How many workmen does it take to repair a leak? Public sector and systems thinking

This remarkable example of innovation concerns Portsmouth City Council’s housing management service and the organisation of repairs on its housing stock. The council provides social housing to over 17,000 tenants and as you can imagine that also involves responsibility for an awful lot of repair work and repair workers.

Repair worker

From a tenant’s point of view if a repair needs doing on your council house such as a leaking roof or a faulty heating system, you want the repair to be carried out in one visit , at a convenient time, and you want it fixed properly i.e. for repair workers: “ to do the right repair at the right time”. Not unreasonable!

Alarmingly, the start to finish time for a repair was a lengthy 24 days, and some repairs required 4 or more visits before the job was complete. Despite tenants complaining bitterly about the service, “the service was praised by inspectors” and was meeting government targets and budget constraints.  This was achieved by:

  • fragmenting a single job into many smaller jobs and setting targets at this level
  • patching up problems rather than allowing tradesmen to fix the root cause.

This emphasis on short term targets contributed to a loss of focus on the fundamental purpose of the repair system and a major re-think was needed.

Systems Thinker John Seddon and his colleagues worked with the council staff and their contractors to enable them to think about the repair management service as a whole:

  • What is its purpose?
  • Who are the people involved?
  • What are the processes?
  • How should the service be measured?

. . . and most importantly how do the people, processes and structures relate to each other?

. . . and how should they work together to achieve the purpose of the system?

general concept of “system” underpinning systems thinking (Schoderbek et al., 1990)

Using the knowledge gained the council set about a major re-design of the service placing the tenant at the centre within an idealised three step process:

  1. Ensure access to property
  2. Diagnose the problem
  3. Complete all necessary repairs

Tradesmen diagnose the problem and decide on the best way to solve it, and all necessary materials are brought to the property to complete the repairs i.e. “to do the right repair at the right time”.

As a result the start to finish time for repairs has been reduced from 24 days to 7 days, over 90% of jobs are completed right first time and a customer satisfaction rating of 99% achieved.

The innovation illustrated by this case is one of a public sector organisation adopting a new way of thinking that fundamentally affects how they operate. The Council’s housing management service took the bold step of examining the way they work at present, seeing the shortcomings and being ready to adopt a totally new holistic and systems way of thinking.

For further information about the Portsmouth City Council Case see below, all quotations are taken from this article:

A Systems Approach to Housing Repairs, by John Seddon and Brendan O’Donovan

Service Science: Research and Innovations in the Service Economy, 2012, Case Studies in Service Innovation, Part 4, Pages 91-94

Also see the video at the end of this interesting article, it illustrates the problem faced by the repair service using a different case i.e. repairing holes in roads:

 “We were so busy, we just didn’t know” Seeing the whole system always comes as a surprise”

Reference for  General Concept of “System” (Schoderbek et al., 1990)

Schoderbek, P. P., Schoderbek, C. G. and Kefalas, A, G. (1990). Management Systems: Conceptual Considerations, (4th ed), Irwin, Boston.

Comments or observations are most welcome. I would love to hear of similar cases.

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Involving Customers in Service Innovation

In this case study a medium-sized Finnish insurance company recognised that customers can be more than just recipients of innovation delivered by the provider; they can also be sources of innovation. Decisions about new services previously based on systematically gathered information were felt to be too product oriented so working with a team of researchers (details below) the company sought to develop a new approach that would involve customers in the innovation process. Several insurance services were  used to test the new process model.

customers not so happy! but can they innovate?

One of the test cases chosen was to develop next generation health insurance that would better correspond to the changing needs of healthcare. A series of workshops and a range of techniques were employed including:

  • Building a future-oriented concept of health insurance: two separate workshops were held; one for a group of customers, one for a group of company representatives and the differences in outcome compared.
  • Using readymade cards that illustrate twelve trends related to healthcare and asking customers to select three trends that they thought most important for health future insurance.
  • Concept formulation using physical materials (modelling pastes, sticks etc) to create a 3D model of the next generation health insurance for the year 2025.

The researchers noted that; “Interestingly, there was a clear difference in the ways in which the customers and the company built their concepts. The former concentrated on modelling their health related social network, whereas the latter built a network including customers as ‘members’ but controlled by the company”

One outcome from this process of ideation was that the workshops provided ‘completely new information’ for the company bringing forward issues that cannot be reached through more traditional methods.  Issues included:

  • “The versatility of customer situations in relation to the service
  • The ignorance of customers about the content of available services
  • The importance of solutions instead of detailed pieces of information
  • The significance of customer care throughout the lifespan of customership
  • The decisive role of service encounters when customers evaluate the success of the service”

So can customers help innovate or be part of the innovation process?

In this case customer involvement enabled the insurance company to gain valuable insights into customer issues which may influence the design of future insurance services.

Further information about the case and the resulting service innovation process model can be found in Involving Customers in the Service Innovation Process.

The researchers involved in this Case were:

Marja Toivonen, Director, VVT Technical Research Centre, Finland

Mari Holopainen and TiinaTuominen , BIT Research Centre, Aalto University, Finland