John Seddon, an iconoclastic management thinker, offers his insight into policing methods and how the system should be changed to reduce failure demand.

Failure demand is demand caused by a failure to do something or to do something right for the customer* – or in the case of policing, for the citizen. It is not uncommon to find that over 75% of demand into police forces is failure demand. Currently a few forces have clubbed together to fund an academic study into the volumes of failure demand into policing. I’d advise them not to bother. They won’t learn anything useful.

Failure demand is a signal, a signal of ineffectiveness. To remove it – as many large organisations have done – requires understanding the causes of ineffectiveness and, from there, designing a service that works for citizens. To put it another way, failure demand is systemic, you won’t get rid of it until you change the system.

So what causes failure demand? One major cause has been the move to centralise call-handling. The rationale for centralising call-handling is to improve the ability to pick up the phone (‘meet service levels’) and lower transaction costs. But what happened was the volume of calls went up (failure demand) so the savings promised in the plans didn’t materialise. Costs went up. John Seddon - failure demand

Many of these call-handling centres operate on a ‘take-one and ship-one’ basis. The job of the call handler is to determine what kind of demand it is and where it needs to be sent. Behind the call-handling centre exists a vast array of specialised functions; inevitably things get shipped to the wrong place. People working in the array of specialised functions decide if this is for them. If it is, the next decision is: does any action need to be taken?

Some jobs are ‘screened out’ so no investigation will occur. This is thought of as a way of reducing work (‘managing demand’). Some jobs are graded as what is colloquially called ‘slow-time work’, an idea promoted by ‘lean’ implementations as a means to ‘level demand’. All jobs are recorded, as counting crime is regarded as essential work and, should there be any query (failure demand), a record exists.

When investigation is required ‘tasks’ are sent out to officers. The officer has no context, is not being asked to investigate, use judgement and determine what should be done. The officer is merely expected to complete the task as given.

When all of the above – which, by the way, has been driven by the Home Office and a big consultancy – is studied, police officers get a shock. Being, as they are, ardent fans of catching the baddies, they see that this fragmentation and specialisation of work and the means being employed to ‘manage demand’ let baddies off the hook.

Demands can’t be ‘managed’, an absurd idea; demand needs to be understood. And the demands that need to be understood are those I call ‘value demands’ – the things the service exists to serve. When police officers study value demand they learn that it is a small proportion of the demand coming in and much of it is predictable. One thing they always learn is that they are dealing with high levels of demand from the same people, for example, people whose lives are falling off the rails or criminal gangs. The fact of repeated demands teaches us that whatever is being done with or to these people isn’t working – an important focus for leaders.

Studying also reveals the weakness of specialising jobs. The idea is to respond to types of crimes with specialised officers but they see that these officers are swamped with anything that sounds like it ought to be for them. They learn how context and judgement have been removed from police work; they see how resources have been moved away from the community resulting in weaker knowledge of criminals. They see how an arresting officer will choose to give an offender a ‘voluntary attendance’ notice rather than drive many miles to a centralised custody suite; and they see how frequently offenders don’t present. They see how investigations drag out and fade away; they see that forensic officers no longer work in a single geography hence miss obvious patterns in criminal behaviour.

Seeing all of these things motivates police officers to do something about it; it motivates them to design a more effective system. Knowledge of demand, its type, frequency and predictability, is the key to effective design. It enables leaders to move the right expertise to the front of the system with the consequence that more citizens get speedy satisfaction, more knowledge is gained on the nature of crime and the perpetrators, more criminals are caught and, as a consequence, demand falls dramatically. Shouldn’t that be the purpose of policing


For more on the causes of failure demand and how to eradicate it see: The Vanguard Method

• John Seddon has numerous academic awards for his contribution to management science and won the first Harvard Business Review/ McKinsey Management Innovation Prize for ‘Reinventing Leadership’ in 2010. He is the author of numerous books; his latest is The Whitehall Effect.
* Seddon 2003: Freedom from Command and Control: