John Seddon

seddonRight, now we are on to a modern giant doing great work on challenging conventional thinking!

Seddon started off as an occupational psychologist and, after some formative years working in this role for some large UK service companies (incl. British Airways), he got interested in the work of Deming and Ohno .

After studying these two giants, he brought his psychology knowledge and their systems thinking together and began to experiment and apply it specifically within service industries.

In doing this, Seddon realised that:

  • Deming and Ohno’s work was highly relevant; but
  • service has some important differences to manufacturing; so
  • the application of their thinking had to start at the principles level, rather than blindingly following manufacturing tools and techniques (many of which had become labelled as ‘Lean’ or ‘Six Sigma’….or both!)

He is a researcher, professor, management thinker, author and vocal critic of UK government reform. He is a rare service industry specialist in a sea of manufacturing practitioners attempting to ‘do it to service organisations’.

He won the first Harvard Business Review/ McKinsey Management Innovation Prize for ‘Reinventing Leadership’ in 2010. You can read the story here (called ‘Forget your people – real leaders act on the system’).

Focus on Demand

A big differentiator is Seddon’s focus on the study of demand as being the key lever for service organisations. He came up with the concept of failure demand and how understanding and removing the system conditions causing it will create capacity and massively improve the flow of value to the customer.

‘Check’ model

He derived a 6-step linear model to study a system before considering any interventions. The importance being that we must first study our system, get knowledge and then (and only then) intervene through the use of experimentation.

This model fully considers purpose and variation (as taught by Deming) and the use of capability measures instead of activity targets.


Seddon set up Vanguard Consulting (1985) and is the Managing Director. The consultancy, now working across 8 countries, uses Seddon’s ‘Vanguard Method’ which combines systems thinking and intervention theory.

UK public sector

He is a strong critic of the industrialisation of service delivery and has worked with many public sector bodies to achieve massive improvements by changing their thinking. He has written extensively, and been interviewed (on radio and by parliamentary committees) about the failures of UK government policies, how/why they are going wrong and what they should be doing instead.

Whilst a great deal of his writing focuses on the public sector, the lessons within apply very obviously to private sector service organisation.


A warning for some, yet an advert to others: Seddon says what he thinks. He doesn’t pull any punches and can come across to some as big headed. This has wound up many a ‘Lean Six Sigma’ practitioner’!

Conversely, he comes across as being very clear and articulate in his thinking. I think this directness comes down to his psychology background – there’s no dancing around the issue – you are left in no doubt about things. I love this. It enables you to fully consider/ debate/ engage.

He is an excellent writer – very easy reading and superb at getting a point across clearly. I use lots of quotes from his books.

Here’s a light hearted and enlightening youtube chat from John Seddon about all of the above. It’s 30 mins. but worth the time.

I have had the pleasure of exchanging emails with John and found him to be direct yet very helpful. Our daily exchanges lasted a week and, after pushing me hard, I found myself in a totally different place at the end of it!

Author of the following books:

He has written a number of books, but 3 to recommend are:

  • ‘Freedom from Command and Control’ (2003)…this is, in my view, a must read book!
  • ‘Systems Thinking in the public sector’ (2008)
  • ‘The Whitehall effect’ (2014)

He has also written forwards to two very interesting books that draw together case studies of public sector bodies applying Systems Thinking with Vanguard Consulting and the results that have been achieved. Volume 2 also contains a set of essays that extend Systems Thinking in service organisations:

  • Delivering public sector services that work
    • Volume 1: 6 case studies, incl. 1 from NZ (2010); and
    • Volume 2: 8 case studies (2012)


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