Reworking the SSM Root Definition & Final Conceptual Models

Hello Systems Thinkers,

This is a fairly short post, just to wrap up on the SSM work.  We finished with it quite a while back and have been busy exploring a variety of systems ideas and concepts, and in particular, have been dipping our toe into cybernetics and the Viable System Model. It’s good stuff.

For the moment though, I just wanted to write a note to complete the work on our SSM models.  If you recall, the last post I wrote on SSM was a summary of the conceptual model building we’d been doing.  Here’s the post:

http://systemsthinkersanonymous.com/ssm-conceptual-models/

Building the models was very much a learning process.  We learned about building models, but also about the thing we were studying and thinking about, the canteen.  The process helped us to  reframe our thinking and understanding and we gained a number of insights into functions that would be required to run the canteen along the way.  This was helped, by us showing the work we had done to the canteen management team, who pointed out areas where our thinking was incomplete.  They also found the experience helpful and highlighted several areas to them they had not considered.

All new and improved Root Definition

Because our understanding of the situation changed, we decided to revisit our original Root Definition to see if was still appropriate.  It wasn’t , and so we modified it to reflect our new understanding.

First of all though, here is our previous Root Definition:

A facility and service owned and operated by the Local Authority through their employees, to provide an environment that supports relaxation and social interaction and provides nutritional food at lunchtimes that satisfies the need for affordable hot and cold food and drinks and facilities to heat and eat home prepared food, which recognises appropriate legal requirements within the existing canteen space within the building, in the belief that doing so will have a positive effect on wellbeing and motivation of the workers in the building and also enhance revenues coming to the Local Authority by making a profit from selling food and drink and also by making the building a more attractive place for prospective rent paying tenants to locate their operations.”

And here is our updated version:

“A facility and service owned and operated by the Local Authority through their employees, to provide an environment that supports relaxation and social interaction and provides nutritional food that satisfies the need for affordable hot and cold food and drinks during regular office hours and facilities to heat and eat home prepared food available 24/7, as well as providing opportunities for local charities to supply and showcase produce and providing training opportunities for people with learning difficulties which recognises appropriate legal requirements within the existing canteen space within the building, in the belief that doing so will have a positive effect on wellbeing and motivation of the workers in the building and also enhance revenues by making the building a more attractive place for prospective rent paying tenants to locate their operations, whilst the canteen facility’s direct revenue impact must be cost neutral.”

You can see we’ve added elements about the community focus of the canteen, using local charities as suppliers, and offering training and employment opportunities to people with learning difficulties, as well as defining the financial performance expectation it operates in.

Again, what stood out about SSM process is how iterative it is.  We came back to iterate the Root Definition, and in doing that, realised our Conceptual Models were not complete.  We hadn’t considered the need for the canteen to market its offering.  It was helpful that this process of iteration and development drew this out.

Our new and final models

So, we returned to our top level Conceptual Model and incorporated a “marketing” node.  Here is the revised top level model:

Revised top level Conceptual Model

You can see the new marketing node, number 6, in the middle of the model.  And here is the Conceptual Model for the marketing function:

Conceptual Model of Node 6 – Marketing

 

The end of the SSM road……..for now.

This brings our SSM story to a close for now. The next steps in the process would have been to compare the models to the reality to identify  gaps in the organisation and things that could be changed or improved. We did have some conversations with the canteen management about this and discussed areas for improvement with them, but given this was a case study and not a piece of work they commissioned from us, we were only able to go so far.

You can’t beat an occasional CATWOE

We certainly learned a lot on this journey and will be using SSM again.  Indeed, I have been using it frequently in my own work.  In particular, I find the CATWOE mnemonic very helpful when starting on a new project and trying to state what the purpose is.  That’s part of the beauty of SSM I think.  It is a 7 step process, but you can actually take most of those steps on their own and use them independently and get helpful results.  It’s like a bag of several tools you can pick and choose from, rather than a single approach. Although, of course, you can run all of the way through the process if the situation allows, and warrants it.

Beginning to move from SSM Root Definitions, to Transformations, to Conceptual Models

Hello Systems Thinkers,

Today we are talking about Transformations and Teddy Bears.  Honestly, it’s not as camp as it sounds.

Teddy Bears

Last week we had a slightly eclectic session.  We spent some time beginning to think about the further Transformations we could identify that would be required to deliver on our Root Definition, but if I’m honest, we didn’t spend a lot of time doing that.  I had just finished reading an excellent book about ambiguity and wicked problems and how to manage them, so told the group a bit about it, and some of the things I’d found most interesting in it and and we discussed how they might be applied in our environment.  The guys who wrote the book use the concept of Teddy Bears and how we all metaphorically have them in the management methods we’re attached to.  They bring us comfort when we are faced with ambiguity.  They’re not always that helpful though, and so we need to learn how to let them go and embrace and even use ambiguity to our advantage. Here’s the book:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Heretics-Guide-Management-Harnessing-Ambiguity/dp/0994631413

I hope to write more about it, as it’s an excellent book and has a lot to offer us.

Then we took our Root Definition….

In the meantime though, I had better recount what we got up to in yesterday’s session.  We managed to stay focussed on task and started to decompose our Root Definition into the Transformations we felt we’d need to make happen to fulfil it.  We did that quite simply by reading thougth and then pulling out phrases that sounded like they could be Transformations.  To remind you, here’s the Root Definition:

A facility and service owned and operated by the Local Authority through their employees, to provide an environment that supports relaxation and social interaction and provides nutritional food at lunchtimes that satisfies the need for affordable hot and cold food and drinks and facilities to heat and eat home prepared food, which recognises appropriate legal requirements within the existing canteen space within the building, in the belief that doing so will have a positive effect on wellbeing and motivation of the workers in the building and also enhance revenues coming to the Local Authority by making a profit from selling food and drink and also by making the building a more attractive place for prospective rent paying tenants to locate their operations.

….and derived key Transformations

We extracted the following as things we thought might be required Transformations:

  • provide an environment
    • supports relaxation
    • social interaction
  • provides hot and cold food & drinks
  • provides facilities to heat and eat home prepared food
  • recognises appropriate legal requirements
  • Increase revenues
  • Increase appeal of offices

After a bit of thought and discussion, we whittled this down to the following four Transformations:

Input Transformation Output
No food and drink for sale Make food and drink available for sale Food and drink for is sale
Uninviting space Create and maintain appealing space for dining, socialising and relaxing Inviting canteen space
Cold home prepared meals Heating facility for home prepared meals Hot home prepared meals
Canteen not operational Management function Canteen operational
No profit being generated from space Running a profitable canteen service Profit being generated from canteen space
Who needs to know grammar?  Systems Thinkers do!


We decided these may need some more work and revising, but that they were good enough to get us onto the next stage; that being creating conceptual models.  We checked back with the SSM process and decided to pick one of
Transformations and identify between 5 and 9 (7 plus or minus 2) activities we’d need to undertake to deliver the Transformation.  The SSM guidance we were referring to, reminded us that we should use “imperative verbs” when describing these activities.  This caused us to have to look up exactly what an imperative verb is.  Here’s a link:

https://www.grammarly.com/blog/imperative-verbs/

It’s basically a type of command.  Words like, Give, Clean, Do, Take.  This reminds me of when we learned about “Functional Requirements” when we studied the Holistic Requirements Model.  Functional Requirements need to be “Verb Nouns”.  So I think this is an area of commonality between the two approaches.  They are focussed on system function.  

This sparked some conversation and reflection of the usefulness of thinking in terms of functions in enabling innovation to take place.  By focussing on the underlying required function, you enable yourself to consider a whole array of different ways of delivering it.

Activities for our Conceptual Model

So, back to our task.  We chose to start with the “Make food and drink available for sale” Transformation.  We felt the following activities we’re essential to make it happen:

  • Obtain Food and Drink (might be ingredients, or it might be ready prepared meals.  We’re staying solution agnostic at this point)
  • Store food and drink
  • Prepare food and drink for sale and consumption
  • Display food and drink for sale
  • Take payment
  • Provide eating equipment (aka cutlery and crockery)
  • Clean stuff up

We ran out of time at this point, but agreed we’d try to turn these activities into a bubble and connector type conceptual model at the next session.

Second thoughts

Since then, I’ve been reflecting a little and wonder if we should have actually done this with our top level Root Definition. I mean, we probably should have built a conceptual model with the Transformations we identified there first, to make sure the sit together coherently and we’ve not missed anything. I think it would have been sensible to d that before jumping down into a sub-system and trying to define that.  We’ll jump back up a level next time and run through those steps.  This certainly is an iterative process.

OK, until next time, have a great weekend and take care,

Tim

Tightening up our SSM Root Definition

Hello Systems Thinkers,

Before jumping into SSM Root Definitions and what we’ve been doing with ours in the group this past two weeks I thought I say something about our new friends, the Seven Samurai.

The Seven Samurai ride into action…..

After our fantastic session with Warren Quinn, we’ve been putting what he told us into action.  Outside of the group, a few of us have been using the Seven Samurai model he introduced us to in projects we’re working on.  It’s really helpful.  A great way to put some perspective and structure into our thinking about a problem situation and distinguishing between the problem, its context, the intervention and the systems required to deliver the intervention and then sustain it. And then, any unintended problems the solution might create.  It’s great.  Very simple, yet very powerful.  To jog your memory, as well as the diagram at the top of teh page, here are the slides i found online.  It’s well worth browsing through them.

us-government-non-defense-the-seven-samurai-of-systems-engineering-dealing-with-the-complexity-of-7-interrelated-systems-james-martin

Since the write up of Warren’s session we’ve had two STA regular sessions. Both continuing with work on the canteen Root Definition.  By some twist of fate, only half the group could make it last week, and then only half this week.  The funny thing being that completely different people made it each week, so we had fun this week picking up and carrying on with what the others had done the previous week.

Back to our Root Definition

To remind you, here is the Root Definition (RD) we came up with previously:

“A system owned by the Local Authority and operated by their employees, to provide an environment that supports relaxation and social interaction and provides nutritional food at lunchtimes that satisfies the need for affordable hot and cold food and drinks and facilities to heat and eat home prepared food, which recognises appropriate legal requirements within the existing canteen space within the building.”

At this point, I ought to highlight that we are doing this without consulting the Local Authority, so the views are purely our own.  If we were consultants doing this for real, it would be absolutely essential to spend a good deal of time getting to the bottom of the Worldviews of the stakeholders, but the reality in this situation is it’s not practical and so we are making it up.  So, our assertions, are simply that, our best guesses.

What happened last week?

Here are some notes Lee kindly made after the session last week (I wasn’t there):

Re. the root definition, we discussed reflecting the Local Authority worldview – coming from the angle that we’re placing ourselves in their shoes as the owner of the building.  

“With a view to…”

  • Maintain a productive workforce
  • Tick a required box as an building operator to offer this type of service, but do it at minimum cost
  • Working within a set budget and ideally generating additional income for the Council
  • Maintain Castlewood offices as an attractive office space for leasing tenants.

We talked about needing to ideally identify the most important one of those, and we felt that “Maintain Castlewood offices as an attractive office space for leasing tenants” is ultimately the main driver behind the local Authority’s decision to use that space as a canteen (obviously ignoring the meals on wheels).”

They continued on to begin to discuss the key Transformations required to fulfill the purpose, but for now, let’s stick with the RD.

Warren’s tip – “..in the belief that…”

One really nice tip Warren gave us when he came is to us the expression “….in the belief that” before stating the worldview in the Root Definition (RD).  If you look back at theoriginal RD you’ll see we didn’t really explicitly state the W from which it’s proposed.  Warren’s tip is a good one and we found it helpful.

Thinking about Worldviews

This week looked at the potential Ws the group proposed last week.  Here they are, along with our thoughts:

  • Maintain a productive workforce

We agreed this may well be a strong motivating factor behind the Local Authority, the building owner, landlord and principal employer of staff in the building providing the staff canteen.  We didn’t feel there was much more we could add.

  • Tick a required box as an building operator to offer this type of service, but do it at minimum cost

We were less sure about this one.  As far as we know, there is no legal obligation to provide a canteen, and given the other motivations above and below, we didn’t think this one had much leverage.

  • Working within a set budget and ideally generating additional income for the LocaL Authority

We liked this.  It’s certainly imaginable the landlord see the canteen as a way f bringing in additional income.  I suspect the reality of the situation is it doesn’t make them a lot of money, but we don’t know and it’s not unreasonable to think it turns a profit..

  • Maintain Castlewood offices as an attractive office space for leasing tenants.

This is an interesting one.  Again, it’s actually the same motivation as above, one focussed on bringing in revenue.  However, it’s approach is to do so obliquely.  I like it, and again, you can imagine that the landlord maintain the canteen as they think it will be attractive to the public sector organisations they seek as tenants

Time to combine……

So, how do we incorporate this into our RD.  How about adding this statement at the end:

.”…..in the belief that providing the facility will have a positive effect on wellbeing and motivation of the workers in the building and also enhance revenues coming to the Local Authority by making a profit from selling food and drink and also by making the building a more attractive place for prospective rent paying tenants to locate their operations.”

Well, that’s a bit of a mouthful, but I think it’s helpful.  When we come to start building our RDs for the “subsystems”, and then our conceptual models, this will lead us to need to include functions relating to things like monitoring of competition, pricing mechanisms, etc.  We might have implicitly assumed we had to do these things, and in a simple everyday example like a canteen it’s not a problem, but when we get into more complex services, where there is greater ambiguity of the purpose, being comprehensive and explicit in this way can only help.

…and then integrate

And now to integrate that into the RD, which I’ve also tweaked a little.  Now hold your breath, here we go:

A facility and service owned and operated by the Local Authority through their employees, to provide an environment that supports relaxation and social interaction and provides nutritional food at lunchtimes that satisfies the need for affordable hot and cold food and drinks and facilities to heat and eat home prepared food, which recognises appropriate legal requirements within the existing canteen space within the building, in the belief that doing so will have a positive effect on wellbeing and motivation of the workers in the building and also enhance revenues coming to the Local Authority by making a profit from selling food and drink and also by making the building a more attractive place for prospective rent paying tenants to locate their operations.

Yes, I think that’s enough for now.  I’m sure you need to recover too, after reading that.

Any views???

I’d be very interested to hear from any seasoned SSM practitioners out there what they think of this.  Have we got it about right?  Could we have improved it in any way? Have we missed something?

In the remainder of the session we carried on with defining some Transformations.  We’ve more to do on that though, and I’m tired, so I think I’ll leave writing that up until we’ve done more work on it next week.

Enjoy your weekend,

Tim

Warren Quinn and the Seven Samurai

Hello Systems Thinkers,

Just a very quick note today. We had a brilliant session yesterday.  Warren Quinn, a Systems Engineer who has deep experience in the structuring of complex sociotechnical problems using Systems Thinking approaches.

Warren is a great guy.  You won’t meet someone with a bigger passion for systems approaches and a better ability to explain how to get the best out of them.  I loved listening to him taking us through a project where he used several techniques to make improvements to a real life situation using SSM and other approaches.  

Everyone enjoyed it and Warren was given a warm round of applause when he finished.  There was a real energy in the room.  I appreciated Warren showing the group that SSM is a powerful approach for real life problems and works to great effect outside of the classroom environment.  Everyone came away keen to get on with honing and using their knowledge.

You can’t “solve” a Wicked Problem

For now, I just want to pick out two points that really stood out from the session for me.  The first is Warren’s assertion that it’s not really possible to “solve” the the messy, wicked type problems we’re dealing with. Rather, we should think more in terms of trying to improve the situation.  This isn’t really new to us, as one of the criteria for classify a problem as being wicked is that “potential solutions are not right or wrong, but in fact just better or worse, and that depending on who you are and your relationship to the situation”.

It was really helpful to have Warren point that out though. We often lapse into talking about “solutions”, but it’s important to remember we can’t really solve these problems.  For example, Simon Stevens’ Five Year Forward View and the Sustainability and Transformation Plans the NHS is working on aren’t going to “solve” the the situation/problem perse. They will hopefully improve the situation though.  Indeed, we hope they will improve the situation a lot.  But that will depend on who you are and your perspective or relationship to the situation.  Indeed, it’s likely the interventions and changes made will lead to unforeseen consequences of some sort and new problems.  We will constantly be working to improve the situation.  The challenge is to focus of systemic, rather than reactive and reductive interventions.

But the Seven Samurai can be helpful

This brings us to the second thing I want mention.  The “Seven Samurai of Systems Engineering”.  It’s model Warren introduced us to that he uses at the beginning of his exploration of a situation.  It’s a way of beginning to structure a problem.  I think it’s absolutely brilliant and have already had a go at using it in my own work.  Here is the model:

The Seven Samurai of Systems Engineering

And here’s the set of slides I’ve taken that image from.  I just found them online, but think they’re very good.

us-government-non-defense-the-seven-samurai-of-systems-engineering-dealing-with-the-complexity-of-7-interrelated-systems-james-martin

I like that in one 7 part model, they have managed to encapsulate a way of structuring the principal things you need to think of when considering an intervention, including problems resulting from the intervention.  In that sense, it’s an iterative, or even recursive model.  I’ve a feeling we’ll be using it a lot!

Next week we’ll get back to SSM and developing our Root Definitions.  Warren gave us a nice piece of advice for how to integrate the Worldview into a Root Definition, so we’ll give that a go.

Until then, have a great weekend and week.

Tim

Our first go at CATWOE and an SSM Root Definition

Hello Systems Thinkers,

Let’s go CATWOE

So, we now have a top level Root Definition for our canteen “system”.  It’s taken us several weeks to reach this point, each week working through different segments of the CATWOE mnemonic.  If you remember, this is the 3rd stage in Soft Systems Methodology.  It is essentially like a statement of purpose for the system that takes into account who the stakeholders are, the perspective/s the purpose is viewed from, and environmental constraints.

Unlike the alphabet, we began with a W…

We started the process off by identifying all of the important stakeholders.  We then considered the various Worldviews (W) they might have. There we quite a few, ranging from the purpose of the canteen being to provide sustenance, family friendly employment, to a source of profit for the Local Authority (although we don’t actually know whether it makes a profit or not).

…and then T, E, C, A and O…..

We continued by identifying a variety of Transformations (T) that are at play. These are essential the functions that it performs.  We identified top and lower level Ts, although it’s only the top level ones we’ve included in the Root Definition below. We’ll look at others when we create root definitions for sub-systems.  We considered what Environmental (E) constraints were at play.  These included things like having to comply to food hygiene legislation and being bounded by the physical space available in the building.  Finally, we worked out whether the various stakeholders were Customers (C), Actors (A), or Owners (O) within the system.

…before we could draft our Root Definition

I really need to write much more about this, and also take you through the elements of CATWOE and what stakeholders and factors we identified against each.  I’m just too short on time this month.  It’s important, so I promise I will catch up properly and do it.  For now, here is the Root Definition we’ve come up with:

“A system owned by the Local Authority and operated by their employees, to provide an environment that supports relaxation and social interaction and provides nutritional food at lunchtimes that satisfies the need for affordable hot and cold food and drinks and facilities to heat and eat home prepared food, which recognises appropriate legal requirements within the existing canteen space within the building.”

The W changes everything

There, that is quite a mouthful  It covers a lot of ground though.  We felt we are going to need to revisit it next week to see if we’ve omitted anything.  Also, this root definition is created from a particular Worldview (W), that being that the general purpose of the canteen is to provide sustenance and a place for workers to relax.  If we took another W, such as it existing to fulfil a duty of care the Local Authority has, or as a vehicle to make profit, the Root Definition might end up being quite different.  We’ll play around with that and experiment next week.

As does the boundary

You might also notice that we’ve omitted the “Meals on Wheels” service that operates from the facility, and also not mentioned the new competition the canteen is now facing from the higher end food outlet that has opened across the road.  We decided to make our lives easier at this first pass and draw our “boundary” in fairly tight.  Indeed, we had a discussion about where we were drawing our boundary, and also opted to leave food suppliers outside of it.  We discussed the potential risks and impacts of doing so, but as the items the canteen buys in a commodities and readily available, we decided it safe to do so.

We’re not done with Root Definitions, but I’m done with this week.  I wish you an excellent weekend.

Tim

 

Week 27: Systemigram to Root Definitions – The next step

Hello fellow Systems Thinkers,

We had a good meeting yesterday.  It ended up being a session of two halves.  In the first, we discussed the Systemigram  that resulted from the previous week’s meeting.  In the second, we began to venture into creating Root Definitions for the “purpose” of the system.

Systemigram time

To kick off, I asked what the group thought of the Systemigram I’d worked up based on the Rich Picture drafting we’d done in the previous week’s session.  To remind you, here it is:

Manorwood Canteen Systemigram
Manorwood Canteen Systemigram

The feedback was positive. Apart from one initial comment that is. Namely, Jan said;

“oh, it looks quite messy and confusing.”

This is a fair comment.  It does look messy, and this is the kind of reaction I’ve received when I’ve put similar system models in front of other people.  It’s a problem we systems folk have when trying to communicate.  Diagrams and models are a great way to express the richness and complexity of a situation in a coherent and understandable way, but they can still look complex.

Complexity is scary

However, once she’d spent a moment looking around the diagram and getting her bearings Jan took to it without any worry and was very positive about it.   I think a lesson for us is to think before putting these kind of things in front of people. Some love them, but many don’t, and I think we need to pick our moment.  i.e. when they have the time and space to sit back and engage with it, not when they’re in the middle of something else.

It’s funny, many people say they really like visual material and prefer it to wordy documents.  Hence the proliferation of infographics and pie charts in reports.  But when it comes down to it, some of those same people recoil when you put a systemigram, an admittedly complex looking visual aid, in front of them.   

My feeling is that what many people actually like is something simple that hides the complexity of reality.  They prefer to not have to think too hard.  There’s something comforting about a colourful infographic or pie chart. That’s fine, but the world and problems we deal with are complex, and there is no way to avoid that if you want to make a positive difference.  So the question is what can help us to understand and deal with complexity.  I think a Rich Picture or Systemigram is a very good way to do that.  But we need the right audience, at the right time.

Iterate between Rich Picture and Systemigram

Anyway, back to our Systemigram.  We felt it does a good job of expressing what’s going on within our “System of Interest”.  It perhaps doesn’t contain the information about how well things are working, what the motivations of actors are, and where the tensions are that a Rich Picture would, but it gives a good foundation to explore those things with.  I can see how one might initially get the stakeholders around a table to create a Rich Picture, but that it would be messy and ragged, and all of the relationships not fully formed.  It would need to be redrafted and redrafted iteratively.  This Systemigram format could be a good way to do that.

We spent some time discussing things we might add, remove or change about the Systemigram based on the reality of the situation it was trying to express.  I think this is an endorsement of the format.  It prompted discussions about the “problem space” and pushed us to explore further and identify areas and things we weren’t sure of.

Into the Root Definition

In the second half of the session we moved on to begin to explore the CATWOE mnemonic for drafting a system Root Definition.  What’s a Root Definition then?  It’s essentially a description of the “Purpose” of a system.  I’ve already referred you to Stuart Burge’s excellent paper on SSM, which gives a good definition of it, so here’s another source.  It’s a set of slides put together by a couple of chaps I’ve had some communications with. They’re good slides, with some nice examples. I like them. There’s a lot of them though, so take some time and have a browse through.

dave-kerr-geoff-hunt-sts2012-successful-change-in-your-organisation-v2-1

We’ll be working on Root Definitions using CATWOE for a number of weeks I think, so I won’t’ go into too much detail tonight.  Yesterday, we began by thinking about and identifying the stakeholders our Systemigram had uncovered.  They will fit into the Customer, Actor, or Owner, in different combinations depending on what Transformation we are looking at within the system.  We’ll get into that all in much more detail in the coming weeks.

Where’s the W in Prison?

For now, I’ll just highlight the importance of the Weltanschauung, or Worldview as we’ll probably refer to it (although Sandra may have a view on that).  This is about the point of view from which we view the purpose of the system.  Not just who the stakeholders are, but what their motivations and beliefs are. This extracted slide from the slide set above give a nice example of different Ws for a prison:

possible_world_views_for_a_prison

There are lots of possible Ws at play in our canteen/meals on wheels system.  They might include the Local Authority’s desire to comply with statutory requirements on it, a belief in the social value of providing decent rest and food facilities for staff, a sense of duty to care for immobile people in the community, etc, etc, etc.  We’ll dive in further next week.

OK, that will do for now.  I wish you an excellent weekend.

Tim

Week 25: It’s an increasingly complex world

Hello Systems Thinkers,

A short and sweet post this week. Before I get into what we discussed yesterday here is the homework for next week.  It’s a paper describing Soft Systems Methodology by Stuart Burge.  I thought it worth putting Rich Pictures into a bit more of their context for you now and think we’re ready to start looking at the methodology.  Here it is:

soft-systems-methodology

What’s going on?

Back to yesterday.  I kicked the session off by asking the question;

“Do you want to talk about Rich Pictures, or shall we spend some time discussing the what on earth is going on with the world at the moment?”

Of course, I was referring to the previous day’s US election result and the fractious state of politics in the UK at the moment; and of course, everyone wanted to discuss that.  We had a ranging discussion about what’s going on within our political and economic “systems”.  I can’t say we found any solutions, but it was good to explore and unpack the issues.

How can we explain?

One particular thing that stood out for me and came up a number of times, is the difficulty of understanding and then communicating the complexity and interconnected nature of many of the difficulties faced by nations and the global community.  Especially, how do we explain the complexity of problems and the fact simplistic solutions tend not to work to people who struggle to see that.

This is actually a problem we Systems Thinkers have more generally.  It’s not limited to political discussion.   In my experience, people tend to either easily connect with and “get” Systems Thinking, or they really struggle with it.  It doesn’t seem to come naturally to many people.  I am reminded of the famous paraphrased H. L. Mencken quote:

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”

This might explain why in difficult times, people who offer simple solutions, that apparently draw strong relationships between direct cause and effect do well.  As we’ve been learning through, cause and effect tend not to be so tightly coupled and are not linear.  Complex situations require more systemic approaches.

Let’s work on communication

We’ve not really touched on this topic of “communication” before, and didn’t have much of a chance to explore it today, but it’s something we’re going to need to return to.  It’s brilliant that we are developing ourselves as Systems Thinkers and are building up our tool boxes, but we need to be able to explain the rich complexity of problems and our resultant non-linear solutions to other folk.  How can we make the complex sound and look simple?  How do we explain what we see in a way that doesn’t make people glaze over, or confused. I really don’t know.  We’re going to need to work on this.

Back to our pictures

For the last 15 minutes of the session, we did discuss the Rich Pictures we’d produced for homework.  I say “we”, but actually it was only Jan and Lee who had time to show their pictures.  Here are their efforts:

They’re very good.  Jan very much came at the task from a “customer” point of view, and Lee came at it from a wider perspective.  The results are really interesting and I’m so pleased to see how they are both coming along in their abilities to do this.  Good for you!

Jan's Picture
Jan’s Picture
Lee's Picture
Lee’s Picture

We’ve decided to continue with the canteen example, and see how far we can take it, so look out for further developments.

Enjoy your weekend,

Tim

Week 22: Our First Rich Pictures – The NHS Five Year Forward View

Hello STAers,

We’ve been drawing

This week we broke out our artistic skills and created Rich Pictures.  Of course, the point of creating a Rich Picture is to explore a situation, find out what is going on from a variety of perspectives and tease put problem areas, rather than demonstrate artistic prowess.  Having said that, I think we did both.

If you recall, last week’s homework was to look at the “problem” the Five Year Forward View (FYFV) is trying to solve and to create a Rich Picture to express it.  This was a fairly artificial exercise in that we referred to the problem statement within the FYFV rather than primarily exploring it from personal experience and it’s also a case of working backwards as the “solution” is already in place in the form of the FYFV.  Nonetheless, it was a useful and interesting exercise and gave us an opportunity to practice creating Rich Pictures.

Presenting our Rich Pictures

We had a total of 3 Rich Pictures in our session yesterday.  One by Sam, another by Lee and the third a joint effort by Mary and me.  Each is quite different.  I think I can safely say that my artistic capabilities are the worst of the bunch.  I don’t mind though.  It was good to move beyond any self consciousness about lack of artistic talent, and just get on and have fun doing it.  I must admit I sometimes found it hard to think of a visual representation for something, and reverted to words, bubbles and arrows, but I think that’s OK.

The important thing is that we explored the problem and practised how to express it through visual means.  Have a look at the pictures below:

Lee's interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
Lee’s interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
Mary and my interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
Mary and my interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
Sam's interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
Sam’s interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
So, what did we learn?

We need to keep practising.  We need to explore the relationships between elements and problem areas more.  Simply putting arrows linking things is OK, but the nature and effect of those arrows/relationships needs to be expressed.  How does the relationship feel.  What is the experience?  Remember, Systems Thinking is as much about the relationships and interactions between things, as it is about the things themselves.

We also need to involve more people.  It’s ok for us to sit in solitude and create a Rich Picture, but when we get into using them in real life problem situations we will need to involve a variety of stakeholders in the creation process.  This is important to make sure the true “richness” of the situation and interactions within it are captured and understood.

It also became clear this is an iterative process and it’s never really complete.  We all wanted to go away and redraft our pictures to capture things we’d not expressed, or to refine the things that we had.

What next?

We’ve decided to keep practising with Rich Pictures.  In next week’s sessions we will firstly spend a little time showing and discussing the work we’ll be doing for homework this week.  We will then cover the table in paper and get down to collaborating to create a large group Rich Picture.  It’s going to be fun.

So what is the homework?

We’re splitting up into sub-groups and each will take a different aspect of the big problem and create a Rich Picture for it.  Lee and Jan are to look at the relationship and roles played by health care and social care.  Sam and Matt are going to look at the role the changing population profile is playing, and Mary and I are going to look at the provider and commissioner space.  If those of you who didn’t make it to the session want to drop me a line, we can work out what aspect you might look at.  It’s well worth having a go at this.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what we come up with!

Enjoy your weekend,

Tim

Week 18 Part 2: Where in the world of Systems Thinking are we?

Let’s pause and think about thinking

We’ve charged head first into learning various tools and methods, but haven’t had much discussion about what Systems Thinking is and where the approaches we’re learning sit within the wider discipline.   We’re now on the verge of heading into learning about Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and I thought it worth us taking an opportunity to catch our breath and talk about Systems Thinking more generally.

You’d think it’s all about System Dynamics

When you google “Systems Thinking”, the overwhelming majority of the top listings relate to the approach of System Dynamics and its proponents such as Peter Senge, Donella Meadows, the Waters Foundation and others.  System Dynamics is a valuable approach and is especially good for understanding relationships, causal effects and feedback loops between system elements.  

Another approach sitting high on the google rankings is John Seddon’s “Vanguard Systems Thinking”.  This is a kind of overhauled version of “Lean” specifically for service provision and has gained a lot of traction in the Public Sector here in the UK.  There is debate about whether it is genuinely a form of Systems Thinking or not.  Personally, I don’t intend to add to that debate, so will leave it there.  It is a good and useful approach in the right context, and the core concept of “failure demand” is particularly insightful.  Why not look it up.  Whether they are genuinely Systems Thinking approaches or not, these approaches have valuable uses and much can be gained from employing them.  

But there’s a problem.

Whilst they may dominate, these approaches only account for a very small part of what’s on offer in the world of Systems Thinking.  The problem comes when you tell people you’re into Systems Thinking, as they tend to think this is what you mean.  Well, it’s largely not what we mean.  Not to say there’s anything deficient about these approaches, it’s just that given our particular context, I don’t think they are the most useful for us right now.  

I hope we are going to be relatively agnostic in our approach and embrace the diversity of what is out there and become “mixed methods” practitioners.  There’s such a wealth of amazing stuff out there, with each approach having its strengths and weaknesses for any given context.  Here is an amazing map showing some of the incredible diversity and range of theories and approaches available to us:

http://www.scimaps.org/maps/map/map_of_complexity_sc_154/detail

Hard and Soft Approaches

System Dynamics, is from the “hard” school of approaches and is the dominant approach on the other side of the Atlantic.  Here in the UK, we use “hard” approaches extensively, where they are the more appropriate, but there has also been significant development in “soft” approaches. The term “soft system” is one coined by Peter Checkland when he created Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), but it has been extended to encompass the range of approaches created to help understand and intervene in complex situations involving humans, or “Human Activity Systems”, where “purposeful Activity” is being undertaken.

Are systems real?

One way “soft” approaches differ from their “hard” relatives is they don’t view systems as things that have their own objective existence. In this view, systems are not real things.  The operative word in Soft Systems Thinking is “thinking”.  It’s about using the various conceptual qualities of systems, such as boundary, purpose, structure and interrelationships to better understand messy real life situations.  There is a difference between thinking about systems and thinking in terms of systems.  Here is a quote from the Systems Engineering Book of Knowledge (SEBoK) describing this:

“The identification of a system and its boundary is ultimately the choice of the observer. This may be through observation and classification of sets of elements as systems, through an abstract conceptualisation of one or more possible boundaries and relationships in a given situation, or a mixture of both concrete and conceptual thinking. This underlines the fact that any particular identification of a system is a human construct used to help make better sense of a set of things and to share that understanding with others if needed.”
http://sebokwiki.org/wiki/What_is_a_System%3F

The System of Systems Methodologies

I am proposing we learn about SSM next.  I think it an appropriate method to support us in commissioning health services.  To give some perspective of where it sits in relation to other approaches, here is a very nice table called the System of Systems Methodologies (SoSM) created by Robert L. Flood and Michael C. Jackson.  It’s described and explored in their excellent book, Creative Problem Solving: Total Systems Intervention (I just checked and there are some second hand versions of this available for just £0.01 plus postage.  Why not treat yourself).  It also gives a good description of what Systems Thinking is and is not, as well as describing a variety of approaches and in what contexts it is most appropriate to use each.  I must admit I’ve copied this version of the table (to save me re-drafting it) from this rather good blog post about Critical Systems Thinking, another approach:
http://wulrich.com/bimonthly_november2012.htmlSystem of Systems Methodologies

For now, we’re in the Pluralist/Complex Zone

As commissioners, when we come to design new services, or intervene in existing ones, I think we’re very much in the pluralist/complex zone. Pluralist, because not all parties involved are directly under our control and will have different views, interests and motivations.  It is likely those interests are compatible though and an accommodation can be found, so ours in not a “coercive” environment.   It’s “Complex”, because as we’ve discussed previously, the problems we face in commissioning and intervening in services are “Wicked” in nature.

Having said that, if we find ourselves redesigning parts of our own or other organisations, we will likely shift to the left, a “Unitary” environment.  In that case, we would find a Cybernetic approach like the Viable Systems Model useful.  And if we find ourselves doing Lean, or Quality Improvement work within a single organisation we would drop into a less complex, simple/unitary environment and find an approach like System Dynamics useful.

The value is in matching approaches to contexts, not in the approaches themselves

To finish, I just want to make it clear that this System of Systems Methodologies is in no way a hierarchy.  I’ve observed some practitioners who tend to specialise in one approach, come to view their favoured approach as the “right” or “best” way to do Systems Thinking. I’ve also observed a kind of perception that there is more kudos and prestige in being involved in problems and approaches that are sited in the “Complex” domain.  I suppose it’s not helped by terminology such as “Simple”.  Perhaps we imagine that the less capable people deal with the “simple” problems, whilst we more impressive folk deal with the “complex” problems.  I think this is an unhelpful and wrong view.  As the SoSM shows, it’s about horses for courses, and selecting the most appropriate method for the problem you’re facing.  In our working lives, we’re likely to face organisational problems in all six of the zones.  Let’s just hope there aren’t too many in the Complex/Coercive space.

I’ve said we’re going to look at SSM next.  It seems to be the most appropriate approach for us, given our context, but I don’t want us to become attached to it, or personally identify ourselves with it.  I want us to be open to all approaches and to even get to the point where we are able to mix them.  We have to start somewhere though, and the best place for us to do that, seems to me to be with SSM.  Let’s see where it takes us.