In late 2011, I attended a workplace conference and one of the speakers was the author Alan Moore. His talk was the highlight of an otherwise unmemorable event. I subsequently read Moore’s book (the wonderful “No Straight Lines”) and in it he mentioned a chap named John Seddon who I recalled was occasionally wheeled out on various Radio 4 current affairs and news programmes and, to my ears, spoke a lot of sense. On a whim, I bought Seddon’s book “Systems Thinking in the Public Sector” and for me, it was nothing short of a revelation.
Now, let me be clear I have never met Seddon and I have no business or financial interests associated with him at all. I had not heard of Systems Thinking before but Seddon’s ideas grasped me and would not let go: conceptualising organisations as complex adaptive systems with a purpose; designing work against customers’ value demands; the elimination of waste; the ethos of getting knowledge and continuously learning from one’s endeavours. It was unlike anything I had ever been taught or observed or experienced. And it was magnificent.
However, it is not a panacea and it is not perfect. Systems Thinking is not a silver bullet for all organisational woes. It does not inform strategic decisions around entry into new markets or pricing strategy or trading positions or sources of financing or the management of risk. It also does not distinguish between necessary and unnecessary governance and compliance. However, it is the best model I have encountered for how we should be thinking about Work and in particular how organisations provide services to customers, both internal and external.
My perspective is that of someone who has spent their 20 year career as a service provider to internal customers in large organisations. This has given me an insight into how the worlds of CRE, FM, HR and even those two rogues IT and Procurement might come together – the idea of Convergence – to improve Work for all of the people involved in performing it, managing it and consuming it by employing Systems Thinking.
Systems Thinking has set me on a path on which I am still travelling. I am not sure if we ever arrive at our destinations but mine, in some small way, is to try and change the way in which Work is designed and managed by applying Systems Thinking to INSPIRE better Work and better Workplaces.
Now look what I’ve gone and done. I’ve employed a mnemonic and it was all going so well. I can only ask that you give me a little latitude and stay with me:
I is for Imperative. There is both a commercial and moral imperative to use Systems Thinking methodology. The commercial imperative is that it makes organisations more successful and the moral imperative is that it makes work a more joyous and organic experience for those that do it.
N is for Nature of Demand. Systems Thinking makes us focus on the types and frequencies of our customers’ demands. How much of this demand is “failure demand” because we failed to do something, or do something right, for our customers?
S is for Sustainable Approach. Systems Thinking ensures that we think about the long-term, not just the next set of financial results. It challenges the numerical supremacy of finance and accounting in organisations. Counter-intuitively, costs tend to take care of themselves if the emphasis is on doing the right things (effectiveness) before doing things right (efficiency). And hey, don’t laugh, it works.
P is for Purpose. Purpose is at the absolute heart of Systems Thinking. All systems have a purpose and Systems Thinking seeks to understand how all the different component parts of a system interact with, and influence, one another in order to achieve that purpose. An organisation is a system with a purpose and as I will explore in a future post, the Workplace Services functions (CRE, FM, HR etc.) are a sub-system of the whole and they also have a shared purpose. This is why Convergence is so important.
I is for Implementation. Oh we do love to be strategic and everyone wants to do strategy. However, as important as being strategic and strategy are, it is implementation where organisational success or failure is determined. As all good Systems Thinkers know, bad implementation will pull the rug out from under the feet of a good strategy any day of the week.
R is for Reduction and Removal of Waste. In an organisational context, we must strive to eliminate waste from our system. System waste comes in many forms but may be considered as any activity that does not contribute to purpose. The other type of waste I see in organisations is something I have termed “behavioural waste” – more of that another time.
E is for Enquiry. Systems Thinking wants us to ask “why?”. It compels us to study and understand our customers’ demands and then requires everyone in the organisation to think about what they are doing, why they are doing it and ensuring there is always a line of sight between their activities and purpose. If Work is based around enquiry it is far more interesting and energising.
I will be exploring these ideas in much greater detail in future posts.
Work. There is a better way. Be INSPIREed.