CSL4D : aim

Concept & Systems Learning for Design             CSL4D is an informal, private initiative for exploring the combined use of concept mapping and systems thinking for learning in business, development, and education. Originally, the D in CSL4D stood for Development, but in 2014 it evolved that the broader scope of ‘design’ was much more appropriate (see my 6 posts on design).

“Qualsiasi dato diventa importante se è connesso a un altro.” Umberto Eco*

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Input-Output Approach of Systems

Broadly applicable approach, be it with a few ‘buts’

This is a summary of Chapter Five of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summaries of the preface and chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Input-output        The input-output approach to systems is broadly applicable to systems in different sectors of the economy. ‘In’ go various types of resources (people, money ..) and out comes some kind of product or service. Like all other models the input-output model is not reality, but just provides a simplified representation of it. The idea is to provide a structure that can amplify human thought. This amplification by simplification does not add much as long as the entity is fairly simple and managers can handle it using experience, training and insight. But the input-output model becomes quite handy when things get more complicated and the input and output can be modeled mathematically to be used in computer programs for optimization purposes. In its mathematical form the input-output model is used especially by management scientists.

2. Examples      … include: (a) the educational system of a country or a state (in the US), where the legislative body ‘inputs’ money and out come students with various kinds of degrees, high-school, college and graduate. In the process the input is transformed into buildings, teachers, administrators, books etc. The system creates some of its own potential in the form of teachers; (b) transportation, where money buys infrastructure and materials and out comes the transportation of people and goods from one place to another; and (c) an industrial firm, the input of which can be regarded as the initial investment of funds, and out of which come various kinds of products distributed to various consumers, as well as dividends returned to the investors.

3.  Considerations      The input-output model takes into account the same set of five considerations identified in chapter three. Churchman uses the simplified case of a manufacturing firm that makes 100 different kinds of furniture to illustrate the considerations: (a) measures of performance is the net profit expressed mathematically as weighted output minus cost subject to a set of constraint equations; (b) environment is the constraint on production technology, external capital, and market characteristics (demand); (c) resources are the internal capital and personnel; (d) components are the product lines, i.e. those subsystems that produce and market each product; and (e) management is the decision making on the amount of resources to make available to each component or product line. In most cases this will be optimized in such a way so as to maximize profit.

4.  Mathematics       Above is an example of a simple basic formula for calculating total net profit  z, where xi represents the number of products of product line i, ai the profit per unit product of product line i, and bi the amount of fixed cost assigned to product line i. On the basis of this formula it seems as though the firm ought to carry on as much activity as it can, and especially activities associated with the most profitable products. At this point the two other critical items for consideration become important, the resources and the environment. The environment ´externally´ limits for instance the total amount of capital that the firm can pour into its products: the total amount of capital is ‘given’. The resources equally constrain the production capacity, but do so ´internally´ e.g. in the form of the skilled labor force available for producing some of the more profitable products. Another resource is the total budget allowed for the variable costs of the system, thus constraining the activities as a whole. These constraint relations can be expressed quite easily mathematically. Models of this type are often called linear programming models, because all of the relations are linear.

5. Modeling problems      …. e.g.: (a) the distinction between resources and environment is not easy. Some managers can are sometimes accused of being too cautious, when they could for instance increase the amount of skilled labor time to increase profit by hiring additional people. This would require additional capital. The management scientist could extend the model to determine whether this would make sense. But how will that convince the investor? Should not then the model be extended to determine whether one investment is better than other opportunities for investment? If this is becoming way too complicated – which seems to be the case – should then the scientist not admit that his model is not looking at the system as a whole, but rather at a very limited system? (b) another modeling problem is that of the data to be used. The firm’s accountant will probably be willing to state how much it costs to make each product, but are these the right data given that much of the accountant´s work concerns taxation issue that may not be relevant to the profit side of the picture; (c) a further modeling problem is that of simple assumptions, e.g. of demand for the products to be fixed, irrespective of the price of the products, competition, and advertising. These simple assumptions are attractive because they ‘enable’ the separability of the system components, an ideal seldom realized.

6.  Systemic problems       …. include: (a) the fundamental limitation to any modeling of a system, because a system is always embedded in a larger system (embedding principle, see here); this principle also applies to ‘middle managers’ when ‘the company’ generates ideas that threaten their ‘systems’; (b) the true costs associated with any system always reflect the way in which the larger system behaves: management scientists often avoid the value problems of larger systems by letting a higher authority determine what measures of performance (e.g. net profit, students graduated) to apply for their limited systems; “in general, we can say that the larger the system becomes, the more the parts interact, the more difficult it is to understand environmental constraints, the more obscure becomes the problem of what resources should be made available, and deepest of all, the more difficult becomes the problem of the legitimate values of the system; (c) the role of the management scientist and the significance of his “systems approach” can be questioned, considering all the errors – irreversible errors sometimes – that it commits. Is it reasonable to reduce the manager to an ‘information processor’, thus ignoring his or her rich experience and judgment? Or are the “experienced leaders” the more suspect, considering the mess they made of things in cities, countries, and the world at large? And finally, is the management scientist not a kind of systems philosopher instead of a scientist, for believing in his approach.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

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Illustration of the systems approach

A simple clarification of Churchman’s systems approach

This is a summary of Chapter Four of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summaries of the preface and chapters 1,  2, and 3, since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

Introductory Note         Chapter four is rather special because it shows clearly how Churchman’s systems approach (also known as the systems approach or the dialectical systems approach) combines other types of systems approach (efficiency approach, humanist approach, and the “systems approach” of the management scientist, also known as the scientific systems approach). It also shows how the dialectical systems approach evolved from the scientific systems approach (which itself has clear roots in the efficiency approach, see previous notes) and how Werner Ulrich, Churchman’s Swiss PhD student, developed his critical heuristics (Ulrich, 1983) from Churchman´s dialectics. The story is also interesting from a historical point of view, because it shows how the current state of globalized trade not only has deep roots in efficiency improvements in the USA, involving the use of pallets, forklifts and containers, but can also be linked to the adoption of a free trade doctrine in a period of tremendous economic success and Cold War (see e.g. Chase-Dunn et al., 2000, and Sheppard, 2012)

1.  Port study      From 1957 to 1962 studies were undertaken in the port of San Francisco by the staff of the Maritime Cargo Transportation Conference, National Academy of Sciences—National Research Council, to provide guidance toward improving transportation of general cargo by sea to ensure that U.S. ports remained competitive globally. The program aimed to reduce: (1) turn-around time of general cargo ships; (2) ship turn-around time in port, including methods to increase cargo-handling productivity; (3) the cost of cargo handling, and to reduce the arduousness of the work; and (4) develop methods to assess improvements in cargo-handling systems and their effects on the port. Also, from late 1957 until the end of 1959, the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union had bargained over the terms of an agreement intended to permit the employers to introduce mechanical cargo-handling methods with liberalized working rules. The men of the registered work force were to be protected from loss of work, and the savings made possible by the mechanization were to be shared with them. The agreement became effective in 1960.

2.  Management science     …. was at the core of the port study. Two models were developed: an elaborate simulation model and a much simpler mathematical model. Churchman and his students worked mostly on a Monte Carlo simulation model of port operations, which assumed that performance was determined by probability distributions obtained from past data, including those of ship arrivals, loading and unloading times, and labor availability. From the ship arrival statistics it became clear that they followed a Poisson distribution, which indicated that they could be optimized using established methods for solving waiting list problems. “This and similar studies have become prototypes for descriptions of terminals in other areas of transportation, airports, railroad and trucking terminals, etc.” (TSA 60).

3.  The embedding principle     …. is central to systems thinking, including Churchman’s systems approach  and – slightly less so – the scientific systems approach. The principle simply says that every system is embedded in a larger system. The idea behind is that in order to deal with a problem, it makes sense to look at the system of which the problem is a part, a symptom. So, the problem of costly cargo handling is embedded in the port system. This is so, because only few people really care that cargo handling is costly if not for its effect on US competitiveness and the threat of labor strikes if cargo handling is made more efficient, i.e. less labor intensive. ‘Sweeping in’ is the activity of applying the embedding principle.

4.  The dialectical systems approach     … “consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind [perspectives] with respect to society” (see here), including those of the efficiency approach and the scientific systems approach in the port study. In this case the port-related agencies were identified as the decision-maker (4a). This implies that very few resources can be controlled, other than the production of recommendations, which means that there is no way to influence ship arrivals or labor availability directly (4b). It also means that extending the embedding principle to the transport system will not be considered, because the port-related agencies are only concerned with port-related affairs (4c). This means it was blocked from coming up with a ‘container revolution’ (see also here and here), seriously restricting the purpose of the investigation by the engineers (4d: to “whether or not there were some technological means of improving the performance of the industry that would counterbalance higher labor costs”). Finally there is the question whether it is fair to share the benefits of any innovation among the organized labor (to appease them) and the shipping companies, while the funding came from tax-raised government funds, so why not sharing the benefits with the public at large (4e). Or the casual labor, because they are in the worst position of all (4f), according to the humanist.

End note        In the years to come, Churchman would develop a categorical framework for inquiry and planning involving twelve categories, of which the first six are: client, purpose, measures of performance, decision-maker, components, and environment (see e.g. here and here). It is obvious that all the ‘stupid’ questions that were asked from the perspective of the dialectical systems approach, could also be asked – as is done in Ulrich’s critical heuristics – using these categories, e.g. what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be’ the purpose of the activity? The idea emerged from his work in operations research (which is part of management science), during which Churchman found that: (1) the scientific “systems approach” typically does not question certain critical assumptions it makes; and (2) these questions are strongly inter-related, i.e. a conscious or unconscious decision to accept a certain categorical assumption has important implications for other categories. ‘Unfolding’ is the activity of becoming aware of these implications. The combined activities of ‘sweeping in’ (the embedding principle, see above) and ‘unfolding’ summarize what Churchman’s systems approach is about.

  • Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.
  • National Academy of Sciences. (1964). San Francisco Port Study: description and analysis of maritime cargo operations in a U.S. port (Vol. 1, 2). Washington, DC. Google Books, PDF.
  • Ulrich, W. (1983). Critical heuristics of social planning: a new approach to practical philosophy. Chichester etc.: J. Wiley & Sons. WorldCat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

 

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Systems and the Systems Approach

Where nothing is what it seems

This is a summary of Chapter Three of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summaries of the preface and chapters 1 and 2, since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Systems and their ‘elements’      “A system is a set of parts coordinated to accomplish a set of goals” (TSA 29). What do we mean by “parts” and their coordination? Churchman follows the basic logic of the scientific systems approach (the “systems approach”) and juxtaposes critical observations from the view point of his own dialectical systems approach, also known as the systems approach. The five basic elements (or “considerations” in Churchman’s terms) are: (1) the total system objectives; (2) the system’s environment; (3) the resources of the system; (4) the components of the system, their activities, goals and measures of performance; and (5) the management of the system. Churchman prefers considerations, because they lack clear definitions or delineations. Besides the ‘environment’ is not really a system element, since it is outside the system boundary. In subsequently expanded versions of his systems approach Churchman uses the term ‘categories’. Churchman warns that “as one proceeds in thinking the system […] it will be necessary to reexamine the thoughts one has already had in previous steps” (TSA 29). So learning about systems cannot be a linear process. This is why concept maps come in really handy.

2.  Objectives of the overall system     These must reflect the real objectives of the whole. Taking the stated objectives at face value would lead to many mistakes, since these statements have purposes (e.g. securing funds, power, or prestige) independent of the performance of the system. Another problem is the fallacy of the obvious, which is often in the form of confusing an activity with its real purpose. Churchman found that it is very difficult to define the real objectives.  He suggests two tests: (1) determining “whether the system will knowingly sacrifice other goals in order to attain the objective” (TSA 31); and (2) looking “ahead to the desired, concrete outcome.” Further clarification is needed in the form of “precise and specific measures of performance of the overall system”, which is “a score, so to speak, that tells us how well the system is doing” (TSA 31). For instance, in the case of some firms the objective is not net profit, but growth of personnel or gross profit. In the case of so-called ‘intangibles’ measurement can be difficult or highly debatable, e.g. when it comes to ‘costing’ the loss of life as a result of highway construction.

3.  Environment     “The environment of the system is what lies ‘outside’ of the system. This also is no easy matter to determine.” (TSA 34) Take the story of the blind men who are assigned the task of describing an elephant, which resulted in a horrendous argument in which each claimed to have a complete understanding of the elephantine system (“it’s a spear” vs. “it’s a tree trunk” or “a snake” etc.). The story-telling ‘superobserver’ could see it is an elephant, but is he too not deceived? Does the skin of the elephant really represent the dividing line between the elephant and its environment? Perhaps the habitat should be regarded as part of the elephantine system. Something similar applies to modern humans and their phones as Marshall McLuhan pointed out in 1964. Environment also “makes up the things and people that are ‘fixed’ or ‘given’ from the system’s point of view,” (TSA 35) both in terms of constraints and potential. The environment is not the universe, but just what is relevant to one’s objectives. What must be subsumed under the environment is something to be reviewed systematically and continuously. (TSA 36/37) Assumptions about some aspect to be outside the system and not subject to any control often leads to a very poor performance. [SH: This is the rationale behind the boundary critique of critical heuristics. This and the boundary implications of assumptions made in considering other aspects such as the objectives, resources etc.]

4.  Resources     … of a system “are the means that the system uses to do its job.” (TSA 37) The specific actions are taken by the components, or parts, or subsystems (interchangeable terms). Resources are the money, people (capacities), time (man hours), and equipment inside the system. Again Churchman emphasizes that it is “quite difficult to think adequately about its [i.e. the system’s] real resources” (TSA 38), see e.g. the remarks on idleness in my summary of chapter 2. “The traditional balance sheet leaves out many of the important resources of a firm.” (TSA 38) It provides little detail about the personal capabilities of personnel. It also looks mainly at how resources were used, while the real lessons to be learned, esp. the lessons of lost opportunities, are ignored [here Churchman anticipates the idea of the ‘learning organization’ by 20 years] (TSA 38). Churchman continues to suggest “the construction of ‘management information systems’ that will record the relevant information for decision-making purposes and specifically will tell the richest story about the use of resources.” (TSA39). Attention must also be paid to the manner in which resources can be used to create better resources in the future: R&D for equipment, training for people, and politics for money (budget, investments).

5.  Components     … use resources and the environment to work towards the desired, concrete outcome of the system. Components have clear and measurable sub-objectives (or missions), which is what ‘departments’, ‘divisions’, ‘offices’ and other common subdivisions of organizations lack. The separation of the system into components is controversial, but necessary because it is the only way to obtain the kind of information that is needed in order to tell whether the system is operating properly and what should be done next. The separation into components is therefore an exercise in rationality. Such a rational plan must be mission-oriented and operations-based. One of the greatest dangers in components is rigidity, which fixes assignments and responsibilities and hardens communication arteries. The ultimate aim of component thinking is to discover those components (missions) whose measures of performance are truly related to the measure of performance of the overall system. Again, this is no easy task. Especially since it is often strongly opposed.

6.  Management     … deals with the generation of plans for the system, i.e. consideration of overall goals, the environment, the utilization of resources, and the components. It sets the component goals, allocates the resources, and controls the system performance (not strictly, but within a certain margin). Control also implies an evaluation of the plans and consequently a change of plans, including contingency planning, because no one can claim to have set down the correct overall objectives, or the correct definitions of the environment, resources, and components. Therefore, “the management part of the system must receive information that tells it when its concept of the system is erroneous and must include steps that will provide for a change.” (TSA 46) This may be called the cybernetic loop of the management function. A very critical aspect of a cybernetic loop is the determination of how quickly information should be transmitted.

Does it work?      This chapter described how the scientific systems approach works, with some critical comments from the viewpoint of the dialectical systems approach. Other approaches are equally critical. Time for an illustration in the next chapter.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

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Efficiency and the Systems Approach

Management science versus scientific management

This is a summary of Chapter Two of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summaries of the preface and chapter 1, since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  The efficiency approach      …. is at the core of scientific management (do not confuse with management science!), which is a theory of management that analyzes and synthesizes workflows. Its main objective is improving economic efficiency, especially labor productivity. It was one of the earliest attempts to apply science to the engineering of processes and to management. Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) was its leading proponent and possibly the first management consultant. In 1911 he wrote The Principles of Scientific Management, which in 2001 was voted the most influential management book of the twentieth century by the Academy of Management. In the introduction Taylor started by quoting then President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt: “The conservation of our national resources is only preliminary to the larger question of national efficiency,” which at the same time makes it the first book on national environmental management. Churchman considers the efficiency approach one of the systems approaches, i.e. one of the approaches that can be applied to human purpose systems in general, but it is clearly most applicable in industrial and government organizations, including social services.

2.  Idleness and carelessness      Idleness is one of the typical symptoms of inefficiency. It can easily be observed in workers, machines, inventory and infrastructure. It also occurs in the spending of money, where it can take the form of over-budget situations. Churchman emphasizes that there is one particular way in which money can be terribly misspent, namely by missing an opportunity to spend it better on something totally different or perhaps to spend it not at all and save it for a better opportunity to come along. A more important point Churchman makes is that many managers take idleness as a symptom of trouble that needs to be addressed. They think the symptom is a problem on its own, so not just a measure of what is wrong in the ‘system’, but the problem itself, which needs speedy elimination. After all, he is not likely to think of himself as one of those careless and inept managers, of which Churchman says there are more than enough to ensure that the indefinite utility of the efficiency approach (TSA 26). The same applies to across-the-board cost reduction programs.

3.  The management scientist      Churchman uses the case of an airport with a busy single airstrip to show what often goes wrong with the efficiency approach. Planes arrive or take off on the average once every minute and on the average they take one minute clear the airstrip. The trouble is that sometimes planes are faster, sometimes slower. Using a so-called “probability model” the management scientist can show that a time will come that this will result in a waiting line of aircraft that will increase indefinitely. Clearly an additional airstrip is needed to prevent this. An ‘old-fashioned’ efficiency-driven manager will resist this, to his or her detriment. Similar examples are given from the fields of logistics and telecommunication. The real question is therefore: “What combination of waiting and idleness is optimal in the whole system?”(TSA 23). The general principle is that it is often best to balance one inefficiency with another to achieve better total system performance.

4. Measures of performance      No matter what we try to achieve, we will always want to know whether we have achieved it. If the value of what we seek goes unnoticed it is not worth seeking it. What is needed are good measures of performance that give a clear indication of the contribution of activities to the real objectives of a system so as to get a good idea of the total system performance. The reason why the “systems approach” considers the efficiency approach ‘old-fashioned’ is because it looks at only one part of the system, without considering the system as a whole. That’s OK if the inefficiency is the result of managerial carelessness or ineptitude. But it is better to have more advanced forms of management that are sensitive to total system performance.

5. The systems approach     Churchman distinguishes several systems approaches: (1) the “systems approach” of management science is what Churchman has helped create during the 1940s and 1950s; (2) the systems approach is what Churchman developed during the 1960s and 1970s in response to serious flaws that he discovered in the first; and (3) other systems approaches such as the humanist approach or the efficiency approach. The reason for developing the systems approach was that Churchman found it impossible to accept the answers of the scientific approach or any other systems approach as correct. He also recognized that the different systems approaches provided useful different perspectives, each with their pros and cons, that were impossible to unify at a higher level, except perhaps by approximation with due regard for the specificity of each situation using debate or dialectics. To illustrate this, he uses a rather simple example using the humanist approach, which objects to the optimization of efficiency wherever possible may lead to automation, because it may cause unemployment and drudgery. No matter how you look at it, this will remain a stubborn point of critique, that cannot be ‘approached’ away without raising other points of critique. Hence the need for critical debate to transcend the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ systems paradigms.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

P.S. 1   Less equivocal terms     Before we go any further I want to suggest less equivocal names for these different systems approaches: (i) the scientific systems approach as an alternative for ‘the “systems approach”‘ of management science; (ii) the dialectical systems approach as an alternative for the systems approach of C. West Churchman (see e.g. p. xi or pp. 230-232 of The Systems Approach); (iii) the efficiency approach; and (iv) the humanistic approach. There is also the anti-planning approach, but it was so far only mentioned in chapter 1.

P.S. 2   Some observations     (not part of the summary) Churchman was not only critical of the absence of humanistic considerations in the scientific systems approach, but equally critical of certain economic or organizational assumptions. He concluded that systems with humans in it are so complex and value-laden that he saw no other way out than debate, preferably free and open, for a truly effective ‘solution’ (this suggests there are degrees or types of effectiveness; the trilogy of efficacy, efficiency, effectiveness is no longer enough). When positions are more entrenched, the critical systems approach may still work – for one or more parties involved -, but it risks losing some or most of its refinement in the resolution process.

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Thinking and the Systems Approach

Different approaches for thinking about ‘whole’ systems

This is a summary of Chapter One of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summary of the preface, since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Naïve thinking      Just about 50 years have transpired since Churchman wrote that the problems of the world can in principle be solved by modern technology, so why don’t we? Is there perhaps some deeper and more subtle reason why there is a global development conundrum rather than a global development challenge? One of the reasons is of course that we will not accept totalitarian methods to achieve total global development. “We [only] want to feed, shelter, and clothe the world subject to conditions that create a free society” (TSA 9). Other reasons are that the world´s problems are inter-connected and overlapping. We are not sufficiently well organized, because there is too much international mistrust, because a great proportion of the human population is ignorant about the fundamental problems of the world and their relationship to them, which requires a global education effort, but the problems of health and poverty need to be solved first. The world’s problems are complex, poorly structured, and circular. They also lack a clear starting pointing. Clearly, naïve thinking is not enough. Churchman here anticipates the articles by Rittel (1972, 1973) on wicked problems. See also Churchman, 1967, or my posts on wicked problems.

2.  Management science      … was well developed by 1968. Churchman was one of the people who had enthusiastically contributed to its creation. It is science’s way to think about systems as a ´whole´. Management scientists sometimes think of it as the “systems approach”, which differs from what Churchman sometimes refers to as the systems approach (see previous post). The “systems approach” is a great planning tool, which Churchman illustrates using the case of planning a manned moon landing. Such an endeavor requires a large number of subsystems, viz. for propulsion, a rocket, communication-control and trained astronauts. Each of these subsystems has subobjectives, which must meet specific standards. The ‘moon landing’ system has one very important subsystem, which is the management subsystem. This subsystem relates all the subobjectives to the central objective, checks whether subobjectives meet their standards, sets the standards, keeps an eye on the time and budgetary constraints, prepares alternative pathways in the case of problems. The management subsystem never stops thinking at all. This sounds wonderful, but there is a snag. It may still create a whole lot of nonsense or even evil: the moon landings were tremendously costly, full employment in Nazi Germany caused the death of millions of `undesirables´, international development can be terribly ineffective, but less fragrant examples can be observed in countless other forms of purposive activity.

3.  The systems approach       … is Churchman´s rational effort to address this fundamental problem of the scientific “systems approach” and similar approaches of systems as a “whole”. Its chief interest is not “in hardware systems like the rocket to the moon, but rather in systems with humans in them. These are systems like industrial firms, hospitals, educational institutions, and so on” (TSA 10). Churchman’s systems approach is intended to first of all think about the function of such systems, to reflect on their “overall objective and then to begin to describe the system in terms of this overall objective” (TSA 12). This means that any approach will never start with listing the components as was done in the case of the world problems. “From the systems point of view, we have to admit to ourselves that we may have begun incorrectly, because we began by describing the world in terms of its structure, not its purpose” (TSA 13).

4.  Debate      “Now of course, all this sounds quite reasonable, as it has to a great many people. The differences arise when we try to make these ideas more specific and applicable” (TSA 13). In his book, Churchman examines four different ideas as to what really constitutes the systems approach. He does so by juxtaposing them in the context of a debate. The debaters are: (1) the advocates of efficiency; (2) the management scientists who build ‘models’ of the systems that describe how they work; (3) the humanists, who first look at human values: freedom, dignity, privacy; they often say that the systems approach should avoid imposing plans; and (4) “the anti-planners, who believe that any attempt to lay out specific and ‘rational’ plans is either foolish or dangerous or downright evil” (TSA 14). The debate will show that the “systems approach” runs into the greatest difficulty in trying to cope with human values. The scientist may try to resolve this by an extension of economic considerations (monetary values), or by behavioral science. This is strongly opposed by the humanist and the anti-planner.

  • Churchman, C. W. (1967). Guest editorial: Wicked problems. Management Science, 14(4), B-141-142. PDF.
  • Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.
  • Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169. PDF.
  • Rittel, H. W. J. (1972). On the planning crisis: systems analysis of the “first and second generations.” Bedriftsøkonomen, (8), 390–396. PDF.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

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‘The Systems Approach’ revisited

 The ‘Preface’ in a nutshell

I have decided to start blogging, chapter by chapter, the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. For those of you who have never heard of Churchman (1913-2004), let me quote what is written on the back cover: “C. West Churchman is Professor of Business Administration and Associate Director of the Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley. He has published many articles and books on operations research, management science, and philosophy of science.” The promotional text on the front reads: “A leading systems analyst presents the first nontechnical study of the space-age science that is revolutionizing management and planning in government, business, industry, and human problems.” As you will find out, as I blog along, this arguably represents the true revolutionary aspect of the book in a wrong way, but it does also provide a reasonably accurate period background (Cold War, manned moon landings, Vietnam War). So let’s begin by blogging the preface. The paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.   Inadequate decision-making      Since the early 1960s, citizens blame decision-makers in all areas of society for not taking the right decisions. Many decision-makers adopt non-systemic approaches that address only one aspect of the problems that beset modern society, whereas the majority of people will recognize that most of these problems have more than a single aspect. Moreover, non-systemic interventions tend to lack a proper basis for judgment of the effectiveness of the chosen approach for the situation as a whole. Without such as basis it impossible for decision-makers to make informed decisions about ongoing interventions, projects or policies. As an example of different decision-makers Churchman uses political proponents and opponents of the Vietnam War. The hawks emphasized the need to contain the Communist threat, while the doves keep saying that the war was a miserable failure. From their mutual positions of entrenchment they argue against each other on the basis that the others are failing to sense the true situation (TSA viii).

2.  ‘Objective’ science     … claims to be able to take a neutral position between the wrangling opponents. It seeks to disentangle the essential factors in a messy situation that lead to discord among those involved. Churchman’s own work in operations research of the U.S. Army during World War II clarifies how science works. Scientists keep asking ‘stupid’ questions, which over time help develop alternatives that are hopefully more effective. This purported effectiveness is then put to test. Normally the scientist will be challenged to defend the right to ask such ‘stupid’ questions. A common answer involves the questioning of ‘stupid’ assumptions in the original, problematic way of doing things. In the early years of operations research, scientists used mental models of the problem they were working on.

3.   Management science     After the war, business and industry leaders saw the utility of operations research. Churchman was among its most influential pioneers. Increasingly the computer was used, first for military purposes, later also in business and government administration. “As the scientist’s perspective widened, he began to think of his approach as the ‘systems approach.’” He even thought he could avoid the narrow-minded fallacies from clouding decision-making and expected to be able to develop measures to give adequate information about the system. “In practically every office of the government there are operations researchers, management scientists, system scientists, all attempting to look at the problems of the United States government from the so-called systems approach” (TSA x).

4.  The systems approach       According to Churchman the social systems in which we live are far too complicated for our intellectual powers and technological capabilities to be able to really identify the central problem and determine how it should be solved, no matter what approach is used, including the systems approach, the humanist approach, the artist’s approach, or the engineering approach. At this point Churchman makes a distinction between the so-called ‘systems approach’ of the management scientists and the systems approach, which is the subject of the present book with the same title. Of the systems approach he says that it “consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind [perspectives] with respect to society.” This debate – the systems approach – should enable us to ask the right questions for guiding the best use of scientific tools and techniques in decision making.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

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War and Peace

Illustrating soft versus hard (systems) thinking

This is a summary of the last chapter of Challenge to Reason (CR; Churchman, 1968), of which I think he wrote it before his famous, but perhaps not always well understood, The Systems Approach (Churchman, 1968). As summaries go it doesn’t contain all the intricacies of the original argument. The main point is in the upper part of the concept map, where it says that apperception can help disentangle social systems (human activity systems, purposive systems, e.g. enterprises, policies, projects etc., but also war). Social systems can often be characterized (and examined) by a dichotomy of opposing ideas, which are not only at the root of the entanglement (or mess or wicked problem), but hold also the key to some ultimate resolution, be it without any guarantee that it will “work”(CR 217). In this case Churchman uses a soft vs. hard dichotomy to discuss war & peace. At the same time he explains a great many underlying ideas of the systems approach. As some of us may remember 1968 was the year that the horrors of the Vietnam War were at their peak with the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre. In the 1960s, UC Berkeley, where Churchman had been teaching since 1957, was noted for the Free Speech Movement as well as the Anti-Vietnam War Movement led by its students. But the chapter is not about Vietnam, it is about humanity, of which the multiple facets can be sensed apperceptively, but never fully grasped. I strongly recommend this chapter and the previous ones (esp. 11, 14), in fact the whole book. And it has been put online, for free. Not by me, so I don’t know how long it will stay there. As for now you are just one click away from your jump to wisdom. Judge/jump for yourself …

Apperception        … can be defined as a principle, which holds that: “if you can’t see a purpose activity in two very different ways with different moods, you have failed to formulate the problem.” Imagination and thought are also involved, because the contrasting moods arouse the imagination, which in turn can refresh your thought and enable the development of contrasting perceptions. Contrasting perceptions can also be found in different people or stakeholders. This forms the underlying logic of participation and stakeholder involvement, so ‘participation’ is just the start. The system of moods used by Churchman is that of the four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. According to Churchman the hard sciences also have a mood, that of phlegmatic objectivity.

Soft-hard dichotomy     … is about the difference between ‘softness’ and ‘hardness’ as in soft science and hard science. Softness is often considered weak, incompetent and sometimes profound if not ridiculous. Hardness, in contrast, is generally considered direct, competent, yet superficial, but – well – something has to be done, you know. Softness is usually ignored, whereas hardness is listened to and applied. Example of hardness are physics or mathematical finance, which like mathematical economics, is so practical that it has become “indispensable infrastructure for the political economy.” Examples of soft sciences are ‘irrelevant’ metaphysics, ‘impractical’ theology, ‘extratemporal’ cosmology, ‘selective’ history, ‘self-centered’ psychology. On the last pages of ‘War and Peace’ Churchman makes some extraordinary demands from these sciences, viz. to show how we can put hard morality into the system. The task for the historian is the most reasonable, because he/she only has to describe the history of morality and discuss whether hard and soft are useful terms for telling the story (CR 217).

Social systems    … have hidden depths and inter-relationships. They include wicked problems and are treated as ‘wholes’ by soft thinking. Soft sciences find it difficult to come to a conclusion, leaving final judgments open, whereas hard sciences manage to come to clear-cut conclusions, but manage so mainly by making ‘simplifying’ assumptions. The result can be quite destructive, as seen in the case of the banking crisis. The question is how to achieve ‘whole system improvement’. Hard sciences are time and again able to produce specific solutions that claim improvements that seem to eliminate the need for whole system improvement. This type of ‘magic’ is preferred by decision-makers generally and ‘hard’ politicians specifically, who are also inclined to what could be termed ‘hard morality’. A good example is the neutron bomb.

Hard vs. soft morality      … play a role in decisions on war and peace. A discussion about them could serve as an illustration of the general resistance to soft systems thinking mentioned above. Very few people doubt that war is ugly, very ugly, and should be avoided at all cost. Yet, it is the stuff of human history. Churchman shows that there is not a wide gap, but rather a narrow, dotted line between soft and hard morality. Hard morality: (1) maximizes national strength, including economic strength; (2) emphasizes law & order and the use of sanctions; and (3) upholds an idea of masculine morality, which considers the defense of family, property and country fully justified. Soft morality, in contrast: (1) reinforces the internationals system; (2) emphasizes the principle of fairness, which (3) presupposes the idea of global humanisms, which (4) prefers negotiations informed by a well-developed sense of reasonability. The principle of fairness is important in that it is able to address the issue of scarcity (e.g. of resources), which enhances the risk of war, just as the idea of masculine morality. Formulated in this way, soft morality is wonderful. The trouble is that it does not always work. That’s the ‘implementation’ problem in Churchman’s categorical framework (see previous posts).

Crux of the matter      In chapter 14 Churchman used the dichotomy of realism vs. idealism. That was an important one for the systems approach as it contrasts what ‘is’ with what ‘ought to be’, see also Williams & van ’t Hof (2016). The soft-hard dichotomy is also important for the systems approach. It may seem that the systems approach is soft, but in fact it is a very serious and very well thought-out (so both reasonable and rational) attempt to transcend the soft-hard dichotomy that characterizes many of our real-life problems. In brief, one could say that the systems approach tries to infuse as much of soft rational thinking into hard practical acting as possible or vice versa. Or to join the two as well as possible. That’s not easy, so ‘War and peace’ is a good title as well as subject to explore how this might be done. Besides there isn’t anybody in the world who hasn’t heard of the terrors of war. And tried to think of ways to avoid them. Call it peace. Or the systems approach.

Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF

Churchman, C. W. (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon.

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