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Systems thinking for process professionals

Blog: Process transformation - interventions for meaningful change

Systems thinking 
The last months I have been in the luxurious position that I had time to study and learn. One of the subjects that I have taken up is systems thinking. I followed a number of engaging MOOC’s, read some great books and read many internet articles (more on this below).

The reason for this choice was that I realized that I recently encountered certain organizational issues and I with my toolbox was not able to really understand, less solve these issues. By accident I followed one MOOC and it felt as if previous notions and new knowledge suddenly fell in place, giving me a better overview of, well, reality and the things I can, and can not do in it.

As a process consultant, of course, I wondered that this systems thinking could bring to process analysis and improvement. I want to share some of my findings in this article.

My struggle with the current definition and views on the concept ‘process’
To start – a confession: I have always struggled with the definition of process. It’s usually something like “a series of activities, executed by people and machines that convert certain inputs to outputs and produce value”. 
When i tried to make phenomenological sense of this, based on what I could observe, I was never able to see the direct truth and value of this view on reality.
The first thing is: activities in the context of a process are primarily a logical concept. Sure, you can observe people and machines doing things, but that’s not necessarily an activity in a process. We only start calling people and machines doing things a process, when these activities can be seen repeatable: when there is a pattern.
In addition we only call this a process, if there are patterns that show that there are relations between these people/machines when doing work, in terms of some causal link that causes that when a certain event occurs (input arrives or a person/machine has finished an activity), there is some trigger that causes that the same or another/person or machine to start doing other things.

Towards a new notion of the concept ‘Process’
From that previous observations I define a process as “the behavior of people and machines, in which clear patterns exist in the execution of activities and the relation between these executions and that converts certain inputs to certain outputs and produces value
This definition directly leads to a number of better perspectives on process analysis, process change and process management/ownership.
1. If you want to understand a process, you need to  first find the patterns of behavior of people and machines – what do they do, and how are these patterns related, to understand how input is converted to output and how this produces value for whom
2. If you want to change a process, it means that you have to find a way to influence the behavior of people and machines. It means that change management is an essential skill set
3. We often talk about process as ‘things’. ‘This organization consists of the following processes’. ‘I am the manager of the following processes, …..’ I am the process owner’. But…Is an organization a set of behavior-patterns? Can you own patterns of behavior of people/machines? What do you own in that case? The people/machines themselves? The capability? The process descriptions (e.g. the descriptions of the patterns of behavior as is or as wanted)? The power (or illusion) that you can influence or even dictate the required behavior?
You see, when you use my proposed definition of process, things became tricky. You will suddenly realize that process as a concept in the classical sense is an abstraction of a fairly unclear aspect of a much more complex system of people, machines and interrelations. And that a new, system-view based definition of process can help people to deeper understand what processes really are, how they can be analysed and what it takes to improve the socio-technical systems that perform the behavior.

A very short introduction to systems thinking
A system is defined as: A set of elements or parts that is coherently organized and interconnected in a pattern or structure that produces a characteristic set of behaviors, often classified as its “function” or “purpose” (Donnela Meadows, page 188)

Some aspects:
– Components can be things, people, machines, ideas, policies/laws, etc)
– Interrelations are ways that parts influence each other – through certain flows, such as chemical, electricity, material, money, information, power-influence
– The behavior of each part has an effect on the behavior of the whole. The system has properties that are created by the parts and their interrelations. Properties of the whole system can often not be linked to properties of parts.
– Systems often behave in dynamic and non-linear ways, due to feedback loops. Systems as a whole can even develop unexpected behaviors (processes of emergence)

Systems thinking in essence is:
Learning to zoom out and see the greater whole (holistic/synthesis and abstraction)
– Identifying useful boundaries (what is the system, what is outside the system)
– Understanding the function and relations that the system has with it’s environment (what are inputs/outputs in terms of energy, money, material, power-influence, information)
– See the parts and interrelations of the system itself (what is there and how do these things influence each other) (analysis)

Some great insights I found:
– Every system as a deeper purpose that drives the behavior of the system. But this is not the same as the stated mission/vision/strategy by management. It can only be deducted out of the behavior of the system as a whole. Practical example: nobody wants people to be homeless, yet our society produces these outcomes…
– Every system simply works towards its purpose and produces certain outcomes. There is no right or wrong, there is nothing broken. Whether we like these outcomes, want them, is another question. If not, we will need to understand and intervene in the system.
– The reason that certain (unwanted) outcomes are produced is often not a linear chain of causal effects (e.g. a why-why tree) but a more complex interrelated set of causes that have loops in them. Most issues in our world are caused by deeper issues – wicked problems. Practical example: we build roads to reduce traffic congestion, but this leads to more congestion, and other ‘side effects’, such as polution.
– Our ability to create the perfect system is very limited. In many cases, due to unforeseen dynamics and our limited understanding of the system’s inner working, our interventions may not lead to a system that produces the required outcomes, or might even make things worse! If we intervene and get unwanted side-effects, it’s basically a sign that we didn’t understand the system and perhaps even more, the limits of our mental model.
– Systems are always in flux, so our views on “as is situation” and “to be situation” is an illusion. Our “as is” are essentially vague moving pictures. And our “to be” is never really done – we are never done helping systems to keep producing the right outcomes and the intervention that worked yesterday might not work today. The lesson: unlock change, instead of imposing it, and learn & stay flexible.
– Systems don’t exist. What we define as a certain system (e.g. what is in and out of the scope, what aspects/parts do we identify) is purely in the eye of the beholder/purpose of our research. In essence there is no system in the universe – all is connected and we are the ones that draw borders.
– We use models of systems to understand, but maybe even more to learn -together- other ways to see the system and help us challenge our mental models.

Systems Thinking has come with great analysis tools. Some techniques (and ways of views):
Force field analysis, helping to define enablers and inhibitors for helping the system produce wanted outcomes
– Stocks and flow diagrams (for process specialists relatively easy cake)
– Causal (loop) diagrams (think 5Why / Root Cause times 10: issues that reinforce other issues that create the first issues…)

Learning to look from a systems thinking perspective
If you learn to look through the systems lens to processes, I predict that….
– You will develop a deeper understanding of the system that ‘performs the process’
      – You see the parts
      – You see the interconnections
      – You see the patterns of behavior and (hopefully) the purpose through that
– You will be able to intervene and influence a much more subtle and powerful ways, identifying leverage points where, with limited effort strong change results can be reached
There is even a maturity model for understanding your ability to see from a systems perspective! And you might even want to check out your systems intelligence with a test here.
Key lesson: the more people participate in systems analysis, the better understanding…

One very useful model for understanding (systemic) reality with a short story
I found the following model very helpful in looking at reality:

(A good explanation can be found here and here)

An example: suppose you are called by a manager. They had a major issue with a client (quality of a product was not good). You come in, and find out that somewhere an error was made. You see this as an unfortunate event and suggest to add a quality inspection.
Sometime later you get called again. Many clients are now angry – there are too many delays. You can not see these as single events any longer, and research the patterns. It turns out that the error is made often, that the added inspection increases lead time, and that correction of the error also increases lead time. You perform a root cause analysis (what deeper patterns cause the error) and find that new employees make the error the most. So you introduce training for new people. You monitor for a week the effects, and great – the errors disappear.
Some weeks later, the manager calls again. He sees costs growing and still delays. You analyse the cost situation and find out that many people are taking your proposed training, which lowers productivity and increases cost. In addition, you realize that the quality inspection lost its purpose. With great effort you find a way to fully improve the step that used to cause the errors. Now the error is prevented! Proudly you present the results and indeed – the error disappeared and delays seem to have vanished.
Two years later, the company goes broke. Clients have repeatedly complained on next upcoming issues. You wonder what happened – and find out quickly: the manager’s mindset saw people as simple replaceable resources. Morale was low, employee turn over was high and the employees mindset was that they never saw process problems as their issue, someone else would fix it…
Conclusion: Don’t focus on events and simple if-then’s, but learn to see the patterns, structures and mindsets.

 I hope you enjoyed the article!

Some great resources on Systems Thinking
For me, my Systems Thinking journey has lead to many new insights and questions. I hope that with this mindset and toolbox I can address complex issues and intervene more successfully. What about you?

– Acumen’s Systems Practice (highly recommended)
– Futurelearn’s System Thinking and Complexity
– Open University’s Systems Thinking and Practice

– Donella Meadow’s Thinking in Systems
– Fritjof Capra’s The Systems View of Life
– John D. Sterman’s Business Dynamics – Systems Thinking and Modeling for a complex world

On the internet, including Youtube, there is ton’s of material to be found!

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