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The Principles behind effective System Design and Integration

Updated: Jan 27

The term System is used in many ways. The dictionary (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) gives six definition of systems that encompass 14 different types of systems.

The most relevant of these definitions to Systems Design is: “A group of interacting, interrelated, or independent elements forming a complex whole”.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming gives this definition of a System: “A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system”.

The Systems diamond in the Shingo Model focuses specifically on the systems found in a business organization. The Model teaches, “All work in organizations is the outcome of a system. Systems must be designed to produce a specific end goal, otherwise they evolve on their own.” It is important to understand that the system consists of parts, each of which can affect its behavior or properties.

Dr. Russell Ackoff (1919-2009), an American organizational theorist and who widely known as a pioneering system thinking, described the below five (5) principles of Systems Thinking.

Principle 1- The defined properties of any system, are properties of the whole which none of its individual parts have.

Our note: Take the example of a human body or an automobile, none of their individual parts have the properties of the entire unit or could operate on its own and replace the whole. Furthermore, removal of a component has an impact on the system.

Principle 2- A system is not the sum of its parts; it is a product of the interactions of the parts of the system.

Our note: Let us think of a forest, which is an ecosystem constituted of an area of land that is dominated by trees and consists of biologically integrated communities of plants, animals, and microbes, together with local soils and atmospheres with which they interact. All the components of the forest ecosystem are necessary for the system to function properly and remain in balance. If something goes askew with the bugs, all the other components will be affected.

Dr. Deming emphasized the connection among each of the components with the two words “network” and “interdependent”. An important question to ask in organizations: Are all systems in our organization working well-together, or are they working independently?

Principle 3- Improvement should be directly at the whole and not at the parts separately.

Our note: Dr. Deming chose the word “aim” instead of goal or target. It's important that members of a system all aim at or are aligned with the target. In this perspective, it becomes important when we think of improvements, to reflect on it impact on the entire system and not the individual part only. Even more important, in some cases, improvement to a part of a system could be conflicting with the improvement planned for another part, when both improvements are not considered together. Collaboration and company-wide improvement efforts yield better results. An important question to ask in organizations: Do we have company-wide improvement systems? Do we encourage collaboration and remove silos between departments? Are our management systems well-integrated and provide best value to our clients?

Principle 4- A system of continuous improvement must be directed at what you want and not what you don’t want.

Our note: Let’s take a moment and think about the behavior you would like to see in your team, or the results you would like to achieve. In an organization, systems will develop - on purpose or haphazardly - to get the work done. All systems create the conditions that cause people to behave in a specific way and achieve a specific result. Organizations should design their systems to nurture a positive behavior and the improvement they want to see. One of the outcomes of poorly designed systems is enormous variation in behavior or even consistently bad behavior. For example, unhealthy competition is often a result of a performance management system focusing on individual achievements and results. Imagine, what if your performance measurement is based on how the team member contributes to the success of the team, on sharing expertise or collaborative continuous improvement. In many cases, we focus on what we don’t want rather than focusing on what we want to achieve, the later will help us get there faster. People will then understand what we expect from them and how to make that happen.

An important question to ask in organizations: Have we identified the behaviors we want to see in our people? Are our systems designed in a way to nurture these behaviors?

Principle 5- Continuous improvement is nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Leapfrogging (rapid change made by any company of any kind to a higher level of development) is important to surpass other leaders, creativity is key, it breaks the continuous cycle.

Our note: Allowing time and providing opportunities for employees to work on new ideas is important for organizations. We often load our employees’ schedules with operational, day-to-day activities. Systems that support creative thinking, generating new ideas and taking the time to experiment are critical for discontinuous improvement. This could be facilitated as part of your standard work, idea generation system, or team meetings where ideas could be shared and discussed, to boost creativity.

Designing good systems need rigor and good understanding of the company culture and how it supports the achievement of its strategic objectives. Mapping all systems and sub-systems and how they interact and what impact they have on each other is a cornerstone for a robust systems design and outstanding performance.

Let us know your thoughts and comments- which of these 5 principles when applied, could help you improve?

Nancy Nouaimeh

Culture Transformation and Excellence Expert

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