How to break the first rule of systems thinking

The problem with having to go into a room to speak about systems thinking is The First Rule. You know, the first rule…


3 months ago I had to go into the senior leadership team meeting to say what had been done in Benefits  with systems thinking and ask them, hey, anybody else interested? The idea being, as a council, we are all stuffed due to the budget cuts so we’re actually going to have to do something real about it for once. Not neccessarily a shared idea, but there anyway.

The problem I faced was….

Q: How do you talk about something that is invisible, doesn’t make sense and sounds completely barmy?

A: Talk instead about a concrete object they can hold in their hand. A marble.

The following are slides from a powerpoint with the rough wording I spoke, and some nice drawings that illustrate what I said.


“I did some work with Housing Benefits a few years ago.
They were overwhelmed with work, 1000’s of cases in their backlog. People ringing up all the time.
They had tried all sorts, benchmarking, following Audit Commission advice, even lean, but nothing had changed. They were still overwhelmed with work.
We started with studying demand. Finding out what was coming through the door, it’s the very first step in getting knowledge to get better”

“We went to where customers first contacted us, in the call centre, walking into the customer service centres.

We wrote down exactly what people were saying when they asked us for something, their actual words”


“Imagine this marble is a demand, a person contacting us, asking us about something. We listened to each and every marble.

Here are some examples of the marbles we found”


“These are exact words of people who contacted Housing Benefits”

Capture“We wrote down exactly what they said, this isn’t a survey, we didn’t have any categories to put things into”

“It is called listening to demand because that’s all you are doing at first, listening and writing down, it starts with being humble enough to know that you don’t know”

“You know you are doing it right if you read it out loud afterwards and it sounds like a customer not a management survey”

“After a while you stop being surprised at the demand being presented. You find you are predictably getting the same types of marbles.”


“Before we started studying demand, the Housing Benefits service was like this.

Work was coming in all the time, and was bouncing out because it couldnt fit.

It bounced into case backlogs sent to private companies for them to process at great expense.

Before we started studying demand ALL work was work to be done, and there wasn’t enough time or people to do it.

After we studied demand we found something different…..

[at this point I put a jar onto the table, the EXACT SAME JAR in the video above of the marbles bouncing out of it, with paper around the outside so you can’t see the contents.]

We found that that there are two types of marble.

Blue marbles and white marbles.

[at this point I remove the piece of paper from the jar so you can see it as below. Hey presto.]

Until we studied the marbles, they were just work to be done.

Now we knew that the white marbles are all the demand that comes in that is what we are for. These are

-“Help me claim the benefit I am entitled to”

-“I need to tell you about a change in my life”

Both of these are what Housing Benefits are for, setting up people in benefits and then adjusting their benefit when their working hours change.

We want the white marbles. This is how we help customers, this is our purpose.

These are called Value Demands.”


“The blue marbles are caused when we don’t do something right for the customer.

For example, taking too long to process someone’s claim so they are forced to ring us to find out what is going on.

These are not wanted because they make our service worse for the customer and they consume huge amounts of staff time to deal with.

These are called Failure Demands.”

“The good thing is, all we have to do is deal with the Value Demands properly, and the Failure Demands will go away.

We caused the Failure Demands, we just have to STOP causing them.”


“That is how we got out of being overwhelmed with work and delivering a bad service.

We stopped reacting to every marble. We studied them.

We learnt the only marbles we should be getting are the white marbles, the Value Demand.
We learnt that we were causing the Blue Marbles, creating the demand by not dealing with White Marbles properly.

We learnt to design the Housing Benefits service to deal with the White Marble demand.

The Blue Marble failure demand disappeared.”


“I won’t go into the bit after studying demand, about how they learnt to design a different and better system, as I have noticed people’s eyes glaze over when I do.

Instead I will show you the results, what happened after we did that”


After this presentation, three people round the table put their hand up and said “I’ll have some of that“.

I know this way of communicating it worked as a PA asked last week “are the marbles back on the agenda for this Tuesday?“. I did the marbles meeting back in February and she didn’t even attend the actual meeting, so hasn’t seen it but she still mentioned it and had a name for it, so it must be a communicable idea.

I follow the Made To Stick model of SUCCESs when trying to create a message that will stick.

This is why I think it worked:
SIMPLE: I didn’t talk about systems thinking. That’s about more than one thing, if you say more than one thing you’re saying nothing. I kept to demand.
UNEXPECTED: “look! That’s the ACTUAL JAR that’s on the big projector screen! And.. Oh my god.. He’s taking the paper off! WHAT’S INSIDE! WHAT’S INSIDE!
CONCRETE : demand is invisible, it’s an abstract concept and the word will be interpreted differently by people round the table. Turn it into a real thing and people can see it and are all seeing the same thing.
CREDIBLE: Internal credibility was created by them seeing for themselves that the jar can be full of things that shouldn’t be there. More importantly talking about what had actually happened inside the civil only two floors down is better than what systems thinking COULD DO in theory. You can choose to disbelieve that.
EMOTION: It was quirky and had a surprise ending with a bit of showmanship.
STORY: The actual story with a beginning and an end, no abstract ‘here are the five core principles of the theory behind this”, instead something you can tell someone else.

What happened next will be detailed in the next post, How to do the Vanguard Method all wrong”

This entry was posted in communication, me doing it, systems thinking in housing benefits, vanguard method and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to How to break the first rule of systems thinking

  1. Lucy says:

    Loved this – am going home to steal my son’s marbles right now. Looking forward to the Vanguard post!


  2. Daniel says:

    That’s a fantastic post. i can confirm that coloured marbles are hard to find. I just tried!


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  4. Pontesbury says:

    Great post. Gaining acceptance to even take the first step seems very hard and even when senior colleagues have experienced the approach with real people the old world still drags them back. Maybe marbles are the way!


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Well we’ve got to come up with “a solution” to my councils current dismal approach and I sound like a stuck record repeatedly saying about the senior leaders “get them into the work”. It IS the only thing that challenges thinking and enable normative/double-loop learning about this.
      But if they see themselves as “strategic” then it’s virtually impossible.


  5. James says:

    The marbles may well be your very own “Lean Lego.” There’s probably a niche for you to become a speaker at conferences and seminars with this thing.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      That lego thing is great, I love anything that shows something in concrete terms. Value and failure are normally invisible until you can pick it up and hold it in your hand.


  6. Excellent post and extremely good feedback from comments. I could use this!


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  8. Femi says:

    Great approach, I am interested in how they designed the new process, I know it’s the part that glazes the eyes but it would be interesting to know. I had this problem years back when trying to introduce project owners to systems thinking for understanding gas markets using causal loops etc., not only do eyes glaze over, they start to shut. I fully agree that it has to be presented in an easy to understand way.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Vanguard method for Check, then design around purpose. “Help me claim the benefit im entitled to” was found to best done by having a person sitting opposite the customer helping them claim the benefit they were entitled to. Doing the processing in real time or in an hour or so telling the customer to come back in an hour, which they were happy to do.

      Turns out doing it right is dead easy and simple, nothing complex. But the simplicity on the other side of the complex is hard to get to


  9. Sam W says:

    Thank you – can see so much utility for this. It has already been sent to the office for monday morning!


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  14. Jo says:

    Hello! Just read the WordPress report which prompted me to re-read this article and remind myself how brilliantly simple it all is really. We’ve had a pretty good year in Poole starting to get people to think differently, although there’s still a long way to go..
    That said – I visited Rushmoor Council this year who have been using ST (sshhh..) for the last 10 years or so. They reorganised their Benefits dept. so that their processing time went from an average of 80 days (eek) to 23 days (national average-ish) to an average of… drum-roll please…35 MINUTES. The learning here though is not to copy what someone else did, you still need to go through Check to learn about your own system.
    Awesome stuff, great blog, keep ’em coming. Happy New Year!


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Wow, truly impressive stuff. So fast that it’s IMPOSSIBLE TO MEASURE in the usual ways. Quantum processing!
      Or just doing the normal sane thing instead of something weird with call centres and workflow databases.
      Have you had vanguard in? Did Rushmoor?
      Had pretty appalling year in Anonymous Council, the same thinking is even more embedded with people trying to do the same thing harder and faster ie managing demand (bleurgh!)


  15. Aurora Geis says:

    Great post! Thanks for keeping ST real simple. After all, if people don’t understand it how can we expect to have buy-in and results!


  16. Frank Wood says:

    It’s so simple that it’s obvious then most simple things are obvious in hindsight. Don’t forget the SUCCES formula can be used in a variety of situations and not just ST.

    One of the reasons that ST is largely unheard and not very successful is because there is a reluctance amongst Systems Thinkers to make things simple. They want to keep their caste position of High Priests for a variety of reasons.


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  20. Hilary Simpson says:

    Great looking forward to future blogs


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  22. ross says:


    I really like the way you conveyed the message in a simple exercise. My particular set of circumstances is unique and would like to get your insights on how to navigate/if i am navigating in the correct fashion.

    I work in the systems team within faults (assurance) for a telecommunications company. We are where failure demand comes to be polished. Is there a way that through reverse engineering i can identify and show the value the demand that ultimately led to the failure? i.e data that shows where the failure demand stemmed from?


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      if you can track back from the failure demand to the actual VERY first time the customer contacts you, which will be at the outside boundary of your system. If you can do that, then thats the beginning of their value demand. But its not REALLY “where the failure demand stemmed from”. I think i know what youre asking, “what was the actual customer problem before we mucked it up with our response and turned it into failure demand”.
      Just to confirm, failure demand is demand caused by a failure to do something, or do something right for the customer. If it’s predictable, it’s systemic, ie baked into the system not caused by random sporadic individuals. If its systemic, then it is caused by the design and management of the work. Failure demand is caused by the way we design and manage the activity of handling value demand once we get our mucky hands on it.


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