Is there a Prime Domino for improving public services?

I have a new question. It is one that is is going to be the focus of my investigations for the next while. I’m not even sure that there is an answer.

The question is:

Is there a Prime Domino for improving services to the public across a system in the public sector?

I.e. what is the one thing that a Chief Executive can or should do that will cause all the other dominoes of change to fall?

I got the idea for the Prime Domino from Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Work Week. His focus is on distilling excellence in people’s performance. He talks a lot about the “lead domino” as being the first thing to do to that will create the most effect for the least effort. Another way of putting the Pareto (or 80/20) Principle. One example from Ferriss is that if you want to lose weight you can follow his Slow-Carb Diet, but the lead domino is eating 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking (with no carbohydrates). If you forget the whole of the rest of the diet system and do just one thing, that will, says Ferriss, give you the biggest weight loss benefit from the minimum of effort and change of habit.

Why this question? First let’s step back a little bit. My ethos is that the only way to cut costs is to improve services to the public. That was the whole thrust of my book ‘Beat the Cuts – How to Improve Public Services and Easily Cut Costs‘. But the two questions that I get most commonly are:

  1. Where do I start?
  2. How can I get senior management support?

The first question is a variant on the Prime Domino question and the second hints at the fact that without senior managers, and ultimately the Chief Executive (and board), any change is going to founder.

But let’s pick apart the main weakness of the question first. There is no silver bullet in changing whole systems. W. Edwards Deming used to say, “there is no instant pudding” and the Prime Domino question is asking what’s the one thing to do first. But the only way to properly answer the question is to know what the next thing and the next thing after that will be. And then all the other things that everyone has to do. So I’m not trying to find the magic sauce, or really to find the “One Thing” that everyone should do. It is a way into the problem of sustainable change. Because in any change there is always something you have to do first. There is no way around it.

Interestingly, W. Edwards Deming used to refuse to go and speak to an organisation unless he was talking to the top person. If a senior manager asked Deming to come to see him, Deming would politely decline if the CEO wasn’t interested.

The other prompt for the question is that so many consultants, experts and practitioners do have a One Thing. They say you must start by looking at x, or first act on y and I want to uncover if any of those are true, effective and widely applicable. Also I want to feed in the experience of Chief Executives from around the world who have initiated whole systems change to see what worked and what didn’t. I want to ask what they did first, why that, and if they did it again, would they start with the same thing?

That’s the focus for me for the next while, and I really need readers’ help. Your help.

I’d be grateful if you could comment below and tell me if you think there is a Prime Domino, if so, what it is and is it the same in every situation? Also if you think there is an expert or Chief Executive who I should talk to learn about this, and of course everything I find out will be fed back here on the blog.

So what’s your Prime Domino? It’s to leave a comment below, of course!



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