Myths about Systems Thinking

toolbox not thinking

Myth: Systems Thinking is only applicable in areas where a spot of process improvement would be just the ticket.

You see, it’s all well and good when you have a process like Housing Benefits or Planning, which is transactional and you are delivering a service to a customer asking for it, you can simplify the processes, but in more complex work clearly it’s not appropriate”

Bollocks is it.

I came across this in two forms this week. Firstly someone saying that it was applicable in services that allowed for “a shortening of the process”, whatever that means. Secondly, more worryingly, in an official document reviewing the applicability of systems thinking for the Northern Ireland Assembly.  After an honest stab at explaining what it means by systems thinking, it goes on to muddle lean and Vanguard Method.  These are different things!  One is a method for changing the thinking that is the ultimate root cause behind all management problems: command and control thinking.

The other one isn’t.

Change the thinking, it changes the system and performance changes, permanently and sustainably.

Just change the system, leave the thinking AS-IS and you’ve got a band-aid over a cancer.

Back to the myth, and the report. (p.22)

“systems thinking will not work with highly complex programmes such as health promotion, for example, because of the range of influences that can come into play and because of the wide range of ‘customers’ – many of whom may not actually know they are customers. They would not, it follows, be able to clearly articulate their demands of the organisations involved”

What’s the alternative, command and control thinking? Use of targets, unit costs, external motivation and The Big Plan to be slavishly followed? If systems thinking will not work with highly complex programmes, then what will? A more simplistic approach that doesn’t address how humans, both customers/clients/whoever and staff, actually act?

Systems thinking is about the thinking. It isn’t about the design of a simple service model that effectively delivers value to the customer with minimal waste. It is the thinking that RESULTS in that. Systems thinking is being used in policing, in healthcare, areas that don’t have a single “customer” sometimes.

But to the outsider viewing a systems thinking intervention, what can they see? A bunch of things, including eliminating a front and back office split. It’s the salient features that will be seen, as what is the only thing you cannot see? The one thing that matters.


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