26 February 2009

What’s Going On: Introducing & exploring systems principles

Philip Eastburn, Lesley Cairns and David Allen

At a previous meeting, one intrigued participant asked if we’d put on a ‘systems primer’ to provide an introduction for those unfamiliar with the concepts and practises of systems thinking.  It would be of interest to many NET2 members, she said, but more than that, members could invite colleagues or friends who’re wondering what this systems thinking thing is and ready to find out a little more.

We liked the idea.  As a result, we decided to run a practical simulation exercise successfully used before.  Rather than ‘talk & chalk’, it’s an approach that gives participants a chance to be a part of a typical organisation system – an office-based one in this instance, but the learning applies to any setting. By experiencing the highs and lows of performing day-to-day ‘in the system’ together participants can explore just what’s been going on and, more to the point, why.


The simulation was led by Philip Eastburn, Lesley Cairns and David Allen, all of whom met in a former life working with City of York Council. At the time, Philip worked for the Centre for Service Improvement Learning based at York St John University, while Lesley was a Delivery Manager with the School Food Trust.  David has his own management consultancy, as well as being Joint Convenor of NET2.

What was going on…?

At the end of the simulation, everyone involved discussed what it was like. Here’s what they said.

Underlying assumptions…

  • Process that works in one department will automatically work in another
  • No cooperation between suppliers and company
  • People can’t be trusted – even the suppliers
  • People are prone to making mistakes/ won’t concentrate on the task in hand
  • Jobs are just for one person to get on with – don’t need to interact with those ahead or before you in the work


  • Spotting errors is what the company is good at!
  • Staff have no control to correct errors they spot
  • Division between managers and workers
  • Creativity goes into sabotaging the boss
  • Someone who was a real stickler could have rejected more of the work that didn’t fit the rules
  • Was doomed to fail

Personal experience…

  • Felt intimidated when trying to do a good job
  • I wanted to go and help those who had more work than me
  • The way it made you feel was what mattered; terrible. And it wasn’t about to change.
  • Feeling that not contributing as didn’t have enough work – it was embarrassing
  • I was only concerned with my job
  • We were told not to talk with each other, as if we were in different buildings or on different floors, but even without that I would still have only cared about my bit
  • It wasn’t service, but servitude
  • Ready to blame others when criticism comes your way
  • Power disparity between workers and managers – ‘being able to move at zero cost’ would alter this

Learning and improving…

  • No permission to enhance the job to make it more useful/ interesting
  • Managers’ responses to suggestions for improvement wouldn’t encourage staff to keep making them
  • Not paid to think
  • At the start I asked a manager whether I might talk about a possible improvement to the work, as soon as he told me to put it in the suggestion box, which they didn’t have yet, I knew what this work was all about and just got my head down. If they want me to ‘just do it the way we say’ that’s what I’ll do
  • There was no ‘psychological permission’ to see things differently

What participants said

“Thank you for all the effort you put into the last NET2 session. Upon reflection I guess what struck me most was the fact that when a system works poorly how quickly the blaming of people arises. This comes from me, a slow learner and hopeless at paperwork, so the session was particularly insightful.”

“We needed a little more time at the end to develop the learning from the activity we had just finished.”

“More erm….’closure’ on the exercise before discussion.”

“More time to discuss the learning that emerged from the experience people had and what their next steps might be from the event.”

“The exercise was well thought through and showed what happens in a paperwork organisation. To improve it would have been good to have “time-stamped” documents at various stages of the process: -When it left the supplier -When it left the processing dept -When it left the Cashier’s -When it was received by the supplier That would have shown how the system performance was deteriorating over time Time was short so the maximum learning was gained. To show how things could be improved the system would have to operate another couple of times: The first rerun would allow local or silo based changes to show how things could be improved by each individual in isolation. The second rerun would allow team discussion to show how an overall systems view could improve operations … hopefully the overall systems changes would show far greater improvements than the local ones.”


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