SYSTEM PRACTITIONERS have access to many different tools to help understand, design, and correct the performance of systems (organisations).

Systems studies are fundamentally different to other methods of understanding in that they include consideration of anything that might be relevant (but not necessarily everything). In other words, systems methods are unbounded.

Much of the work relies on heuristics, that is the application of simple rules to understanding/designing a system, plus the application of useful criteria to help guide our efforts.

A useful systems criterion is:
The architecture, especially interfaces, inputs & outputs, of support elements must fit that of the system that they support.

One system’s design and diagnostic heuristic is:
Design the elements of a system to make their performance as insensitive to unknown or uncontrollable external influences as possible (1).

We can use such criteria and heuristics as diagnostics to identify improvement prospects.

EXAMPLE: A glance at the DHHS portfolio suggests that the DHHS architecture is entirely different to the architecture of the systems that they are ‘supporting’, which will create interface, cost, time, error and communication problems. In addition, DHHS goal of paring back services to a minimum, makes the entire system more sensitive to external influences (e.g. major disasters, epidemics, skilled staff shortages), which is the reverse of what is required from an emergency service.

We could establish how many of the likely symptoms were actually present, particularly talking to staff and patients. If the symptoms were serious, then we would explore their root causes to identify targets for change. Remove the causes and the problems usually disappear.

Another test is to apply the heuristics to design a conceptual schema that avoids the negative symptoms. In this example, we could imagine all front line medical staff with an encrypted wireless Blackberry device that helped them to; diagnose, call up/record latest patient records, and save their notes and proposed patient treatments. Such an integrated tool could simultaneously give help to health professionals, provide comprehensive records for administration, and free up to 20% of doctors’ time currently given over to reporting their activities to administration. Similar systems already exist in military applications and could be used constructively for these purposes.

The savings could be enormous. Patient records would be available ‘live’, so the doctor has up to the minute information. Doctors could communicate with specialists about their cases and share notes in real time, nurses could have a special sub system that provided and collected similar information relevant to patient care. The whole medical facility would be operating on simultaneous and up-to-date information and have the world’s data bases available to provide the best information possible to front-line health professionals.

In reality, the government’s choice of having bureaucrats control all consultancies would probably prevent any idea that obviated the need for the bureaucracy itself from ever seeing the light of day. Thus we find ourselves trapped in pointless limitations of our own making. This is a common pattern of failure and pain.

In systems work, we soon learn that most of our problems and woes are created by the choices that we make ourselves. From our failures to communicate, relate, exercise or pay attention to our environment through to our willingness to elect incompetents, crooks and clowns to high office, usually we only have ourselves to blame.

Patterns of success and failure
There is now a considerable library of useful and proven heuristics, tables, models and criteria for studying and improving systems, and by applying them we can very quickly focus on likely areas for improvement - analogous to the way an osteopath can observe someone’s posture and reach conclusions about gait and muscle tone.

Some researchers have documented patterns of failure (2), which are useful studies against which to further test the positive heuristics, and valuable to show how we are led into failure by our own preferences and weaknesses.

In all, these approaches deliver a kind of systems ‘triage’, to help us focus our efforts to maximum effect (we hope). After all, there’s little point conducting a deep analysis of a system (organisation) if the fundamentals are seriously flawed because they will probably be the root causes of multiple systems dysfunction at other levels – i.e. we fix the collapsing foundations before we worry about the cracked windows.

Are we like machines?
Fundamental failures or weaknesses usually play out in dynamic systems as dysfunctions that produce high costs; high error rates; quality problems and so on. In the particular case of viable systems, failures create ‘pathologies’ that are as detectable as pathologies in the human body, which is one example of a viable system.

In much of the West, the so-called ‘Scientific Management’ ideas of Frederick Taylor (3) are still used to organise. Basically, Taylor maintained that organisations were like machines and the people replaceable parts that just needed to be trained in detail and rewarded accordingly, thus outputs would become predictable. Work study and job descriptions became the organisational lingua franca for these ideas. 

Of course, human organisations are not really like machines at all, they are more like organic entities that have minds of their own, just as the staff do. They are filled with variety and people with all kinds of different ideas. Taylor’s approach is too limiting for organisations and leaders who want greater quality and innovation than Taylorist approaches could offer. Any organisation that values creativity (information technology, problem solving, customer service, printing) is likely to find that job descriptions cannot be written to capture those characteristics.

Systems researchers have explored many organisational forms, perhaps the most significant of which is the viable system, which can maintain its identity and outputs in the face of a changing environment. As it turns out, all viable systems exhibit the same patterns of internal communication and control (viz. cybernetics) while violations of this viable ‘pattern’ lead inexorably to system failure.

Taylor’s ideas were persuasive for their time and many people still want to believe that total control of an organisation is possible in order to optimise ‘efficiency’, whatever that is. However organisations like Intel and Motorola, who have repeatedly innovated and redesigned to produce computer chips of unparalleled accuracy, have shown that human operatives are best deployed to use their creativity and ingenuity to solve organisational and customer problems.

If computer chips worked to the same error levels as our governments (for example) then computers wouldn’t work at all because of the hundreds of chips on a circuit board, at least one of them would always be in an error state!

We know how to deal effectively with most organisational problems but decades of flawed training, and cumbersome and unworkable structures, appear to have defeated much of our natural creativity and common sense to replace it with ideas that are seriously flawed. Once bad ideas become acculturated it becomes more difficult for people to consider alternatives.

Jailing offenders is a universal response to crime despite the evidence that our jails have become violent universities for criminals; exactly the opposite of what is required for effective rehabilitation – a supposed goal of the system. Then, by making it harder for known criminals to obtain jobs we create the conditions for re-offending - and round we go again, more costs, more waste.

As indicated in the health example above, a serious impediment to getting useful ideas fully considered and implemented, is internal resistance from the members of the organisation itself. Today, this defensiveness is a real problem.

Dr. Chris Argyris and others, have studied the phenomenon of personal and organisational defensive routines (4), and have developed useful tools to identify hidden agendas and help deal with them.
So take heart, there are tools, techniques, diagrams, models and other elements to help us to deal effectively with just about any organisational problem and dilemma, but we must somehow get past those who ‘know’ better and that wish to stay in power regardless of the consequences to the rest of us.

Watch this space.

Mike Bolan
Mike is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive and management coach.

1) Rechtin – Systems Architecting, Prentice Hall, 1991
2) Dorner – The logic of failure, (ISBN 0201479486, 1996)

Mike Bolan

  As indicated in the health example above, a serious impediment to getting useful ideas fully considered and implemented, is internal resistance from the members of the organisation itself. Today, this defensiveness is a real problem.