What is a system

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System definition

A system can be defined as: An interdependent group of items, people, or processes working together toward a common purpose.

Organisations are made up of teams, functions, processes and equipment. The performance of a system is dependent on how these component parts interact with each other. Each part has its own role in supporting the common purpose. But, if the parts work in isolation the system will not operate to maximum effectiveness.

Why is it important to understand your system?

Any major change is very difficult to accomplish, and a powerful force is required to achieve it.

When you are working in the system it is often hard to see all the items, let alone understand them all. You may only see it from your viewpoint.

Taking the time to understand your system - its items, its processes, its people and how they interact with each other – helps you learn where improvements may lie and the impact they might have elsewhere in the system.

It also helps us to think about the boundaries – where the system starts and stops - and the interface with wider systems.

To make improvements in a system you must understand it well. If you don’t, you could be focusing on changes that don’t lead to improvements and might even make things worse.

Often, you can start a project, already have a change idea (your ‘pet project’) but have not taken the time to deeply appreciate your system. The change idea won’t have the impact you want.

It is common that we only see the part of the process we are involved in and not the whole. This work in isolation creates a ‘silo’.

Remember, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

To gain understanding of your system it is important to involve the people closest to it. This will include those doing the work and those interacting and receiving a service from your system. 

Different Types of System

Systems can vary in their type.

Systems can be:

Simple – Like a recipe to bake a cake, where you input ingredients, follow the instructions and create the cake. This can be easily recreated with the same result.

Complicated – Like a rocket to the moon, there are multiple items, processes and people. The rocket has a technical formula, is tried and tested and has manuals or procedures. Harder to recreate but can still have the same result.

Complex – Like bringing up children, what works for one child does not guarantee it works for another child. A success with a child may provide experience but not assurance, the outcome is uncertain.

In public services we are often working with complex systems. We cannot assume that a particular solution will result in a desired outcome. People in a complex system need to learn together by testing and adapting, building on things they find that work in that system.