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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:

  1. The whole has one or more defining functions or properties.

  • eg. The defining function of a car is to transport people on land.

  1. Each part in the set can affect the behavior or properties of the whole.
  • Problems with the exhaust can affect how fuel burns in the cylinders. Also: the carpet and tools in a car are independent of its defining function and so are non-essential parts of the system as defined.
  1. There is a subset of parts that is sufficient in one or more environments for carrying out the defining function of the whole; each of these parts is necessary but insufficient for carrying out this defining function.
  • The car will not function without the exhaust, which is essential, but is not the car.
  1. The way that each essential part of a system affects its behavior or properties depends on (the behavior or properties of) at least one other essential part of the system.
  • Parts of the car interact because they are connected, directly or indirectly. The exhaust is connected to the cylinder via the outlet manifold. When cause and effect are separated in space and/or time, it can be difficult to know just what effect any change really has. 
  1. The effect of any subset of essential parts on the system as a whole depends on the behavior of at least one other such subset.
  • The car is a product of the interaction of its parts, not just their independent operation. So the exhaust depends on the volume and pressure of gas emitted from the cylinder, which itself requires a balanced pressure system to maintain the smooth flow of gas in and out.

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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