Eliminating Preventable Work

The concepts of Failure Demand/Preventable Work are critical opportunities to free up 20 - 80% of your team's capacity. Sadly, things like time-consuming but preventable calls from clients asking about delays or incorrect information often go unnoticed as a place to start.

It is useful to consider two types of demand:

Value Demand:  work that is in our core mandate and which creates value for clients.

Failure Demand: work that is created only because something failed at an earlier step.

Failure Demand is a term coined by John Seddon which is, in our own words, demand on our resources that occurs strictly because something:

  • failed to be done correctly the first time, resulting in a preventable contact to fix an error;
  • failed to be done at all, resulting in a preventable contact to provide missing information
  • failed to be done clearly the first time, resulting in a clarification contact
  • failed to be done quickly enough, resulting in a “where’s my stuff” progress-chasing contact from the client

We think of the first three as types of rework; and the fourth one as preventable work.

  • If we got it right the first time, we would not have had to answer to the client for an incorrect answer, and then had to redo the work.  
  • If we didn’t miss the omission, we would not have had to go back and get the missing information.  
  • If we provided the information clearly enough, then we would have avoided the back-and-forth to clarify things for the client.  
  • Finally, if we had a faster process, we would have prevented the “where’s my stuff” call from clients.  

Often, the Failure Demand/Preventable Work has been around for a long time, and we have come to accept its existence as “part of life” – never going to change – or even be questioned.  We often do not see it as failure demand, we just see it as work!

The sad thing is that we have rarely seen a team that spends less than 20% of its capacity on Failure Demand. In some cases, a team can spend 100% of its time on Failure Demand – such as when the team was actually created to deal exclusively with Failure Demand!

Sadder still, is when we address only the symptoms of Failure Demand, instead of its causes:  instead of speeding up our processes, we create a call centre to deal with “where’s my stuff” complaints. Ken Miller’s video, The Fable of Complexity, from his book “Extreme Government Makeover” does a good job showing what happens when we address only the symptoms of the failure demand instead of the causes.

The best thing about solving Failure Demand/Preventable Work is that it is like hiring more members on your team.  

Let’s say that 40% of your team’s time is spent on failure demand.  If you can eliminate 75% of it, that means that you free up 30% of your team’s capacity.  In other words, in a team of 10 people, that is like getting back 3 extra people on your team.  And those three extra people are already fully-onboarded, fully-trained, fully integrated into your culture and often have years of experience!

The other challenging impact of Failure Demand is that it slows down the work, the clock ticks longer, and it generates even more progress-chasing calls from frustrated clients who desperately need their stuff and cannot wait any longer.

Some examples:

  • Engineers spending 80% of their time clarifying design submissions and administrative forms instead of performing engineering analysis;
  • Analysts spending 50% of their day chasing missing information instead of performing value-added analysis;
  • HR recruiting processes that don’t leave the gate because 100% of the request forms are submitted incorrectly, are unclear or are missing critical information;
  • Financial forecasts that are rushed because 70% of the financial data packages are submitted incomplete or incorrect; and
  • A healthcare system that spent the capacity of 51 front-line healthcare workers on rework related to five administrative forms.

In this content area, we cover:

  • What is Failure Demand (FD) and Preventable Work (PW)
  • How to identify the major types of FD/PW
  • How to collect data/quantify the current cost of each major type of FD/PW
  • How to use our template to analyze, identify root causes, and create experiments to eliminate FD/PW
  • How to conduct these experiments, create prototypes (often FD/PW is created by poorly-designed forms and websites)
  • How to measure the impact of these experiments and fine-tune solutions
  • How to sustain these solutions

Seddon, J. (2019, October 28). Failure Demand: John Seddon Vanguard Consulting. Vanguard. https://vanguard-method.net/failure-demand/

Public Great. (2015, May 13). The Fable of Complexity [Video] YouTube. https://youtu.be/TrhBPn-YZ54


  • One-hour talk
  • Group/team multi-day training workshops
  • Consulting engagements to work side-by-side with you to improve your ability to reduce failure demand/preventable work almost immediately