“Sir, Sir, Sir…have you marked it yet?!”

class with hands upSo my son had some school exams and this post was triggered from a conversation I had with him just afterwards:

I expect all of you can cast your minds back to school and if you’ve got teenagers then, like me, you will also be sharing their experiences.

Picture the following scenario:

  • You’ve studied for, let’s say, a maths exam1;
  • You’ve spent 2 long hours sat on an uncomfortable school chair, whilst being watched by the beady eyes of the maths teacher (who was actually asleep), and have just emerged from the exam hall;
  • You and your mates fall straight into discussing the trauma that you’ve just been through:

“What did you put for question 4?”

“Oh [beep], I hadn’t realised it was about that! I wrote about [something else that was completely irrelevant to the question]”

“Could you work out the pattern in that sequence of numbers?…’Fibonacci’ who?”

“What do you mean there were more questions over the page?!!!”

…and so on.

What you will notice is that they are all ‘switched on’ in the moment, whether they ‘enjoyed’ the exam or not. They really want to know what the answers were and how they did against them!

The after’math’ 🙂

So, next day, they have double-maths…whoopee!

The Students all plead together: “Sir, Sir, Sir…have you marked our exam yet?”

Teacher: “Whoa, hold your horses, I’ve barely sat down! I’ll do it as soon as I can.”

…and the students engage in yet more chatter about the exam but their memory of the exam is beginning to fade.

At the end of the week, they have maths again:

The majority of Students: “Sir, Sir, Sir…have you marked our exam yet?”

Teacher: “No, not yet, I’ll do it over the weekend.”

…much less chatter now. They have forgotten most of it.

So, now it’s the following week and maths:

A few keen Students: “Sir, have you marked our exam yet?”

Teacher: “Sorry, no, I’ve been writing reports so I haven’t got around to it yet. I’ll definitely do it by the end of this week.”

…the mood has changed. The content of the exam has been forgotten and so, instead, they fall back to merely wanting to know a score.

End of week 2 maths lesson:

One diligent Student: “Sir, have you marked our exam yet?”

Teacher: “Yes I have! I’ll read out the marks” and the marks are duly read out to the class, which brings out the whole spectrum of emotions (from feelings of elation to tears of despair, with a healthy dose of indifference in between).

That diligent Student again: “…but Sir, can I have my marked exam paper back?”

Teacher: “Erm, yes…I haven’t got them with me now…I’ll bring them in next week.”

What do we think about this?

We all know that by far the best thing to do for effective learning to take place is to mark this exam, get the marked papers back to the students and then go through the paper to explain and then discuss it question-by-question…and to do all of this As Soon As Possible.

(… and I know that this is what all good teachers will try to do)

We can see that:

  • There is a human desire for immediate and meaningful feedback, which quickly dissipates over time;
  • An overall score (the result), whilst potentially providing some useful indicative data, cannot help with learning – you can feel emotions from receiving a score but you can’t improve. Instead, you need to know about the method (or, in this exam scenario, each question);

“We don’t learn from our mistakes, we learn from thinking about our mistakes” (Ralph Tyler, Educator)

  • There is little point in just the teacher knowing the current capability of each of their students. Each student should be very clear on this for themselves.

So, to organisations:

The above might seem blindingly obvious and a world away from work but every day we all carry out actions and interactions within value-streams for the good of our customers…and the usual buzz phrase uttered at regular intervals is ‘we want to continuously improve!‘…but do we provide ourselves with what we need to do so?

Think of the richly varied units of customer demand that we* strive to satisfy as analogous to the maths exam:

  • (how) do we all know how we (really) did?
  • (how) do we find this out quickly?
  • (how) do we know what specifically went well and what didn’t?
  • …and thus, (how) can we learn where to experiment and how this went?!

(* where ‘we’ refers to the complete team along the horizontal value stream)

There’s not much point in senior managers receiving a report at the end of the month that provides them with activity measures against targets and some misleading up/down arrows or traffic light colouring. Very little learning is going to occur from this…and, worse, perhaps quite a bit of damage!

…and when I say learning, I hope you understand that I am referring to meaningful changes being made that improve the effectiveness of the value stream at the gemba.

The value-creating people ‘at the gemba’:

The people who need the (relevant) measures are the people who manage and perform the work with, and for, the customer.

If the people who do the work don’t know how they are truly doing from the customer’s point of view then they are no different from the students who don’t have their marked exam papers back.

hamster wheelThere should be no surprise if the workers are merely clocking in, turning the wheel, collecting their pay and going home again. It’s what people end up doing when they are kept in the dark….though they likely didn’t start out like this!

Senior Management may respond with “but we regularly hold meetings/ send out communications to share our financial results with them, and how they are doing against budget!”

  • This gives people the wrong message! If you lead with, and constantly point at, the financials, you are telling people that the purpose of the system is profit, and NOT your stated ‘customer centric’ purpose;
  • You can’t manage by financial results. This is an outcome – ‘read only’. You have to look at the causes of the results – the operational measures;

To repeat a hugely important John Seddon quote:

“Use operational measures to manage, and financial measures to keep the score”

I am championing what may be termed as ‘visual management’: being able to easily see and understand what is happening, in customer terms, where the work is done.

A whopping big caution

caution signHowever, ‘visual management’ should have a whopping big warning message plastered all over its box, that people would have to read before undoing the clasps and pushing back the lid…because visual management works for whatever you put up on the wall!

If you put up a visual display of how many calls are waiting or how long your current call has taken or a league table of how many sales each member of your team has made or….etc. etc. etc. people WILL see it and WILL react….and you won’t like the dysfunctional behaviours that they feel compelled to engage in!

So, rather than posting activity measures and people’s performance comparisons, what do the value creating people need to know? Well, put simply, they need to know how their system is operating over time, towards its purpose.

Here’s what John Seddon says about the operational measures that should be “integrated with the work: In other words they must be in the hands of the people who do the work. This is a prerequisite for the development of knowledge and, hence, improvement.

  • Flow: what is the capability of the system to handle demands in one-stop transactions? Where a customer demand needs to go through a flow, what is the capability of that flow, measured in customer terms? 

…in both cases we need to know the extent of variation – by revealing variation we invite questioning of its causes. By acting on2 the causes, we improve performance.”

A final thought: This blog has often said “don’t copy manufacturing because Service is different! But gemba walks through a well run ‘Lean thinking’ factory floor may very well assist your understanding of what is meant by good visual management. No, I’m not saying ‘copy what you see’…I’m suggesting that you might understand how a well run value stream has a physical place alongside the gemba where its participants gather and collaborate against a background of what they are currently achieving (their current condition) and what experiments they are working on to improve towards some future target condition.

To close – A shameless segue:

So I’ve been writing this blog for nearly 2 years…and I know many people read it…but I don’t get much feedback3.

If you have read, and accept the thinking within this post, you will understand that this limited feedback ensures that I am somewhat ‘in the dark’ as to how useful my writings are for you.

I do know that people see/ open my posts…but I don’t know too much more:

  • you might read the title or first few lines of a post, yawn, and go and do something else;
  • you might get half way through and not understand what on earth I am rambling on about;
  • you might read to the end and violently disagree with some or all of what I’ve written;

but…and here’s the punch line, how would I know? 🙂


  1. It’s clearly a totally separate, and MUCH bigger question as to whether taking exams is good for learning – I’m aware that many educators think otherwise. The genesis of this post merely comes from my son’s exam reality. Just for clarity: I’m not a fan of the ‘top-down standards and constant testing’ movement.  
  2. Seddon writes ‘acting on’, NOT ‘removing’ the causes of variation. The aim is not to standardise demand in a service offering…because you will fail: the customer comes in ‘customer shaped’. The aim is to understand each customer’s nominal value and absorb it within your system as best you can…and continue to experiment with, and improve how you can do this.
  3. A big thanks to those of you that do provide me with feedback!….and I’m most definitely not criticising those that don’t comment – I’m just saying that I have a very limited view on how I am performing against my purpose…just like many (most?) people within their daily work lives.


20 thoughts on ““Sir, Sir, Sir…have you marked it yet?!”

  1. Squire, I really enjoy your posts and when I see the email notification pop up I genuinely get quite excited. I usually read the whole post and find it leaves me with a knowing smile. I have even shamelessly used your content in meetings with colleagues to discuss performance and change. My favourite article being the ‘what have the romans done for us’ parody. If there was something I would change it would be to encourage shorter articles as my attention span has become limited as I get older (but is more a reflection on me than you). Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mr X, very good post indeed and I did read it with pleasure till the end. You do this for free you deserve feedback as a form of payment for your brain e-ffarts 😉.
    When I look at a production system from a systems standpoint, I see it produce the following standard outputs: safety, morale, quality,time and money. Money is a combination of the first four and the cost of the raw materials. So I agree with you that financials do not mean much for people who can influence metrics on the shop floor. Employee morale is difficult to measure so I usually post metrics related to safety (number of incident or safety reports), quality (yield or customer complaints) and time (lead time, cycle time, production rates). No need for an army of KPIs and asking shop floor workers what is relevant to them doesn’t hurt…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I am happy to provide you some feedback. I find your posts thought provoking and informative. I also share your posts with colleagues (well at least those I feel will be receptive!). Indeed earlier this week I shared your post ‘Catch Ball’ as it is very poignant to what is happening close to me right now.

    I have to be honest, I get a sore neck reading your content nodding vigorously in agreement.

    There are a few posts I refer back to occasionally, particularly where measures are concerned and I can say it has informed some of my thoughts / work.

    I enjoyed your recent postings regarding budgeting as it gave me a valuable perspective on the damaging impact of budgets which I always ‘assumed’ but I hadn’t given it too much thought.

    I appreciate your content, it’s made me think and although I am very much a ‘receptive’ audience I’m grateful for your regular posting so thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I guess your main avenue for feedback is in the comments section, so here’s some.

    Thank you for writing your blog. I’m a big fan of your work, and since I’ve subscribed to it I think I’ve read all of them – not just the title.

    I find your blog helpful in many ways. It’s clearly well researched – which effectively means you do a lot of what I should be reading for me. Although – based on the recommendation in your blog I did buy and read Toyota Kata. A lot of the time, because you explain the main points about what you’ve read so clearly I don’t feel I need to.

    In my work I’m always trying to get people curious about systems thinking, or at least alternatives to command and control. Your blog helps me do that – either by helping me to articulate a point or sometimes I’ll simply send a link to a blog post if it relates to something we were discussing.

    Lastly, I also appreciate it as I work in a command and control environment (which I’m trying to change) and your blog post gives me some respite from that world, and comfort that there are other people out there that think in a similar way about work.

    So thank you again, and please keep blogging!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d like to echo Charles’ sentiments in that I work in C&C land too and your posts do provide some respite and it is good to know you’re not the only one who sees the management factory differently.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m guilty of being a ‘lurker’ but that does not mean that I don’t value your posts! I suspect many of your readers may be similar – after all if we don’t like what we read we do have the option of unsubscribing! I too would echo ‘Charles’ comments and I find that your posts are very helpful for sharing with others as you articulate the points so much better than I could do.😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nothing wrong with being a lurker 🙂

      I guess, going back to the feedback point within this “Sir, Sir, Sir…” post, there are times when I publish a post and it’s like tumble weed…and I wonder whether I’ve just written a load of absolute gibberish.

      But, having said that, I obviously write primarily for me and my sanity, and so anyone reading it and getting something out of it (whether I know this or not) is a bonus.



  6. I guess a comment is due! Only recently found your blog while searching for Scholtes diagram on trust. You should see the condition of my original copy of the Leader’s Handbook which I have had since 1997 and which I used as a textbook some time back! Your blog is now a must read! I forwarded the last email to the Vice chancellor! Your blog has also been shared with the email group we have happening which is exploring change. Keep on with the exploration and sharing. In respect, Ross.

    Liked by 2 people

    What your blog (system) does is offer well thought and entertaining content making the concepts of Systems Thinking and organizational improvement easily understandable. As a follower of this blog it has helped me on numerous occasions to find words and ways to explain concepts to others. I find your assessments on many subjects not only accurate but eerily similar to my own experiences. You are definitely on my ‘have a beer with’ list. If your purpose is any of the above you are meeting it well. Keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think your blog is full of crap!
    No, not really, course not. But most people who comment do so cos they like it, otherwise they’d click elsewhere. I LOVE getting argumentative or disagreeing comments cos they’re really rare. They’re a feast , I appreciate the effort loads. I had two recently on mine that evolved into a decent back and forth, all perfectly decent arguments carried out well. They both presented good different thinking that made me think. And whilst it’s GREAT to get compliments, these are interesting. And made me think.
    I reckon you should be PROUD of your blog cos (1) it exists, and(2) it’s existed for a while. That’s an achievement! If people keep coming BACK, and they do, then that means that they get something from it. And you’ll likely never know DIRECTLY what unless you ask, like this.
    I think I’ve left a comment on your blog before about how I research the use mine. Did I mention something called https://clicky.com/ ?
    It’s brilliant for investing about a dollar or two a month in to track use of blog. I’ve learnt loads that I otherwise wouldn’t know. Things like landing pages, leaving page, it’s virtually real time too. You can infer a lot from the data you get about use and that.
    If I haven’t already said about it, send an email to admin@nameofmyblog.com and I’ll give the full Monty on how i use it to find out about readers

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Your blog came highly recommended to me just over a week ago by someone whose opinion and teaching I respect much and follow closely.

    Right now I am reading and re-reading Henry Neave’s book the Deming Dimension (which I highly recommend). Your entries are aiding to my learning. Please keep them coming.

    I’m going to read now the entry you linked to in this post titled “Tampering.”

    This entry is consistent with what I am learning from Steven Spear (whose book I also highly recommend, The High-Velocity Edge).

    Thanks for Sharing Your Knowledge,

    Eric Lawson
    Columbus, Ohio

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I need to thank Ross for sharing your blog. Indeed it is a must read!

    Firstly, I make the assumption that you are based in New Zealand (just a hunch and I am prepared to be wrong).

    The evidence of the use of systemic thinking is (finally) on the rise in New Zealand. While I know the Vanguard method has gained some traction here of particular interest to me is the use of Interest Based Problem Solving (a form of systemic thinking) at Air New Zealand. I am sure there are many more examples but Air NZ’s “High Performance Engagement” initiative is one of the biggest I have seen.

    The link between systemic thinking, change toward constructive culture and employee engagement is becoming pretty clear. Kegan and Lahey’s work on immunity to change alongside David Rock’s work on neuroscience is all paving a way forward to a greater appreciation of the power of systemic thinking when it is applied to human systems.

    I have no doubt that your blog will serve as a useful resource not only to the early adopters but also to those who see the results and start to ask how. Of course, that is the last question they should ask but some habits take longer than others to change.

    Thank you for your contribution and keep up the great work.

    Cheers, Karl

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Steve: I can assure that I read all your blogs..hmmm or try to as best as I could. I am specifically interested in command and control management styles and how targets do not work. I actually ended up reading Stanley Milgram’s book Obedience to authority and it was a fascinating read. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. oh, and i forgot, this blogs the main one i’m excited to read from when it pops up on my reader, cos you take the time to actually type stuff out with links to previous posts for background, and there of a length that they cover stuff ENOUGH but not too much. Diligence. I use it to send round as “the sane voice of systems thinking” cos its approachable but not flippant or bitter.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Many thanks for your comments. Some useful feedback in there 🙂

    …and sorry for taking a few days to read your comments – I haven’t been at my computer.

    I will continue to ‘write up my brain farts’ as and when something that I think of potential value comes along.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Only recently discovered your blog. I subscribe via a reader (Feedly), and note that your posts only come thorugh as exerpts. I would be much more likely to read the whole thing and pass them along if you turned the switch on WordPress to publish the entire post into your RSS feed. There is a setting somewhere associated with “reading” to switch on full text in the RSS feed.


    • Hi Jack. Thanks for your comment and sorry for taking so long to reply.

      Regarding RSS Feed: Something that is important to me is transparency regarding whether people are reading what I am putting out there – as this particular blog post makes clear, we all desire (and need) feedback. I’m no tech expert and, as such, I don’t know too much about RSS Feeds, but I consciously chose to send only an excerpt out so that, if people are curious, they choose to ‘pull’ the whole post…and then I know this*. I’m guessing that, by sending out the whole post, I am ‘pushing’ and then I would have no idea about where it went from there.

      If my ‘pushing’ understanding is incorrect (highly possible) then please do let me know.

      * though I only see volumes of hits on each post, I don’t know who specifically reads what…and I’m perfectly happy to leave it at that.


      • Depending on the way the tool is setup, there are ways to count how many people downloaded your RSS feed, but you are right that these don’t tell you how many people read the articles in the feed. In a feed reader (I use feedly), it is much easier to read full articles, rather than jump out to separate pages for each article…

        I understand your approach. It’s just that it doesn’t fit the way everyone reads.


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