Book review: "Freedom from Command and Control" by John Seddon


This book has the subtitle “A better way to make the work work”. It describes an way of improving performance of service-based organisations. Seddon’s approach is based on the work performed by Taiichi Ohno at Toyota in the 1950s.
Seddon proposes that his methodology, or similar, would help improve the performance of some the UK’s poorly-performing public-sector organisations.

Background – Ohno’s Legacy

Ohno studied American ideas of manufacturing (e.g. Henry Ford’s) and applied them in his work at Toyota. He based his production lines on customer demand, rather than supplier push. He was able to reduce inventory held and speed-up production time by reducing the amount of non-value-added (“waste”) work performed. This approach, also labelled “Just in Time”, has recently been re-badged as “Lean”, has re-ignited interest in Ohno’s work. These approaches have yielded good results in manufacturing industries but have proved difficult to apply in service-based industries.

Seddon’s book revisits Ohno’s work and proposes modifications that focus on the solely on the improvement of service organisations.

Conventional Service Organisations

Seddon describes conventional service organisations as having the following characteristics:

  1. “Command-and-control” structures, i.e. having measures and roles are aligned solely with corporate targets (such as revenue) rather than being targeted at customer service.
  2. The setting of targets for the organisation’s staff that are mis-aligned with the customers’ demand. For example, a call-centre target to maximise the number of calls per hour may give management the impression of good service. However, from a customer’s point of view, a better measure would be to maximise the number of occasions where a problem was resolved to the customer’s satisfaction in one call.
  3. A failure to examine the type of customer demand. Seddon gives an example of a call centre that was unaware that of its total calls, 40% were from customers querying their bill. Seddon identifies this as a “failure” demand, i.e. a demand resulting from a failure in the organisation’s processes. When the call centre amended its billing process, the number of these “failure” calls dramatically reduced.

Areas for Improvement

Seddon revisits Ohno’s work and identifies that service-based organisations should be treated differently from manufacturing-based organisations:

  • The idea of “inventory” is different in a service-based organisation.
  • Service is not “made” by physical means.
  • Service occurs at customer transaction points.
  • The service agent (e.g. the call centre operator) and the customer are jointly involved in the service delivery.
  • It is the customer that determines the “value” of the transaction.

Seddon offers the following approach to improve the performance of service-based organisations:

  • To understand:
    • Customer demand, in the customer’s terms.
    • The difference between “failure” demand and “value” demand.
    • The predictability of demand.
    • Once the customer demand is understood in terms above, then the organisation’s services can be re-designed accordingly
    • Change the organisation (mindset, measures and roles) to remove “command-and-control” thinking and replace them with those that allow the organisation to more readily deal with varying customer demand.

Positioning with other Techniques

Seddon has criticisms of other “quality-based” tools such as ISO9000, TQM, and Six Sigma, describing these as supporting the dysfunctional aspects of organisations, rather than supporting a holistic approach to improving customer service.
Seddon’s message is to understand the problem within its context, rather than blindly applying a set of tools.


Seddon’s book, while influenced by “Lean” thinking, draws directly on the ideas from Toyota to offer solid advice on how to improve service-based organisations – from a customers’ perspective. It is an opinionated, thought-provoking read. In addition, it is an entertaining polemic on established ways of thinking.

Additional Thoughts

There are interesting links to agile software development techniques, such as XP and Scrum, which aim to reduce “waste” in the process of software development. A future Agilier article will aim to trace these parallels.

We have extensive experience in investigating and aligning an organisation’s business processes with its strategic objectives. Please get in touch at for a no-obligation meeting to discuss matters further.

Further Reading

Two books from Womack et al – “The Machine That Changed the World” and “Lean Thinking”. These books re-invigorated Ohno’s ideas and re-badged them as “Lean”.

Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit” by Mary and Tom Poppendieck. This a “cross-over” book that builds bridges between engineering disciplines. Here, the Poppendiecks explore the principles developed by Toyota and apply them to modern software development.

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