Systems thinking can help HR in seeing an organisation as a system that is sustained by how well its parts are aligned to the same purposes – and avoid organisational change false starts in the process, writes Dave Hanna
Cedric was the maintenance chief in a manufacturing plant’s five-day operation that was under pressure to get more with less. He was charged to find a way to keep up regular maintenance service of the production lines with minimal overtime and without losing any production time.
After examining some alternatives, Cedric drafted a plan for maintenance to be performed on a few lines each Saturday (normally a down day). Production team members working on the maintenance Saturday would take the following Monday off, thus avoiding their working overtime. Only a few of Cedric’s maintenance staff would be working overtime on Saturday. It seemed to be a perfect solution to his challenge. Here is a logic map of Cedric’s plan:
Monday following this first maintenance, Cedric reported a successful experience with all maintenance work completed and only a small amount of overtime. The production manager was pleased.
Forgotten systems strike back
The next day when the Saturday production workers returned to work, they bombarded the HR manager with complaints: “I will never work on a Saturday maintenance again,” said one. Another colleague offered, “There I was working side by side with a maintenance planner; he was getting paid overtime and I wasn’t. That’s not fair.” Even a well-respected thought leader, one who always advocated support of company decisions, said, “Working Saturday destroyed my family outing plans. Then being off on Monday by myself – while everyone else was at work or school – was a big waste.”
Cedric’s focus on only a part of the whole stakeholder ecosystem had solved one problem, but created several others that would take considerable time and energy to repair. In reality, here was the ecosystem Cedric was dealing with:
I use the term ecosystem intentionally to illustrate how any business operates in a system of multiple needs that coexist in a delicate balance. When we see the full map of Cedric’s well-intentioned plan, the “right” solution didn’t seem to be so right. The positive impact on cost control and maintenance efficiency was more than offset by the negative impacts on work-life balance with a disrupted family weekend, a poor off-day substitute (Monday), and no overtime pay compared with the maintenance colleagues. The production team members were anything but enthusiastic about the plan and their loyalty to the company was diminished in the moment and might erode further in the future.
Cedric was victimised by his sole focus on maximising efficiency.
Systems thinking can prevent false starts
Managers who are building a corporate culture are working with an ecosystem even more complex than Cedric’s. Any part of an ecosystem that seeks to maximise its own needs at the expense of other critical needs is jeopardising the whole system’s future.
Systems thinking is the term used to describe the requisite view of the whole ecosystem. It means you view all tasks as parts of a larger process and all individuals/departments as part of a larger team effort. With this view, you see an organisation as a system that is sustained by how well its parts are aligned to the same purposes.
History teaches us that only 25-30 per cent of organisational change efforts deliver the desired results. Many of these change architects, like Cedric, no doubt focused on the pieces of the system they believed needed to be changed to meet their objective, only to be surprised and disappointed by the result. Systems thinking can help you avoid such false starts.
Tips for systems thinking
Remember Aristotle’s principle of synergy: the whole is greater (and different) than the sum of its parts. Attempts to optimise any one part may sub-optimise the whole.
Here are five tips to help you apply systems thinking to your business ecosystem:
1. Identify the most critical stakeholders involved. Be sure to look internally (associates, teams, departments, and functions) and externally (customers, suppliers, communities).
2. Define a set of outcomes that will win the commitment of each critical stakeholder group. These outcomes should be the few critical needs that will make or break your survival in the future. Fulfil the most critical stakeholder needs better than anyone else, and you will have all the business you want.
3. Map out a process to deliver the outcomes and identify which team members need to do what at each process step. A generic example of such a process:
4. Provide process team members with the information and training they need to add value to the outcomes. This might include such things as task assignments, skill requirements, and other information critical to high performance.
5. Get feedback from the stakeholders. Find out how well their needs have been fulfilled. Plan ways to improve your outcomes continuously in the future.