How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
A system is a set of individual elements which interact in some way. The word 'system' comes from the Greek 'sunistanai', meaning to stand together. The whole system is thus more than the sum of its parts, as it is also in the interactions between the parts.
Russell Ackoff, one of the founding fathers of the understanding of systems in organizations defines it thus:
A system is a whole consisting of two or more parts that satisfies the following five conditions:
In summary "A system is a whole that cannot divided into independent parts without loss of its essential properties or functions."
Because everything in a system is connected, changing one thing changes the whole system. This makes business improvement difficult. I can improve a process in the accounts department and unintentionally cause a significant knock-on effect in goods-in. As Ackoff says:
"When the performances of the parts of the system, considered separately, are improved, the performance of the whole may not be (and usually is not) improved."
Many problems are systemic, in that they do not reside in any one part of the system, but are distributed across many areas. Thus many small problems can act together to create a big problem. As Ackoff points out, "the righter we do the wrong thing, the wronger we become."
An alternative definition from Bertalanffy, another early thinker is "A system is an entity which maintains its existence through the interaction of its parts". This adds the dimension of the self-sustaining nature of systems.
The implications for process improvement are enormous. When we focus in on fixing an individual process, we may either damaging the larger system or invoke an immune response that rejects any changes made. We cannot reject this notion: it would be like the doctors who dismissed Pasteur when he told them they were killing patients by not sterilizing their instruments. We also should not be paralyzed for fear of doing wrong. The critical implication for process improvement is to first chunk up, understanding the larger system. Then when any changes are made, the effects on the larger system should be considered and measured as a primary task.
See also:Process, Process improvement
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