The Wrong Way To Manage A Service Business


It is easier for a tutor to command than to teach. – John Locke

I was recently given Professor John Seddon‘s book Beyond Command And Control.

The concepts articulated by Seddon make a lot of sense but are still very far from being mainstream.

I suppose that is the problem with much of what we take for granted as true.

If you think something is true that’s probably because it’s been around for a long time – so long that we’ve forgotten that it was once a theory that was put forward by someone as a new way to look at something.

Take modern management, for example.

It should more properly be called ancient management.

If you talk about time management and keeping time sheets you’re echoing the thoughts of Frederick Taylor – born in 1856 – who would time workers how long it took them to do different jobs.

If you talk about the processes involved in management as involving tasks like planning, organising and coordinating – you are echoing words uttered by Henri Fayol – born in 1841.

There was a time, we must remember, when management did not exist.

People had trades, professions – they did their thing by themselves and had an apprentice.

The start of modern management came with the growth of industrial economies and the need to organise large groups of people to do manual work – their brains were not required.

Two components of Fayol’s work made this possible – command and control.

The concept of command has to do with hierarchy, authority, responsibility and the ability to make decisions.

Managers issue commands and their subordinates carry them out.

Control has to do with checking that what has been commanded has actually happened.

That involves inspections, checks and audits.

All very sensible, you might think.

Perhaps even obvious.

But it isn’t – it’s just a theory that someone came up with two hundred years ago so that a group of people would push and pull big heavy things into the right place.

It’s a mentality that was created for a world of strong systems – big and heavy machines.

We don’t do that kind of work these days – most of us don’t anyway.

But we’re trapped with a nineteenth century mindset that we default to even as we start making a dent in the twenty-first.

The fact is that this approach is outmoded and ancient and wrong – for today anyway.

Mainly because what we do now is increasingly service work – which involves meeting customer needs rather than building things because you can.

The cornerstone of the command and control process is the practice of budgeting – something created by James McKinsey – founder of the global management consulting firm that bears his name.

But command and control has been out of favour even at McKinsey for some time now.

But it’s still very much alive everywhere else.

Which gives you only a few options.

Change your mind – and live like it’s 200 years ago.

Change the minds of those around you and bring them into the present.

And if all else fails, change where you work.


Karthik Suresh

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