The Curious Case of John Seddon

Thursday, August 6, 2009 by Tripp Babbitt

In my life, I have had the pleasure of meeting some very famous people.  I went to Hanover College with Woody Harrelson.  I met many Indy 500 race car drivers like A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Sr., Mark Donahue, Swede Savage, and Tom Sneva.  When I went to the ’93 Ryder Cup, I remember during a practice round striking up a conversation with the late Payne Stewart.

But the most memorable people I have had the pleasure of talking to are W. Edwards Deming and John Seddon.  I can safely say there are more differences than similarities between these two.  Dr. Deming had long forgotten probably more than I will ever know and he was not so dynamic in his delivery, but his message was undeniable.  More importantly, he pretty much said during his 4-day seminar that everything I had learned in my MBA program was well . . . wrong.  John Seddon on the other hand very spicy.  Likes to mix it up, calls them as he sees them and very dynamic . . . a stone that gathers no moss.

Long before I first met John Seddon, I read his book Freedom from Command and Control.  An excellent book, but John was not a statistician like Deming.  In a matter of fact, he is an occupational psychologist by education.  I was skeptical as any psychologist I had met in the US was usually associated with organizational development . . . and to quote Jerry Seinfeld "not that there is anything wrong with that."  Just my previous experience was that he probably would be having clients give group hugs and kick balloons to develop teamwork.  The book itself laid to rest quickly those thoughts.  So, like anyone curious enough to learn more, I flew to the UK and met him.

The first thing you learn is that John rarely beats around the bush.  He is hard-hitting and brutally honest.  More importantly, he is in unwavering in his message that to improve service thinking has to change for business improvement to be effective and sustainable.  This was the fourth leg of the System of Profound Knowledge that Deming didn’t have much of a background in.  John Seddon had spent time understanding Deming (and Taiichi Ohno), not from a book, but from practical research on why change management programs failed.  His application of Deming and Ohno had advanced the thinking.  Something that TQM, Six Sigma, Lean or Lean Six Sigma in the US has failed to do.  The problem was tools were preventing learning.  And management thinking has failed to advance as process improvement made things better for a while leading to unsustained business improvement.

The Deming User’s group I had been President of in Indianapolis ultimately shut the doors.  I am afraid that as great a man as Deming was he was never able to get the thinking to "stick."  The thinking was replaced by tools or arguments over what Deming said that really did little for us to advance the thinking.  Let’s give John Seddon of the UK some credit for doing what other great minds have failed to do . . . advance the thinking.

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Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Download free from "Understanding Your Organization as a System" and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at or LinkedIn at


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