What is Systems Thinking?


As reported in the Local Government Chronicle (LGC), Charlotte Pell, who works with Professor John Seddon an advocate of Systems Thinking, says it’s “a better way to make the work work; a better way to design and manage work”.

Systems thinkers reject targets and all arbitrary measures, as their effects are to distort systems and engage the ingenuity of managers and workers in the wrong way. Instead, systems thinkers favor real measures, related to the purpose of any service from the customers’ point of view and these (real) measures are used for control and improvement by the workers themselves.

Systems thinkers reject change by ‘plan’ (project management, cost-benefit analyses and the like) and instead favor change starting by getting knowledge – studying the work to learn about the what and why of current performance – and on the basis of that knowledge making changes. Change and improvement is thus more robust and reliable, as the evidence shows.

Systems Thinking approaches the design of services by putting customers at the heart of the design. By studying customer demand and then designing to service exactly what customers want, costs fall as service improves. It is a counter-intuitive idea. Indeed, Systems Thinking teaches managers a series of counter-intuitive ideas; hence it is received as a challenge and is best learned by doing. Once you ‘see’ something that offends your current world view, it is hard to reject it.

Delivering Public Services That Work is a book of case studies showing how Systems Thinking has been applied to a particular public service in six local authorities. Each case study – written by the manager or project leader responsible – describes what was done, how it was done and the results achieved.