Is Systems Thinking optional? No. Absolutely not…

I occasionally hear in conversations about the application of systems thinking – like its some kind of option – a set of tools to manage change, like Kanban, Six Sigma or Scrum. Here’s the rub – if we direct a system of improvement at a part of the system taken separately, we can be sure that the performance as a whole won’t improve – and that can be substantially proven. However, most applications of improvement programmes are directed on improvement of the parts taken separately. Not the whole. The performance of the parts depends on the quality of the interactions, not how they perform separately. (Ackoff, 1979) That sounds all pretty nebulous. So where do we start?

Be clear about what you want – Not what you don’t want

Measures of quality (in most improvement programmes) tend to be focused around what you don’t want, rather than what you do want:

“The number of defects is down this month…” “The average time spent on call has gone down from 10s to 7s” “The downtime of the system is better this month, than it was last month…” “Our failed deployments have gone down this month…”

The point here, is that the quality improvement programme in your organisation should be focussed about what you want – not what you don’t want. A programme of work to decrease defects in your product, will (probably) only decrease defects. Not, necessarily improve quality. And by doing so, you introduce waste into the organisation – that is work required because you have failed deliver value to the customer. So what do we do about it? How do we make this transition in thinking? It’s not as hard as you might think.

Its about the customer

Just be clear – absolutely crystal clear – about the goals that you want to achieve from the perspective of your customer. In each case above you might frame your goal differently:

“We want our customers to complete their activity, at a time of their choosing, in a place of their choosing, first time, every time.”

A Customers perspective might be:

“I want to contact Your Organisation and have my request dealt with at a time I want, from where I might be, first time, every time.”

How you might achieve that vision as a service might look very different than if you constrain your thinking – for example, around IT and cost:

“We need to provide an internet based system so our customers can service their own requests, in order to cut costs in the call centre.”

What do you think might happen if we achieved the above? Do you think the call centres would be less busy? Maybe – but not necessarily (we might have to create an Internet Help line for example). Do you think the customer’s expectations will always be met or exceeded by that kind of cost driven improvement? Almost definitely not. And that has been rigourously and publicly demonstrated. Do you think an improvement focussed in this non systemic way is likely to cut costs in the business as a whole? Absolutely not. When introducing an change into your organisations it must be focused around the needs of the customer, so that their expectations are at either met or (ideally) exceeded. Because that’s what improvement programmes should strive for – meeting or exceeding the expectations of the customer. Because, if you think hard about it, its the customer that has sanctioned the change.

So where does that leave us?

In summary, systems thinking is not an option. Its not a choice or a nice to have. Its not a framework or a product you can buy. Its a mindset, and it should be at the heart of every programme of improvement you’re looking to make.

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