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.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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