John and Joe Carlisle, Mad Management[1]

Although the Command and Control style of management is a fairly modern phenomenon, like all ideas, its roots go much further back, to a very dominant model of how to discipline and organise institutions. The philosopher Michael Foucault famously uses 18th Century Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon as a model for how a modern disciplinary society seeks to at all times to survey, or at least give the possibility of surveillance, its populace. The panopticon is a surveillance structure originally designed by Bentham for prisons but reproducible in any environment. The centre is occupied by a watchman who cannot be seen but who is surrounded in the round by the cells or workplaces of those he surveys. Each in their own compartmentalized sections the watchman, or manager, can see everything the prisoners do. As Foucault describes ‘[t]hey are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.’[2]

Foucault rightly saw ‘panopticism’ as a paradigm through which individuals could be measured, assessed, marked and surveilled; it was not simply a design for a prison but a “how to” command and control for a whole variety of institutions from schools, hospitals and factories. It is worth quoting Foucault again, this time at length, as he describes the consequences of such a model:

He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication… if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents. The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities. From the point of view of the guardian, it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised. 

This top down model of designing the workplace was explicitly compatible with industrialization where work was broken down into small repetitive actions that can easily be measured and codified. What is harder to understand is why the model was placed upon all forms of work. Why so many managers insist upon forcing this model onto industries, such as service, which it does not fit.

It is now common for most people who work now to have a sense of being monitored. Whether through the ubiquitous CCTV camera, which now often can record audio, to electronic clock ins,’ recordings of all phone calls made in a call centres or on workphones, targets to be hit, milometers which time how long a delivery takes to go from A to B, to IPad’s whose programs must followed to the letter. What this produces is an abundance of data, a mountain of information which can be turned into charts, graphs, and reports. This gives the manager a great sense of control; to him nothing is hidden.

Except of course a lot is hidden. Data by its very nature hides vast amounts of knowledge. The time it takes to get from A to B does not reveal that the final stage may add 20 mins because there is nowhere to park the lorry. The failure to reach the target may simply reveal the arbitrary nature of the target. In data the whole complexity of the human world is erased, flattened out into a spreadsheet, and the manager ends up mistaking the map for the terrain.

Not only does it give the illusion of knowledge but command and control management style doesn’t work.  It makes waste rather than reducing it. This article will argue that it is an empirical fact that these modes of supervision fail to achieve what they claim to. Systems thinking is a far more effective way of improving organizations, and ironically, it has the data to back it up.

 Systems Thinking 

In 2003 Professor John Seddon published Freedom from Command and Control. [3]2 It caused quite a stir, demolishing most of the principles upon which the government had based its efficiency drive – which later morphed into wholly inappropriate and damaging austerity policies. It refuted the top down principle of leadership that is implicit in the New Public Management (NPM), which is a promoter of what Seddon calls ‘the management factory’: ‘The management factory manages inventories, scheduling, planning, reporting and so on. It sets the budgets and targets. It is a place that works with information that is abstracted from work. Because of that it can have a phenomenally negative impact on the sustainability of the enterprise.’

The case studies gave irrefutable evidence of the damage caused by this neo-liberal mechanism in the public sector. Seddon’s solution was systems thinking as expanded in his next book, Systems Thinking in the Public Sector.[4] Here example after example illustrated the waste caused by NPM, especially as advocated by the likes of Barber (targets etc.) and Varney (shared services – see appendix)

The research and analysis conducted by Professor Seddon, which has looked at reasons for diseconomies of scale specifically in service organisations, fundamentally challenges the ‘Command and Control’  logics that underpin much of the public sector. Instead case study after case study confirms that concepts such as ‘designing against demand’, ‘removing failure demand’ deliver outstanding success  , while the typical drive to standardisation and specialisation of function results in inappropriate services being delivered, resulting in turn in escalating monitoring, management and correction costs.

This, however, requires a change of thinking about how organisations work best in this the 21st century. Over a hundred years ago the workforce was only one generation removed from an agricultural culture. Their understanding of industrial production and its organisation was very limited. Consequently even the best designers of organisations, e.g. Henry Ford, the Quakers, Cadburys, Rowntrees and Clarks, were at best paternal, and at worst, reductionist pragmatists, i.e. treating workers as intelligent tools. However, even the latter did not mean not trusting them or attempting to look after them. After all, Henry Ford doubled the wages of his workforce overnight and refused to allow women to labour after 5pm so they could look after their families.

Today, we have a workforce that is literate and numerate and is at home with modern organisations, BUT are managed as those of 100 years ago. Why is this? The reason is the Command and Control style is more comfortable for those leaders whose upbringing (conditioning) and training at Business Schools has brainwashed them into feeling that being in charge means taking control. As they cannot be everywhere they therefore use measuring as a proxy for their physical presence. This usually translates into columns of comparative data or run charts, tick boxes compliance, and often targets to be reached as evidence of success of failure.

So, who is the guardian in the panopticon? It is HR. In many public sector organisations HR has seized this opportunity to become the enforcer of compliance for the board. Rejoicing in their power they have abandoned their traditional role of looking after the workforce and now “guard” it.

Politicians are entranced by these governance measures. They can conceive of nothing more confidence boosting than setting targets for, e.g. hospital waits, housing allocations, repairs completed. Their mental model is captured in the Table 1, below, in the left hand column. It is informed by their neo-liberal mindset, something they have imbibed from exposure to the right wing press; the fascination with material success, for example Peter Mandelson, playmaker of the Labour party said twenty years ago that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”; privatisation continues even though it is clearly an utter failure; and cost-cutting  and targets are the first knee jerk reactions to perceived public sector overspend.

But there is another way. It comes in the form of a System of Profound Knowledge, first propounded by the great management philosopher, Dr W. Edwards Deming, whose principles are best presented in the work of Professor Seddon, head of Vanguard. The Seddon Vanguard model, constructed from his research into effective organisations is the right hand columnneolib-seddon (2)-page-001.jpg2

Why is a bad management model sustained?     The question is why, in particular do UK politicians favour the Command and Control model? My theory is that it is the “control” element that matters most – and which has caused the most waste, and this is because they are comforted by the illusion of control even when it clearly causes so much damage to people and resources as the examples in the appendix illustrate.

Dr W Edwards Deming summed it up perfectly: Most people imagine that the present style of management has always existed, and is a fixture. Actually, it is a modern invention – a prison created by the way in which people interact.  He then asked the question:

How do we achieve quality? Which of the following is the answer? Automation, new machinery, more computers, gadgets, hard work, best efforts, merit system with annual appraisal, make everybody accountable, management by objectives, management by results, rank people, rank teams, divisions, etc., reward the top performers, punish low performers, more statistical quality control, more inspection, establish an office of quality, appoint someone to be in charge of quality, incentive pay, work standards, zero defects, meet specifications, and motivate people.”[5]

Answer: None of the above. (Will someone please tell our politicians!)

All of the ideas above for achieving quality try to shift the responsibility from management. Quality is the responsibility of management. It cannot be delegated. What is needed is profound knowledge. A transformation of management is required, and to do that a transformation of thinking is required – actually the neo-liberal paradigm is so entrenched that that nothing less than metanoia (a total change of heart and mind) is needed.


Shared Services disasters (courtesy of John Seddon submission to the Local Government and Regeneration Committee – Public Sector reform and Local Goverment. 2012)

  1. Western Australia’s Department of Treasury and Finance Shared Service Centre promised savings of $56 million, but incurred costs of $401 million. See for more details (accessed 13/2/12)
  1. A National Audit Office report said that the UK Research Councils project was due to be completed by December 2009 at a cost of £79 million. But, in reality, it was not completed until March 2011, at a cost of £130 million. See‐66fa‐47be‐9773‐686ce60c0218&version=‐1 (accessed 13/2/12)
  1. The Department for Transport’s Shared Services, initially forecast to save £57m, is now estimated to cost the taxpayer £170m, a failure in management that the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee described as a display of ‘stupendous incompetence’. The most recent evidence of the higher cost was documented in a House of Commons Transport Select Committee report ( accessed 13/2/12)


[2]Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. A. Sheridan (Vintage books, New York, 1995) p. 200

[3] Seddon 2003 ‘Freedom from Command and Control’ Vanguard Education

[4] Seddon 2008 ‘Systems thinking in the Public Sector’ Triarchy: Axminster

[5] Deming, W.E. (1993) Out of the Crisis MIT: Cambridge


  1. I have just popped over from Campaign4change having seen your comment to a Tony Collins article.
    You might be amused to know that, many years ago I undertook employment with a police service on the understanding that it would be a straightforward exercise leaving me time and energy to continue with my critique of modern medicine, including the ‘lucky dip’ that is the NHS.
    I was shocked rigid by the acceptance of top-down, one-way-only, management. It guarantees incompetence if not corruption. It was then that I discovered that all government departments follow this mad philosophy thus rendering much of the police and medicine largely non-investigatory but compliant to instruction from above.
    I believe it is deliberate. How else can the incompetent, who have spent their whole existence crawling up the hierarchy in order to reach a level above accountability, maintain control?
    Btw, so glad you mentioned W.E. Deming. I did quote him whilst with the police and give practical examples of how the service might benefit with detriment to absolutely no one. It was met with great enthusiasm for several minutes before it was carefully filed away never to see the light of day.
    I shall hope to read your posts when I can organize myself better. In the meantime, please accept my kind regards.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zara
      Good to hear from you. I agree, the hierarchical paradigm is deeply embedded, but not just in the public sphere, it is everywhere where there are organisations, e.g. unions, regulators, as well as Shell, Tesco etc. Funnily enough, where I have seen least at work at the operational level was the InterCity board, where I was an adviser.
      But it is strongest at the political level because politicians don’t have to implement the policies. Their really smart civil servants do that, even when they know they are barmy – as most are. Deming’s illusion of knowledge is accompanied by the illusion of control whereby they think that more regulation, more Monitors, more CQC’s etc. will guarantee quality, when in fact it is just inspection, with all the defects we know about the driving in the rear view mirror.
      But, Joe and I have a plan! Deming is the backbone of it, so, glad you are one of us. i invite you to become a subscriber and help us spread the message about the deadly disease called “control”. and how to deal with it
      Best wishes

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for replying and for the kind invite.
    Good to know you have a ‘cunning plan’ particularly as it’s inspired by the great Mr. D.
    I look forward to reading your posts, spreading the word and by so doing, making a contribution, however small.
    Please accept my kind regards.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Good to hear from you, John!

        Yes, I have been unwell and, as you might assume, got little help from our NHS. Obviously, they have found better uses of taxpayers’ money than spending on such frivolities as patients and treatments.

        I am now desperately trying to recover and catch up with ‘my interests.’

        Appreciated your essay – Setting Stupid Targets for the NHS. As you so rightly say, it just underlines how our decision-makers – politicians and their advisors – either don’t understand how stuff works, i.e. the world, or don’t want to.

        As far as ‘targets’ are concerned, Procrustes springs to mind.

        Of course, ‘targets’ are far easier to understand, manipulate and deploy than ‘patients.’ You remember patients – they are the messy, shouty things that clog up perfectly serviceable systems. Best to continue to downplay their role in the NHS in favour of say, P.R., research and, of course, our perennial favourite statistics that are about as reliable as my crumbling joints.

        I get really bothered by one particular aspect of ‘targets’ or any other mono-solution. To make a useful contribution, we have to reference and respect the whole context.

        Thus I was heartened by your example of the Royal Bolton Hospital which I hadn’t heard about. Isn’t it marvellous when you let those who actually know what they are doing, do what they do best?

        I also can’t help thinking that, whether they are left or right politicians in charge of the NHS, they all have such simplistic attitudes, that it always ends up as a centrally controlled entity. And this entity takes on a life of its own with its own agenda. Unfortunately, patients, being imbued with little power, find themselves increasingly alienated from this ‘caring system,’ rapidly followed by the medical staff who are increasingly dictated to by non-medical personnel.

        And the public is encouraged to deify the institution of the NHS instead of holding those in positions of responsibility to account – praising and criticising when appropriate.

        Thank you so much for contacting me and for sharing your most interesting post. Do hope it stimulates a useful response.

        Kindest regards,


  3. Zara, Thanks for your usual studied response. Hope you are continuing to improve. Sorry about your NHS experience. I had a very positive one when I donated a kidney about 4 years ago, mainly because I encountered the whole system, from the most detailed health check you will ever get, to a “mad” renal consultant who raved about the amazing design and cleansing performance of a kidney, to a psychiatrist who had to check my motives and ended up figuratively sobbing with me over what HMG (Hunt) was doing to the NHS.
    Moral of the story is go back to Deming’s Profound Knowledge which begins with Appreciation for a SYSTEM.
    Perhaps I should write more about him…..?

    Liked by 1 person

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