Systems thinking

I attended a dreadful lecture last week about “Systems Thinking”, which had little by way of thought, or indeed of system. Systems thinking was, and could be, a distinctive set of methods for analysing complex relationships within an entity; but the term seems for the moment to be a catch-all term used to describe flexible, responsive organisations that are open to using information. Ideas like Kaizen, Lean and continuous improvement have been drawn in from private sector management in order to criticise the operation of public sector activities – the Department for Work and Pensions has embraced “Lean” in principle, if not in practice. But the ideas are confused. They rely heavily on insights from staff and service users, without considering that policy makers, officials and users might legitimately have different perspectives and priorities. They are overlain with other management fads, like leadership, networks and collaboration. John Seddon’s book Systems thinking in the public sector (Triarchy, 2008) is a prime example of this kind of muddle. Seddon identifies systems he disagrees with as “command and control” – but hierarchical and bureaucratic management are quite different from each other, and different again from management by objectives. He claims that systems thinking is responsive to service users, but then he distinguishes “value demand”, which the service wants to meet, from “failure demand” which is “wasteful” – a distinction rooted in the perspective of the agency, not of the service user. And he supposes that rights of citizenship (like the demands of citizens for security through visible policing) are wasteful, because they do not serve the agencies’ purpose – except that serving citizens may well be the purpose. There are often good reasons why public services behave the way that they do. The first step for would-be critics should be to ask why – and analysing processes in terms of systems ought to have been one way to find out.

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