How Portsmouth council used systems thinking to deliver a better service and reduce costs

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Welcome to the latest in a series of blog posts that aim to make the case for applying systems thinking to project management. The intention is to start a discussion with the broader APM community to share examples of where systems thinking has made a real difference to their projects and use this in turn to raise awareness of the main benefits and potential cost savings that a systems thinking based approach can bring.

This post describes how Portsmouth council used systems thinking to reduce average housing maintenance service delivery times by more than half while also reducing costs by at least ten per cent and delivering a better service according to a Wales Audit Office report.

In 2010, Portsmouth Council Housing Management Service maintained about 17,000 council houses. The service was assessed as three out of four, council key performance indicators (KPIs) showed repairs being done to budget and on time, and satisfaction surveys showed 98 per cent of tenants were happy with the service. However, local councillors' surgeries were full of tenants complaining about waiting for repairs.

The Head of Housing Management decided to investigate; everything suggested the service was good, except the recipients (tenants). He discovered systems thinking, attended a course and decided to apply it to the housing maintenance ‘problem’.

Project approach

A small team of council operational staff supported by a consultant was established. They considered the problem from the tenants’ perspective. 

A systems thinking iceberg summary of their approach is given in the diagram and described in the text.

Approach as systems thinking iceberg

Identify the problem and its causes

  • Events
    • Repair demands were categorised as ‘value’ (I need something fixed) or ‘failure’ (you’ve visited, but it’s not finished). Failure demand was about 60 per cent. Half the call centre capacity was answering calls about when repairs would be completed or that the council hadn’t done a good job.
    • The team looked at the satisfaction survey and found it didn’t measure repair effectiveness, only whether tradespeople were friendly and cleaned up after repairs.
  • Patterns of behaviour
    • No diagnosis by skilled staff was done prior to sending tradespeople to do repairs because they were held in reserve for ‘difficult’ problems.
    • Tradespeople's vans didn’t carry a full range of parts, resulting in frequent delays to get parts.
    • Process diagrams were developed for the various repair types, with their maximum and mean repair times calculated using statistical analysis.
  • System structure
    • Each neighbourhood had a set monthly spend, which resulted in only the repair demanded being done.
    • The KPIs didn't measure performance or support its management.
    • Policies and processes focused on minimising short term spend.
  • Mindset
    • The stated purpose of the service was to ‘manage all activity in order to meet the targets and keep down costs’.
    • Demand was assumed as unpredictable, but analysis showed it was very predictable by time of year, month and day.
    • Tradespeople were assumed untrustworthy, which is why vans did not carry many spares.

Define the basis for the solution

The main changes were to the mindset underpinning the service:

  • Analysis showed that doing only the repair demanded was a false economy, with repairs repeated where it would be cheaper to replace the whole item. In other cases, the demand was a symptom of another problem, with these reoccurring. The team concluded that fixing all problems in a property would satisfy tenants, proactively look after the housing stock and reduce costs.
  • Rather than guarding skilled staff, their early intervention would reduce demands by diagnosing problems and doing the right repairs.
  • If all problems were to be fixed proactively, tradespeople must be trusted. Other mechanisms should be used if they don't operate honestly.
  • The solution should make an assumption about demand predictability, but opposite to the original.
  • The service purpose was recast to 'do the right repair at the right time', aligning tenant and council needs.

 Benefits Realised

  • Repair times: average repair times reduced from 24 to seven days for originally reported repairs, with an average of 11 days to do all repairs. The council now did more in less time.
  • Customer satisfaction: the original satisfaction survey didn’t measure satisfaction with the work. The true satisfaction level was 60 per cent. This increased to 99 per cent for the redesigned service.
  • Costs: reactive repair costs initially increased from latent demand. By merging planned and reactive repairs, planned maintenance cost reductions more than funded the increase. Costs then fell year‐by‐year.
  • Organisational capacity: with the same staff, mean capacity increased from 85 to 225 jobs per day. Failure demand reduced to free up almost half call centre capacity.

Conclusion

This case study shows three major benefits from using systems thinking:

  • The systems thinking iceberg, principles and process are practical tools for defining, analysing and communicating complex problems and their solutions.
  • Other business improvement approaches could have been used but wouldn’t have given the insight that the issue with the service was its mindset. In this case, the more holistic approach to housing maintenance not only gave a better service, but also reduced costs.
  • While there were costs to undertake the systems thinking analysis, these were small in relation to overall project cost and the benefits realised from project outputs.

 Share your thoughts

Please share your thoughts and examples of where systems thinking has made a real difference to your projects by joining the discussion using the comments section below, joining the APM Systems Thinking SIG community or via the contact section on the APM SIG website.

Read other blogs in this series:

Applying systems thinking to project management

Using systems thinking to identify the right problem

Using systems thinking to define the right solution

Using systems thinking to establish the right project

Using systems thinking to execute the project right

Applying systems thinking to project management: summary and last thoughts

Image: kurhan/Shutterstock.com

David Cole

Posted by David Cole on 16th Aug 2019

About the Author

David Cole has 30 years experience of managing projects, programmes and portfolios to deliver products, services and business change in private and public sector organisations. As a management consultant he also advised these organisations on the management of their programmes and portfolios. He is a Chartered Engineer, a PRINCE2 Practitioner and a founder member of the APM Systems Thinking SIG.

He currently serves as the APM co-chair of the Systems Thinking SIG.

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