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.


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 or
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