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.



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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