Book Review: Freedom from Command and Control

Freedom from Command and Control by John Seddon is a book about a better way to make work work. The focus of the book is on the translation of the principles behind the Toyota Production System for service organizations.1

The better way has a completely different logic to command-and-control, and that, perhaps, is the reason it is difficult to understand. People interpret what they hear from their current frame of reference, so what they hear is not necessarily what is meant.2

The cornerstone of command-and-control is the separation of decision-making from work. Command-and-control is based on top-down hierarchies where managers manage people and money. Managers make decisions on budgets, targets, and so on.3

The command-and-control management pioneers were Frederick Taylor (scientific management), Henry Ford (mass production), and Alfred Sloan (management by numbers). The issue is not that command-and-control was without value, but that we have not continued to learn. The problem is a problem of thinking.4

Taiichi Ohno at Toyota developed a radically different approach the management of work.5 Instead of top-down command-and-control management, Toyota uses local control at the point where the work is done.6 This philosophy is fundamentally different. The attitude is no longer to make the numbers, but to learn and improve.7 It requires power-with, rather than power-over, and runs counter to the underlying hierarchical command-and-control philosophy.

People who work in a command-and-control environment become cogs in the machine. Management makes the decisions and manages the scheduling, planning, reporting and so on. It’s an environment that works with information abstracted from work.8 Integrating decision-making with the work produces a totally different management infrastructure.9

Measures are usually derived from the budget in command-and-control organizations. Moreover, connecting work to arbitrary measures creates the need to have additional people scheduling work, reporting on work, and making demands on those who do the work. Separation of decision-making from the work is the defining logic for command-and-control-management.10

Integrating the information needed with the work itself changes the point of control, from external to internal, and, consequently has a positive impact on motivation. Optimizing the flow leads to lower costs because you only do what you need. Moving the locus of control to the worker makes it possible for him or her to perform different work depending on what is needed.11 Moreover, if something goes wrong it can be seen and corrected at once.12

In manufacturing you ‘get away with’ command-and-control because the products you make are standard. Traditional command-and-control responds to variety by establishing procedures, standards, and the like. The consequence is enourmous amounts of waste when applied to service organizations.13 Maximizing the ability to handle variety is central to improving service and reducing costs. This can only be done by intelligent use of intelligent people, where workers are connected with customers in self-organizing relationships.14

Diversity of flow is the hallmark of good service. In managing flow the work itself is the information, and this in turn comprises the information required to direct operations in the work. It is an unquestioned assumption in command-and-control that managers should have and set targets and then create control systems to ensure the targets are met. In Toyota these practices simply do not exist. To make service organizations work better, they need to be taken out.15

The Toyota system exemplifies economies of flow, which is a step beyond economies of scale. The concepts associated with the economies of scale have governed management thinking for the last century and more.16 Economies of flow represent a challenge to current beliefs. It is a challenge of of such a scale that this becomes the most important hurdle for managers to get over. The ideas themselves are simple, logical, and practical. However, they are different, unfamiliar, and, as a consequence, often perceived as a threat. They are certainly counterintuitive to the command-and-control mindset.17

The management principles that have guided command-and-control are logical – but it’s the wrong logic. The better way has a different logic. John Seddon uses the entire book to eloquently explain this better logic.

1 John Seddon, Freedom from Command and Control: A Better Way to Make the Work Work (Vanguard Consulting Ltd, 2005, 2nd edition), p.23.
2 Ibid., p.8.
3 Ibid., p.8.
4 Ibid., p.9.
5 Ibid., p.15.
6 Ibid., pp.15–16.
7 Ibid., p.16.
8 Ibid., p.17.
9 Ibid., p.19.
10 Ibid., p.19.
11 Ibid., p.20.
12 Ibid., p.21.
13 Ibid., p.21.
14 Ibid., p.22.
15 Ibid., p.22.
16 Ibid., p.22.
17 Ibid., p.23.


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