feeling a little niggled when Lean and/or Vanguard are conflated with systems thinking amongst those who are not ‘in the know’.  But, what I have realised is, I don’t really know enough about either of those approaches to use others’ interest in them as a way of helping them enter the ‘real world’ of systems thinking and practice.

So – here is a summary of my little exploration –

Let’s start with LEAN.  The website of the Lean Enterprise Institute provides lots of material on What is lean? So as I understand it Lean was coined as a term by a group working with Womack at MIT.  They had been studying the operation methods of Toyota in Japan as a new way of solving the organisation of manufacturing processes so that you could have good ‘process’ flows but also meet customer demand for variation.  The website says it is important that people understand the key thought processes that underpin Lean and don’t just focus on learning the techniques of Lean.  For me that seems consistent with a theory informed action approach.  The word “system” and “systems thinking” are not really used in their material, though there is talk of processes and understanding processes from end to end, including supply chains.  So, the word ‘system’ is likened to a sequence of processes which seems reasonable even if they are thought of in a linear way.  Occasionally, they refer to Lean as a philosophy or a whole systems approach.  Lean does have a number of systematic tools but they are encouraging people to apply them with systemic awareness:

Another important attitude to avoid from the beginning is the impulse to implement individual lean tools without seeking to understand the system in which they fit. This is hard to avoid, since many tools, like 5S, deliver immediate payoffs. But ultimately all lean workers must understand the “why” behind the tools, or their value will be lost.

source: [accessed 26 April 2011]

So the trap, as with so many approaches and methods would be to take a few techniques from the Lean toolkit and apply them without the broader understanding of the philosophy that underpins them and the context you are part of.  I would say there are parallels there with the idea of  juggling the C-ball (contextualising) and also when Woodhill talks of methodological pluralism and the need for people to be critical conscious of the techniques they are using.

So if someone said to me ‘oh systems thinking, you mean Lean’ then I need to be ready to say that Lean is an approach to working that encourages understanding organisational processes and works to eliminate waste in them but that Lean is only one of many systems approaches and there is a much broader set of concepts and approaches that make up systems thinking and practice.

Although the Lean understanding was developed in a manufacturing environment it does say that the principles can apply equally to a service organisation.  However the Vanguard website says ‘not so’ and recommend that service organisations avoid the techniques that have developed around Lean manufacturing (see or, accessed 3 May 2011).

Before going into Vanguard in more detail, I feel the need to say something about John Seddon, the man who developed the Vanguard approach from the Toyota method.  John Seddon is a big writer and commentator about public sector management and the need for systems thinking.  The first time I came heard of him was a short quote in a newspaper – it was so great  I pinned it above my desk for months and I can remember it now –

People do what’s counted, not what counts.  Targets make things worse

Then later I bought his book “Systems thinking in the public sector” written in 2008 (Triarchy Press).  It was not long after I had studied my first Systems course (TXR248) so I was quite excited to come across the book.  However, even now it is unread, I got so far and found his style too ‘ranty’ and ‘hyper’ for me. I have tried to tackle it again in preparing this post but to no avail.  Nevertheless, Seddon does get quoted a lot whenever people are trying to support their case for ‘systems thinking’ in the public sector.  Problem is – as I have looked into this I have drawn the conclusion that Seddon’s perspective of  systems thinking is not consistent with my understanding and practice of systems thinking!

I think I remember someone commenting on the OU forum that Seddon adopted the term systems thinking more as a marketing ploy.  That worries me – his introductory video on the Systems Thinking review: The vanguard method in the public sector website – even tells people not to go looking elsewhere because there are lots of ‘pretenders’ out there now that Vanguard has created a market (Accessed 3 May 2011).  Actually, that more than worries me – it annoys me – is he really saying that systems dynamics; soft system methodology; viable systems method and critical systems heuristics and the traditions that underpin them are not necessary if you have Vanguard. Surely it is a failure to juggle the C-ball to advocate the use of a single approach and going back to Woodhill too who says methodological pluralism is a part of a paradigm of social learning.  I feel duped because the odd paragraph or quote in Seddon’s work or on the Vanguard website or the Systems thinking review website give great insights but taken as a package as a marketing ploy for consultants it really is not on.  All this puts me off trying to look into the value of the Vanguard approach itself – I can’t be bothered to even try.  Mmm I can see why this seems to create so much controversy now.

So how do I respond if someone says “ahh, systems thinking, yes I know Seddon and the Vanguard approach”.  I think I’d explain that Seddon and Vanguard advocate an approach that is not consistent with the way I mean systems thinking and practice.  I’d say it is unfortunate that they have ‘captured’ the term and used it in a way that may prevent people exploring the full range of possibilities for systems thinking and practice.  I’d offer to spend more time with the person if they are interested in broadening their understanding of the discipline.

Postscript:  Rather oddly, in the week that it has taken for me to complete this post, I received an email from a colleague asking me to complete a questionnaire to inform an assignment that she is doing for her MBA course.  It was headed ‘Diagnosing the system’ and talked about a ‘whole systems approach’.  The questions seemed a little inconsistent with what I understood by these phrases so I sent a reply that explained my recent studies, said I needed to understand more about where she was coming from and invited her to meet with me if she wanted to discuss it some more.  Her reply said that she was studying systems approaches to do with manufacturing and supply chains and was finding it difficult to use in our context.  I was ready with a reply!

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